If gasoline ever becomes too expensive, drivers say they’ll find alternatives or just drive less

Seventeen percent of Americans say that they would carpool if gasoline got too expensive. Photo credit: 511 Contra Costa (CC License)

For two years, the quarterly University of Michigan Energy Survey asked consumers about how high gasoline prices would need to climb before fueling up their cars became unaffordable. Despite some big fluctuations in prices at the pump, 40 percent of survey respondents said that $5 a gallon put gasoline out of their reach, with the majority of respondents said that $6 per gallon would simply be too much of a hit on their family budgets.

Now the Energy Survey has taken the question a step farther to analyze how American drivers would respond if gasoline prices ever do soar out of reach.

Over the first seven quarterly surveys, ranging from October 2013 through April 2015, the most common answer consumers gave was that they would start looking for other ways to get around. The second most frequent answer was that they’d simply drive less.

Less popular but still notably common options were changing to a more fuel-efficient vehicle and car pooling, the respones given by 19 percent and 17 percent of consumers on average. Just 3 percent of survey respondents said that they would not change their travel behavior and so simply bear the extra expense.

Here’s how the specific responses break down:

In spite of some drastic swings in the average price of gasoline during this nearly two-year period – with prices as high as $3.75 in June 2014 and down to a low of $2.17 in January 2015 – the level of affordability and responses on what consumers say they’d do if fuel got too expensive didn’t show much change. But in the most recent survey, when prices were the lowest they’d been in years, the number of consumers who said they would turn to different types of transportation did climb from 48 percent in previous samples to 54 percent.

Among the two most common responses to too-high gas prices, using different types of transportation and driving less did seem to be influenced by whether gas prices had dropped, risen or stayed the same. When prices went up, 51 percent of drivers said they’d turn to transportation alternatives, compared with 47 percent when prices dropped and 43 percent when gas costs remained unchanged. When gas prices remained stable, 37 percent said they’d drive less when prices became affordable, but the rate was 32 percent if prices dropped and 33 percent when prices increased.

Looking into the different levels of household income, however, found a few substantial differences. Survey respondents in the bottom third of household income said they’d be more likely to bike, walk, catch the bus or find other alternatives (55 percent), compared with middle-income drivers (50 percent) and the upper third of household incomes (40 percent).

Meanwhile, drivers in middle-income households were more likely than respondents in the top or bottom segments to drive less if gas got too expensive. Among middle-income households, 37.9 percent said they’d park their cars more if gas became unaffordable, compared with 33.2 percent of upper-income drivers and 31.5 percent of lower-income respondents.

Another notable income-related gap was in the number of households that would look for a smaller or more fuel-efficient vehicle to cope with too-high gas prices. Reflecting the burden that buying a new car puts on lower-income consumers, in contrast to the 28 percent of upper-income respondents would would switch to a vehicle that gets better mileage, the rate dropped to 18 percent among middle-income households and fell to 12 percent for households in the lower third of incomes.