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Drivers adjust routines to cut costs as D.C. gas prices reach $5

The numbers are the highest recorded in the region, forcing motorists to seek out cost savings

Average gas prices in the D.C. area have surpassed $5, with a gas bill of more than $190 seen at an Exxon station on Michigan Ave NE in Washington. (Gaya Gupta/The Washington Post)
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The average price for a gallon of gasoline hit $5 for the first time Friday across the Washington region, reinforcing a shift in behavioral changes as motorists increasingly turn to carpools, public transit and other methods to find financial relief.

Prices in the D.C. area ranged from about $4.96 in some outer suburbs to $5.24 in the District, according to AAA, mirroring a national rise ahead of the summer travel season. The numbers are the highest recorded in the region, forcing motorists to seek out cost savings amid a broad jump in the cost of several consumer goods.

Travis King, 43, commutes nearly two hours each day from his home in Spotsylvania County, Va., to his health care job in Rockville, Md. Unable to reduce his driving, about three months ago he decided to switch to a more fuel-efficient car. The price of fuel has also threatened earnings from two family-owned businesses, which his wife operates during the week.

“We’ve had to up the prices of our products,” he said on a recent morning, filling up a portion of his tank at a Wawa station in Fredericksburg. “If I’m paying this amount for gas, I’ve got to offset that somewhere.”

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Whether driving less or reducing costs elsewhere, King is among millions of motorists adjusting their lives to become more fuel-efficient as fuel prices surge.

The average price for a gallon of gas stood Saturday at $4.84 in Virginia and $5.01 in Maryland, while the average across the Washington metro area was $5.04 — about $2 more than a year earlier, according to AAA. Regional gas prices are hovering about 4 cents above the national average.

California had the nation’s most expensive gas, at $6.43 a gallon, while Georgia was the lowest at $4.47 a gallon, according to AAA.

“We have a bit of a perfect storm brewing regarding gas prices and the impact on travel,” said Bill Eisele, senior research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. “We have this ubiquitous inflation right now across all goods and services — housing is up, groceries are up and now gas is up.”

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Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, cited two main economic and geopolitical factors that have contributed to the rise at the pump.

“The war in Ukraine has injected a lot of uncertainty into oil markets and has led to less Russian oil being put on the world market, so that’s put upward pressure on oil prices,” he said.

The world’s demand for oil is also rising more than two years into the pandemic, Knittel said, a period that also coincides with a rise in travel demand. Production slowed at the start of the pandemic as driving levels plummeted, but now supply is struggling to keep up.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Ali said gasoline demand is continuing to grow as drivers fuel up for summer travel.

“Despite record-high gas prices, we are not seeing a reduction in gasoline consumption,” she said Friday. “We have seen, if anything, an increase in the last week.”

Rising gas and energy prices last month contributed to a jump in inflation, which reached 8.6 percent compared with a year earlier — the fastest pace in 40 years, according to federal data released Friday. Airfare, used cars and new vehicles were among the other largest contributors to the rise.

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There is likely little relief in sight for motorists. Eisele said gas prices also tend to go up in the summer because of the switch to summer-grade gasoline — a cleaner, reformulated blend offered by stations during the warmer months that is more expensive to produce.

“That’s another unfortunate layer to this drama that’s unfolding,” he said.

Increasing gas prices have ushered in changes to the way people move around.

A nationwide Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted between April 21 and May 12 — when Washington-area gas prices were about 57 cents lower — showed more than 6 in 10 drivers are deciding to drive less, while more than 3 in 10 said they are driving more slowly, which can boost fuel efficiency. About 2 in 10 drivers have carpooled because of rising gas prices.

Khalil Thompson, a consultant who lives in D.C., said he avoids fully filling up his tank and tries to stretch $20 worth of gas to last a week — often limiting driving to dropping off his daughter at school. He said he’s started walking, rather than driving, to the grocery store.

“I don’t go out as much anymore,” Thompson said. “I minimize my driving to bare essentials.”

Some commuters who rely on their car for work have cut back on other costs in response to the rising prices.

David Chase was driving about 100 miles round trip every weekend from his Gaithersburg home to see his family on the Eastern Shore. With the cost of gas rising, his family has cut back on the tradition.

His three roommates have also started to consolidate their driving trips to save money. Instead of grocery shopping individually, he said, they will ask each other to pick up items if someone is planning to shop.

“I don’t go out as much to buy groceries or run errands,” Chase said. “As much as we can, [we] compact the trip to one visit.”

Experts said also they expect continued flexibility with remote work, an option made more accessible by the pandemic.

With an 80-mile commute to D.C. each day, Monica Stearns, a college administrator from Winchester, has been working from home when she can. To ease the effects of higher commuting costs, she said she’s weighing how to offer her staff more flexibility.

“We’re utilizing telework when we can, remote working, and being flexible in terms of the timing they come in so they can take advantage of off-hours,” she said.

The rising prices have led some motorists to give alternatives such as Metro and Capital Bikeshare another look. While it’s not clear how much gas prices are contributing to ridership increases, leaders of both organizations say elevated fuel costs are making public transportation more appealing.

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Capital Bikeshare recorded its highest pandemic-era ridership in May, as did the San Francisco area’s Bay Wheels. New York’s Citi Bike approached its all-time single-day record last weekend.

“Bikeshare has always been among the most affordable options for traveling a few miles around the region — and today’s gas prices make it even more appealing,” Dominick Tribone, Lyft’s general manager for Capital Bikeshare, said in a statement.

Despite multiple safety and service issues, Metro also has seen an increase in average ridership over the spring. Average weekday rail ridership increased 85 percent from January to May, while average weekday bus ridership more than doubled over the same time. The timing also coincides with a rise in office work as restrictions have loosened more than two years into the pandemic. Metrorail passenger counts are still about 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Greg Gant, an engineer and YMCA instructor who lives on Capitol Hill, said he switched to public transportation this month to get to work after gasoline prices became too high. He tracks his gas expenses using an app — paying well over $5 a gallon to fill up his tank with premium gas.

He said he hopes to switch back to driving, but for now, the price of gas is “just too much.”

Experts said high gas prices could lead people to seek out more environmentally friendly alternatives to their gas-guzzling commutes. Knittel said more people in urban areas likely will seek out public transportation options.

“There are a fair bit of investment costs to learn the system and organize rides,” he said. “I would expect that a fair number of commuters would start to invest the time and effort in learning what is their best public transit options available to them, and then the next response to that is to lobby or certainly put pressure on policymakers to improve public transit systems.”

Thompson said he plans to continue limiting his driving in hopes that fuel demand will wane in the coming months and price relief will follow.

“I’m just trying to get through the summer,” he said. “I’m hopeful something will change by then.”