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Pump and Poke

Evidently, according to lots of people on the internet who don’t cite any sources, cars in the US average about a thousand miles a month. I was wondering about this because a fellow on the radio was saying that people were really hurting because of prices going up at the grocery store and at the pump, and I was thinking—those aren’t really comparable, are they? I mean, when we have price inflation at the grocery store, and I know these things are very volatile, it’s easy for the basket that cost $150 last month to cost $180 this month, and that’s a pretty big difference. For a family of four, I can easily imagine the grocery (and paper goods and whatnot) bill going up over a hundred dollars in a month, and that could very easily be a hundred bucks a family doesn’t have. When you sit down to make a budget, you try to leave a little slack, but a hundred bucks is a lot of money.

By contrast, I was thinking, this huge jump in gas prices is adding only a little bit of money to the total fuel bill. I mean, yes, it’s annoying to pay more than $20 to fill the car, but it was already costing nearly $20, and I don’t fill the car every day. I would be surprised if I’m exceeding my normal gas budget by more than, oh, five dollars for the month. Five dollars at a dollar a gallon increase would cover two hundred miles; that’s probably a bit low, but not very much. Let’s see, thirty days, something in the general area of ten miles a day, that’s 300 miles, at forty mpg that’s $7.50, let’s call it $10. Ten dollars a month just isn’t feeling the pain for me. Yes, lots of people don’t have an extra ten, but when we are talking about what’s driving uncertainty in the economy, ten bucks a month seems like a tiny thing.

But then, our household has one car. Everybody’s workplaces, schools, grocery stores, libraries, entertainment and normal errands are within five miles of the house. And as you saw in the calculations, we get 40 miles to a gallon of gas. That seems not to be typical.

So. If that thousand miles a month is not only the average but in the normal range (which isn’t necessarily so, but it’s what I’ve got), and if we figure on—what—twenty miles to the gallon? That’s 50 gallons of gas a month, or $50 bucks. And if most households have two cars, which does seem to be the case, that’s $100 a month, which I just said was a lot of money. Hm.

The question, then, is whether it’s possible for those people who are now being hit with $100 extra grocery money and $100 extra gas money this month to change their patterns to save money. I have the impression that for a lot of people (not everyone, and not the poorest) it is possible to put in some time and labor and save money on groceries—roasting a whole chicken, f’r’ex, and having two or three meals off the meat and the soup. But if a family have set up their lives with two cars (and 1,000 miles a month on each), can they just decide to carpool or telecommute? I mean, yes, over time you can decide to live in a particular place (often at a different added cost) or work at a particular place (perhaps giving up possible income) or drive a high-mileage vehicle, and I’m all in favor of people thinking about that when they are deciding how to set up their lives, but if your April expenses are $200 more than your March expenses, how much can you change before May?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Back when I was employed, I had a 20-mile commute: 40 miles x 5.5 days a week put me close to a thousand miles a month even if I didn't want to go anywhere but work, and I got 20 mpg, and you can't telecommute to a bio lab. I had figured out the breakeven point for the train, at one point, which I think was around $4.50/gallon, although remaining unresolved were the three no-sidewalk miles between the train station and our building.

Back when i had a car, i internalized the stat that the average American car drives about 10,000 miles a year, which would be a bit under 1000/month, but pretty close. I was trying to think of myself as someone who didn't drive much, y'see, since i didn't usually commute by car (this is when i was in grad school), but it turns out, if you do the 1200-mile roundtrip to Boston enough times a year, it adds up...

Anyway, i've also internalized the stat that driving is remarkably price-inelastic, for the reasons you note.

The housing slump and unemployment makes it even harder for people to change their driving habits; can't sell a house and move, have to take the job you can get. It's a bad trap. And many cities, like mine, are raising bus fares too.

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