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Froma Harrop commentary: High gas prices do not stop traffic

Summary: Demand for gasoline keeps rising. But so apparently is demand for space on the roads. Moan about high gas prices, if you must. The traffic doesn't seem to have noticed.

A classic Ford Mustang departs Mel's Sport Shop & Shell Station in Spicer as gas prices hit $4.79 a gallon on Friday, June 17, 2022.
A classic Ford Mustang departs Mel's Sport Shop & Shell Station in Spicer as gas prices hit $4.79 a gallon on Friday, June 17, 2022.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
We are part of The Trust Project.

It's easy to find people who say gas prices will keep them from driving. They're on the roads.

That is an early hint that the "crisis" of high prices at the pump is less dramatic than the testimonials make it. And if history is any guide, it is temporary.

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Florida is seeing a record number of tourists. They are driving, and they are flying in, having bought air tickets made extra expensive by the high cost of jet fuel. The Transportation Security Administration, which oversees airport security, expects travel this season to match or even exceed the pre-pandemic levels.

And Florida is surely not alone. Las Vegas tourism is reportedly back to near pre-pandemic levels. In Colorado, the Automobile Association of America expects driving over the Fourth of July weekend to be up about 8% over a year before. Never mind that the national average for a gallon of regular is $1.86 higher than it was in July 2021.

A recent Longwoods International Travel Sentiment study has two-thirds of American drivers saying that higher gas prices would factor into their decision about traveling the next six months. But only 6% of those surveyed said they are actually canceling trips because of it.
And so what gives? It could be that Americans, driven by pent-up demand for post-pandemic travel, are just willing to dig deeper into their funds to keep the tank filled. It could it be that they are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles and thus buying fewer gallons of gas to begin with. It could be that the "record-high price of gas" we keep hearing about is not actually a record high.

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It could be all the above.

To some extent, consumers make choices as to how much gasoline they buy. Consider the woman in Reno, Nevada, who worried on CNN that high gas prices might deprive her 3-year-old daughter of a visit with family.

"There's so much my daughter has lost out on," she said, referring to the COVID-19 shutdowns. "And there's a feeling again as a parent that I'm going to have to be limited about what I can offer."

It's true that pump prices in Nevada are among the highest, but we do decide how far to live from family. The Reno woman has a car, unlike the very poor, and looked solidly middle-class. She ought to know that cheap gas is not an entitlement. And living far from family is ultimately her decision.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many workers moved away from metro areas for bigger houses and more land. Their choice. If that meant they had to drive more, well, that belonged in their calculations. For many, the ability to work from home saved on commuting costs. But also for many, there was the strong possibility that they may have to return to an office. And it's never wise to assume that those travel expenses won't go up at times.

We should not underestimate the power of more fuel-efficient vehicles to relieve "pain at the pump." Mileage has been improving for decades, with electric vehicles an absolute game-changer. Ford's current high-class problem is keeping up with calls for its electric vehicles, particularly the Mustang Mach-E EV and the electric version of its F-series trucks.

A sophisticated analysis of today's gas prices would note that the national average for a gallon of regular now stands at about $5.01. Adjusted for inflation, the price for that gallon in 2008 (then $4.11) would have been $5.37.

Demand for gasoline keeps rising. But so apparently is demand for space on the roads. Moan about high gas prices, if you must. The traffic doesn't seem to have noticed.

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Froma Harrop can be reached at fharrop@wctrib.com or on Twitter @FromaHarrop .

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Froma Harrop covers the waterfront of politics, economics and culture with an unconventional approach. She takes public policy quite seriously. Herself, less so.


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