Wednesday, October 5, 2022
Oct. 5, 2022

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Washington gasoline sales drop, lifestyles change amid soaring prices

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Washington drivers are buying less gasoline, likely the result of eye-popping prices, a shift in work habits, a growing interest in alternative-fuel cars and, for some, a small effort to reduce their carbon footprint.

This state is not alone, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, compiled by QuoteWizard, which typically compares insurance rates. Nationwide, gas consumption is down in nearly every state, with few exceptions. The 10,500 fewer gallons of gas being used per day would allow a car to drive around the Earth 260 times.

“We’re at the same levels we were at in the mid-1990s,” said Nick VinZant, an analyst with QuoteWizard. “It’s part of a fundamental shift in society, but it’s also a direct response to gas prices at the same time.”

The data since 2020 is messy. Washingtonians’ fuel consumption fell in early 2020 to its lowest level in nearly 40 years. The reason, of course, was not fuel prices, but pandemic lockdowns.

Additionally, people have always driven less in the winter than in the summer, meaning month-to-month comparisons are not direct.

But 2022 consumption, while still higher than in the earliest days of the pandemic, is trending down after months of doing the opposite. Last summer and early fall, when gas prices were still manageable, fuel consumption in Washington state had nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels; September 2021 fuel use was higher than in September 2019.

In October, gas sales began to slip again. By March of this year, drivers bought less gasoline than they had in the same month last year — the first time in a year that had occurred. Excluding 2020, the 6,740,000 gallons purchased in March in Washington is the lowest since January 1998; the March level hasn’t been that low since 1992.

Tyler Boucher and his family recently moved from South Seattle to Ravenna. He and his partner had talked for a long time about weaning themselves off their cars. At the time, the motivation for Boucher was less about the price of gas and more about a desire to tread more lightly on the environment.

They considered buying an electric vehicle, but instead decided to invest in an electric cargo bike. They made the purchase in April, as gas prices climbed even higher. Even with twin boys and a cold and wet spring, the investment has paid off, Boucher said. He does almost all his errands by bike.

“We were previously using the car most days to do something and now we’re not using it most days,” said Boucher, a freelance writer and editor. Although they haven’t sold either of their cars yet, he estimated they’re buying just one tank of gas a month, for weekend trips — a major help with their finances.

James Emery, an engineer who lives in Kirkland, started biking more last October. Recently, he’s tried to make a more conscious shift away from driving. Both he and his partner have cars, and he calculated he was spending thousands of dollars on maintenance and insurance, in addition to gas.

“Over the last few months, since I’ve had some expensive car bills and gas has gotten more expensive, I’ve started thinking very strongly about getting rid of my car,” Emery said. “We have two cars and I use mine once a week. It just doesn’t make financial sense.”

In the same period, local transit has begun to show signs of modest recovery. King County Metro topped 200,000 average daily riders in April for the first time since before the pandemic. April was also Sound Transit’s best month since February 2020. Ridership is still well below 2019 numbers, but the trend is positive, said Kirk Hovenkotter, executive director of Commute Seattle.

“We’ve seen people getting back on the bus as the weather is nicer and gas prices hit their pocketbook,” he said. In 2022 so far, Seattle employers have issued 70% more new ORCA cards than during the same period last year, Hovenkotter said.

VinZant of QuoteWizard said he’s noticed an increased interest in electric and alternative-fuel vehicles as well. That’s especially true in Washington, where internet searches for electric vehicles have increased significantly in 2022, he said.

The Legislature this year announced a goal of phasing out sales of new gas-powered cars by 2030.

The Energy Information Administration’s data on diesel consumption is lacking. But Sheri Call, president and CEO of the Washington Trucking Association, said she wouldn’t expect a similar drop-off. Anything that can be done to improve fuel-efficiency in the freight world is already being done, she said. So rather than truckers driving less, products become more expensive.

“We’re not out there for our pleasure,” she said. “We’re responding to a demand.”

The average price of a gallon of gas in Washington was $5.45 on Tuesday, according to AAA, a slight dip from the previous week’s average. Fuel prices nationwide have decreased by about 15 cents a gallon over the last two weeks, a small reprieve.

VinZant said he’d expect gasoline sales to correlate to prices, meaning if supplies increased and prices dropped, sales likely would increase, too. At the same time, he believes some drivers may permanently shift their habits. That’s probably more true in places like Seattle, where there are transit options and people are more likely to live near their work. In places like Texas or Idaho, he’s less sure. People in some rural states, such as North Dakota, are buying more gasoline than the year before.

Emery, of Kirkland, said he doesn’t expect to return to driving, at least not in the same way. “For me, it’ll be permanent,” he said. “I want to use this as an opportunity to stick, even if [gas] does get cheaper.”

For Boucher, there’s an added benefit: “It’s really fun to go on a bike ride when the rest of the world is falling apart.”

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