Gas prices on the move, but motorists unmoved

Gas prices in San Francisco have risen by more than 25 cents in the past month, and ongoing unrest in the Middle East is likely to drive those costs higher. But area motorists say the prices would have to really soar before they would consider ditching their vehicles.

According to a 2008 study by the IBM Institute for Electronic Government, 82 percent of Bay Area motorists said they would continue to drive if gas prices hit $4. Nationally, the average was just 68.8 percent. That same study showed that Bay Area residents were the least prone of any major metropolitan area to change their driving habits because of gas prices.

Kate Looby, an Oakland resident who works in Berkeley for the Sierra Club, said gas prices would have to rise to at least $5 before she would think about taking public transit. Looby, who used to live in San Francisco and commute to Berkeley, said even if she was still going over the Bay Bridge every day, she would drive at $5 a gallon.

“It would have to get real expensive,” Looby said. “I’d really have to study public transit costs before I lost the convenience of my car.”

At $3.71 a gallon, the average gas price in San Francisco is the costliest it has been since October 2008, according to Matt Skryja, spokesman for the AAA. With investors shaky over the unease in the Middle East, particularly the situation in Libya, gas prices will continue to go up in the short term, Skryja said.

Clark Guittard, a Pacifica resident who works at home but travels frequently to San Francisco, said he would still continue to drive — albeit slightly less — even if fuel costs rose to $5 or $6 a gallon.

While Guittard and Looby said prices would have to go up greatly for them to consider alternatives, some Bay Area transportation analysts said that travel patterns could start to change once gas hits $4 a gallon.

In the summer of 2008, when gas prices first crested $4, transit agencies across the country, including BART, began to see a surge in ridership, said Susan Shaheen, a researcher with UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center.

“From what we’ve seen in the past, that $4 mark usually indicates the beginning of a behavioral shift,” Shaheen said. BART board of directors member Tom Radulovich agreed with Shaheen that motorists tend to re-evaluate their choices when gas costs reach $4 a gallon.

From 1998 to 2007, the cost of gas more than doubled in California, but the amount of vehicle miles traveled didn’t change significantly, according to data from the Public Policy Institute of California. It was only in 2008, when state gas prices reached $3.50 a gallon, did automobile traffic finally drop, but a lot of that decrease could be attributed to the economic recession, said Jed Kolko, associate research director at the PPIC.

Despite some of the aforementioned data, Kolko said it is impossible to identify a specific fuel cost threshold that would force Bay Area motorists to leave their cars.

“It depends much more on the circumstances of the individual,” Kolko said.

The slow climb

$3.71: Average gas price per gallon in San Francisco (as of Friday)
$3.45: Average price one month ago
$3.03: Average price one year ago
$4.62: Highest average gas price (recorded on June 25, 2008)
10/14/08: Date last time gas prices were as high as they are now.

Source: AAA

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