Update 7/1/09: Sightline’s full report on 2008 gasoline consumption in the Northwest is now available.
Forty-four years ago: Arlo Guthrie was arrested for littering, Elvis and the Beatles met for the first and only time, Sonny & Cher scored their first hit single with “I Got You Babe,” and American car culture was still on the rise. Cars were big, the cost of filling a gas tank had been falling in real terms for at least two decades—and northwesterners consumed about 7.4 gallons of gas a week per person, each week, in their cars and trucks. Measured per capita, gas consumption in the region had grown by 20 percent over the previous decade; and by 1978, northwesterners’ gasoline appetite would swell to 10.2 gallons per person per week.
Fast forward to 2008. Gas prices had been rising for a decade, spiking at over $4 per gallon in mid-summer. Transit ridership was up, car and truck travel was easing…and gasoline consumption in the Northwest states had fallen back to—you got it—7.4 gallons of gasoline per person, per week. The same as 1965.
Just take a look at the trend in per-person gasoline consumption, from Sightline’s newly released Cascadia Scorecard report…
Think of all the changes in our lives over those four-plus decades. Wars; economic booms and busts; technological progress and upheavals; oil shocks; the growth of global trade. Cities grew, sprawl accelerated, full-size cars morphed into SUVs.
Many of those changes boosted our personal fuel consumption. Yet once gas prices starting rising in 1999 or so, we northwesterners gradually eased our gas consumption into reverse—a decline that was far more gradual than in the oil shocks of the early 1980s, but no less real. And in cutting our consumption, we achieved a sort of progress that, back in 1965, seemed like the opposite of progress. We learned to do well—or well enough—with a little less.
Of course, “less” may be overstating the case. Consumption has slipped when measured per capita; but the population of the Northwest states has grown too. All told, gas consumption in the region has stayed nearly flat for about a decade. But that’s a much more favorable trajectory than the one we were on back in ’65, when consumption was still rocketing upwards.
I’ve got no predictions for what will happen next. Gas prices have collapsed as economic anxiety has skyrocketed. It could be that the two will balance out, and gas consumption will stay flat this year, or even decline further. Or price declines could encourage us to get out of crowded buses and back in our cars. The only sure guarantee that we’ll continue our progress is if we create strong policies that ensure that we’ll continue to ease off the gas. (A cap on carbon would do the trick.)