Higher prices exact toll on Bay Area budgets, driving

As the recent gas-price spike turns into a plateau, everything is becoming more expensive, forcing Bay Area commuters to re-examine their driving habits and their budgets.

The Consumer Price Index, a measure of the prices of goods, rose 3.2 percent in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose in the past 12 months, the U.S. Department of Labor revealed Wednesday. Those prices shot up 0.9 percent in the past two months — primarily due to gas prices, which rose 16.6 percent between February and April.

That surge mirrors one consumers saw in April of 2005, when gas costs skyrocketed 28.1 percent. “The last two years, we’ve gotten hit pretty hard,” economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics Amar Mann said.

It was during that first spike that San Francisco resident Jennifer Borchardt quit her investment-banking job in Menlo Park because she was fed up with paying so much for gas. She now works in The City and rides her bicycle daily, saving thousands of dollars a year.

“It’s the best thing I ever did,” Borchardt said. “I have so much more time and energy, and I’m in better physical and financial shape.”

Like Borchardt, engineer Mike Lee gave up his solo commute from San Francisco to San Jose a month and a half ago, switching to a carpool that saves him 30 minutes per day and an estimated $2,000 a year in gas costs. Rosalind McGilbery-Cox now carpools from Oakland to her job with the San Francisco Unified School District, after giving up driving solo and a series of public transit routes that wound up being too expensive.

Soon, she may have to give up driving the carpool because the cost of fueling up her PT Cruiser has doubled. McGilbery-Cox also saves money by bringing her lunch rather than eating out, as does Maryann Bartolo, a part-time student at San Francisco State University who continues to drive but is looking for ways to stretch her student budget further.

Natural gas costs also rose sharply, with rates going up 33 percent, according to Pacific Gas & Electric spokesman Paul Moreno. However, Bay Area customers cut their usage by 21 percent, meaning their bills were just 12 percent higher.

“When there’s a spike, people make some immediate changes to accommodate that,” said Tad Widby, program manager for 511.org Rideshare, where carpooler applications doubled in the past 30 days.

Meanwhile, it appears gas prices are leveling off, according to Sean Comey, spokesman for the American Automobile Association. “Unfortunately, it seems unlikely we’re going to get to the point any time in the near future when most consumers can cross high gas prices off their list of concerns.”

Many people quit their cars during the gas crises of the 1970s, butmost went back. “People have not made permanent changes in their behavior based on [gas costs],” Widby said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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