What if gasoline became unaffordable?

Personal vehicles are a staple form of transportation for most U.S. consumers, whether for traveling to work to escaping to distant places. Moreover, cars have a long-standing symbolic link with Americans’ sense of independence. Not surprisingly, circumstances or events that make it more expensive to drive can increase consumer anxiety, or at least increase their irritation. But what if the cost of driving — which on a day-to-day basis is determined by the price at the pump — reached a point where consumers felt they had to change the way they get around?

Since its inception in October 2013, the University of Michigan Energy Survey has asked U.S. consumers, in an open-ended format, about what they would do differently if gasoline prices reached a level that they thought would be personally unaffordable. Although in recent months the national average price of gasoline has been nearly a dollar per gallon lower than it was over the prior three years, fuel prices can be quite volatile. The possibility that pump prices might go up certainly lurks in everyone’s mind, and so understanding what consumers might do if gasoline became unaffordable can shed light on this important aspect of energy-related decision making. how-change-get-around_thru-apr2015

We analyzed the responses to such a question over the past seven quarters of cross-sectional data (October 2014 through April 2015). On a national average basis, Americans who own a personal vehicle consistently reported the most willingness to use different modes of transportation (e.g., public transportation, biking, walking).

That’s the longest bar in the accompanying chart, showing that almost half of consumers (47%) indicated they would use different transportation. The next most common response is that of the 34% consumers who said that they would drive less if gasoline prices reached a level they consider unaffordable. Less common responses, although expressed by a sizable number of consumers, were driving a smaller or more efficient vehicle (19%) and carpooling (17%). Fewer (9%) reported that they would consolidate the number of times they drove (combine trips). Very few respondents (3%) said that they would not change their travel behavior.

We also examined how the answers to the question broke down according to income. To read the full report, click the DOWNLOAD link at the top of this post.