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How Americans Really React to High Gas Prices

A new analysis of gas prices in U.S. cities finds that even minor jumps in fuel costs send people to buses and rails
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Americans love to gripe about high gas prices, but they actually pay some of the lowest fuel costs in the world [PDF]. Part of the reason for this hidden discount is that lawmakers have refused to raise the federal gasoline tax since 1993. In fact the tax has lost value over time, since it's not even indexed to inflation; it sits at a flat 18.4 cents per gallon. That's to say nothing of the unaccounted social costs of traffic or the environmental costs of pollution. If gasoline were priced fairly in the United States, one has to wonder whether or not America's love for driving would remain so bold.

That question is at the heart of a recent analysis conducted by Bradley Lane of the University of Texas at El Paso. Lane examined fluctuations in gas prices in 33 U.S. cities during a period stretching from January 2002 to March 2009. He then compared these changes to transit ridership patterns in the same cities over the same time. In all cities he looked at bus ridership, while in 21 places, including Los Angeles and Chicago and Washington, he considered rail travel as well.