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Pain at the pump



It's a familiar cycle by now: In the wake of some cataclysmic event like Hurricane Katrina, Gustav or Ike or 9/11 — or sometimes apparently just for the hell of it — oil industry experts get on TV and start preparing us for a fast and hard rise in gas prices.

We, in turn, freak out, complain, think about changing our driving habits, and watch the prices go up higher than we'd ever imagined possible. Then, after awhile, they ease off a few dimes a gallon — still significantly higher than when the whole process started, but far enough below the peak that we resume our gas-guzzling feeling like we're getting a bargain again, and, in my imagination anyway, the oil execs lean back in their giant office chairs and laugh and laugh and laugh, until they start planning for the next round.

But maybe not this time.

Maybe, this time, the price of gas got high enough for long enough, and with no obvious cause, that the change in America's ways will be something closer to permanent.

The reason for hope: This time around, a significant number of us have actually invested money in saving gas.

So many of us have traded in SUVs that even the few chumps who've bought them for a song are on the losing end of the deal because their value continues to drop so fast. We have bought out the nation's supply of hybrids and the local supply of Honda Civics, and brought the Big Three automakers to their knees because they haven't been able to produce enough of the small cars we want now. We've bought motorcycles and scooters, placing 85 mpg above safety and convenience. Occasionally, even in Little Rock, we have filled city buses to standing-room-only. We cut back so much on gas consumption last summer that for once, the supply/demand equilibrium tilted in our favor.

“I've got [used] '08 Tundras out here that have devalued $6,000 or $7,000 since I traded for them,” said Chris Brown, general sales manager at Bale Honda. “… It's no longer cool to have the big nice SUV, the $40,000 to $50,000 SUV. Now it's cool to drive a four-door Civic around.”

Cool, sure, but not practical for all of us — just try fitting two rear-facing car seats in the back of a Civic or hauling a trailer full of construction equipment behind a Chevy Aveo. Brown said he thinks the technology will catch up with demand in a few years and we'll see bigger vehicles with markedly better gas mileage. But those who can't hold off buying a behemoth until then? Brown says they're pretty much screwed, even with prices so low they seem like they must be typos.

“It's getting ridiculous,” he said. “I heard yesterday that the Nissan Armada, their full-sized truck — they're discounting those almost 50 percent. You're talking about a $40,000 truck selling for $22,000. You think you're getting a good deal, but now all of a sudden it's worth $15,000 on the street. They're going to be dinosaurs. They're worthless right now.”

He said the drop in value on big, expensive vehicles is hurting the credit industry just like the housing crisis.

“We've got people driving Tahoes that they owe $30,000 on and it's worth $15,000,” he said. “They've got $600 payments, plus $200 in gas — they can't afford it.”

Meanwhile, in late July Brown had no Civics on his lot, and no Fits — Honda's new subcompact hatchback. Want a Civic hybrid? Hope you can wait a couple of months.

Early August found Deronda Tucker waiting for her new hybrid — a Toyota Camry. She was replacing an 18-year-old Oldsmobile Toronado, and expecting a gas mileage jump from the low 20s to the mid-30s. And she paid what the dealer told her to pay.

“He said they weren't giving discounts,” Tucker said. “I didn't really go anywhere else, but I'm assuming it would be about the same thing. … They kind of got you over a barrel if you want a hybrid. They may be making out like bandits, I don't know.”

She said several people she knows had tried to talk her out of buying a hybrid, saying she might have problems with the batteries, and that it would take her a long time to make up the difference in price through reduced gas consumption.

“But after gas got up to $4 a gallon, I said to heck with them, I was going to get it.”

Her boyfriend, Larry Atkinson, made an even more radical change: He parked his 2001 Ford Ranger, 22 mpg, in favor of a new bicycle, at least for local trips. And when he has to hit the highway, he's cutting his speed back to 55 or 60 mph to save gas.

“I'm hoping to cut my mileage in half this year from 18,000,” said Atkinson, who's retired and lives downtown. “I'll be riding from downtown to University Avenue area or Barnes and Noble out there, and probably to North Little Rock, to the McCain Mall area.”

Atkinson, like a lot of people, said he'd been concerned about rising gas prices for awhile, but wasn't sufficiently motivated to do anything about it until this year.

“Whenever it really started going into the middle 3's and pushing 4 [dollars a gallon],” he said. “I got angry at the oil companies a few months ago, but the straw that broke the camel's back was about 60 days ago when we had such a rapid increase.”

Atkinson is typical of the customers Bruce Thalheimer has seen lately at Chainwheel, the bike store he owns in West Little Rock. People aren't necessarily wanting to commute from Chenal to downtown on a bike, but they may want one to use for shorter trips when they won't have to drive through major traffic hubs.

“It's not the person who's always gone from A to B and has decided to do it on a bike — it's for shorter distances,” like to the grocery store, he said. “They want to get packs, grocery bags, a rear rack on their bike.”

It's tough logistically for people in Little Rock to bike to work, Thalheimer said. Many major streets aren't bike-friendly, and there's the clothes factor — most people can't work in the clothes they bike in or bike in the clothes they work in, particularly if they get sweaty on the way. Thalheimer said he does know of some people, though, who drive to work one day and take a week's worth of clothes with them to keep at the office so they can bike the rest of the time.

And then there's the safety aspect. Drivers in the U.S. simply aren't used to sharing the road with bicycles.

“A lot of it's perspective,” Thalheimer said. “Go to someplace where it's commonplace, like in Europe, and cars come a lot closer to you than they would here, but you're not afraid of it. Here's it's “Doggone bikers in the way, damn nuisance.' It's just perspective and attitude. That goes a long way regardless of infrastructure.”

He said drivers should look at it this way: “Everybody that's commuting on a bike is one less car that's in your way.”

Jason Spees is another bike convert, only with a twist: He's outfitted his 10-speed with a 49cc motor he ordered online about a month ago. It sounds like a weed-whacker on steroids, but it propels him along at a zippy 40 mph and gets 130 miles per gallon. Plus, it cost less than $260 — a bargain compared to scooters with similar-sized motors.

“The drawback is, there's no such thing as a fender-bender on that thing,” said Spees, who sells advertising for KATV. He doesn't ride it to work in the morning — “It would be an ordeal and I'd smell like a chainsaw by the time I got there,” he said — but he rides it to the grocery store or to his in-laws' house a few miles away.

“I've had probably 30 people wave me down and ask me where I got it,” Spees said.

And his wife? She's too short to ride the bike, Spees said. “And she says I'm the biggest dork in West Little Rock. And I'm OK with it.”

Spees said the company he bought his motor from has a three-month waiting list now; try buying a scooter from some local dealerships and you might find yourself out of luck too.

Earlier this summer, there were still plenty of higher-priced Vespa scooters at BMW Motorcycles of Little Rock, but across the river at Honda of North Little Rock, they were completely sold out of their scooters, which have a more moderate price tag.

Scooters are attractive not only because of their price — you can get a basic model for about $2,000 — but because some of them have motors that are small enough drivers don't have to get a motorcycle endorsement on their licenses. The limit in Arkansas is 50ccs, and there are plenty of scooter models that come in at 49. They don't provide much power — speeds top out in the 40 mph range, so highway driving is out of the question, and hills can be a problem — but they are easier to drive, and they provide the illusion, at least, that they're safer than motorcycles because they're smaller and slower.

Experts say there's not actually any difference, because the greatest danger to motorcycle and scooter riders is people driving cars.

“If people would actually use their mirrors and were more cautious and didn't throw cigarette butts out their windows, that would be fabulous,” said Roxane Shelton, who drives a Honda Elite scooter. She bought it used for $1,800 in May 2007 because it was cheaper than buying a new motor for her car — and because even then, she said, she wasn't making enough money to pay for the gas it would use.

She's seen her friends' attitude about her purchase change with the rise in oil prices.

“They all thought I was crazy up until about a couple of months ago,” she said. “Now I'm like the smartest person they know.”

Her scooter only holds one gallon of gas, but it'll take her 85 miles between fill-ups. She's got a basket on the back and can carry a paper bag of groceries between her knees, resting on the scooter's floorboard. (And yes, she did lose a dozen eggs one time — but they were in a plastic bag.)

And Shelton, who works as a nanny and as sales clerk at the Handworks Gallery, tells a story that shows just how desperate high gas prices have made some people: She recently had to take her scooter in for a repair on the lock of the under-seat storage compartment, and the mechanic told her he thought someone had tried to siphon gas out of her tank.

“You could tell it was almost on E,” she said. “How far are you going to get on a quarter of a gallon of gas?”

A lot of people who buy scooters and motorcycles during fair weather will probably put them away once it turns foul, but Shelton said she won't mind riding hers through a second winter.

“Last winter I'd pass by people in these big huge SUVs filling up, and even though I had a face mask on under my helmet it made me smile,” she said. “I like filling up for under $4.”

And then there are the people who are abandoning individual transportation entirely. Central Arkansas Transit buses are carrying an average of about 1,000 riders more a day than this time last year, said Bill Adcock, CAT's operations manager. That's an increase of about 12 percent.

“During peak hours, we have many buses now that are standing-room-only,” Adcock said.

The increase is people who are choosing to ride the bus, not people who have to, he said.

“It may not be people doing it five days a week, but people adjusting their schedules two or three days a week. It's definitely coming from people who are not transit-dependent.”

Ridership numbers stared increasing two years ago, Adcock said — when gas prices were significantly lower than they are now — and he doesn't think the recent drop in price will lure people back to their cars.

“I think most people are making permanent changes,” he said.

Some people, though, aren't even going to consider riding the bus because they live or work too far from a bus route. And even with the major increase in ridership, Adcock said CAT doesn't have even remotely the budget it would need to think about expanding its services. Only about 20 percent of CAT's budget comes from rider fares, and even with the increase, Adcock said, the bus system will probably end the year about $500,000 over budget on diesel fuel. That's one of the reason fares are going up.

“While it's hitting everybody else and driving them to the bus, it's hitting us the same way,” he said.

As for new buses, they cost $350,000 each. Ten new ones are on their way now, but as replacements for old buses, not to expand service.

Bale Honda's Chris Brown says he's not banking on any of the recent changes in America's driving habits being permanent.

“We'll adapt to it,” he said of higher gas prices. “We'll figure out ways to get around it. I think ultimately the technology's going to change. We're going to figure out a way to be able to live without being so dependent on gas.”

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