American auto love affair sours as fuel prices soar

May 22nd, 2008 - 9:42 am ICT by admin  

By Andy Goldberg
Los Angeles, May 22 (DPA) For as long as anyone can remember, life in Los Angeles has involved driving a car. But with prices of fuel reaching $4 a gallon ($1.05 a litre), the city that defined auto-induced urban sprawl is starting to rethink its love affair with the car.

From increased ridership on the city’s much maligned public transport system to unprecedented demand at stores selling motorbikes and scooters, the signs are everywhere that the inexorable rise in gas prices is having a major impact on the most car-dependent US city.

The $4 a gallon might not seem that much to drivers in most of the world, where gas prices are often double the US level. But for US motorists reared on cheap gas, big engines and SUV’s the size of small apartments, the effect has been startling.

“I bought a Lincoln Navigator for $45,000 two years ago,” said surveyor Debra Little. “But it gets only 13 miles a gallon (5.5 km per litre) and cost me $110 every time I fill the tank. I’m desperate to downsize. But I can’t get rid of this huge thing because no-one wants to buy it.”

Dealers report that SUV’s that were once flying off the shelves are now stuck on the lot for months. And in April passenger cars outsold trucks and SUVs for the first time in at least 20 years, according to recently released sales figures for April.

“The big hunker is dead and not coming back,” said Mike Jackson, CEO and chairman of AutoNation, the country’s biggest dealership.

The vehicles that are popular are those that can boast of their gas sipping sensibilities like the Toyota Prius, which just racked up its millionth sale and cars like the Honda Fit and Ford Focus, and even so-called CUV’s (Compact Utility Vehicles) like the Honda CR-V, the Ford Edge and the Mazada CX-7.

So far this year, the auto industry has sold only about 500,000 full-size SUVs. That’s half as many as it sold in 2003, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Some former owners of gas guzzling land-yachts are forsaking private cars entirely, relying on motorbikes, public transport, bicycles and even their own two feet. In Los Angeles ridership in April on the city’s public transport system was up over 15 percent over the previous year, while carpooling is also growing more popular.

According to Steven Schoeffler of, a national site to find carpool partners, there are now over 100 new listings every 24 hours on the site - compared to just 30 to 40 before March. “Gas prices are up at the same time as food prices, and that’s hurting a lot of people,” he said.

Businesses are also taking whatever steps they can to cut fuel consumption - not surprising when it can cost $1,300 to fill up a truck. They are buying more aerodynamic trucks, installing regulators that dial down the top speeds, and using software to calculate the most fuel-efficient routes.

Railroad executives also cite a surge in interest in rail freight transportation, which they reckon is three to four times more fuel-efficient than road transportation. Hoping to capitalise on this momentum the Association of American Railroads recently launched an ambitious ad campaign.

But a general slowdown in the economy makes it difficult to ascertain whether there has yet been much of a shift, an executive there said.

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