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USA all set to change motoring habits

india Updated: Feb 08, 2007 19:32 IST
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Don't look in the rear view mirror, but drivers in the land of the gas guzzler are starting to change their motoring habits.

With the sting of recent record fuel prices still fresh in their minds and the oil-producing Middle East facing a troubled foreseeable future, Americans are starting to rethink their century-old love affair with the automobile.

The evidence is as clear as the shine of a new car. The number of miles driven decreased last year for the first time since 1980, just as the number of passengers on public transportation jumped sharply.

At recent auto shows in Detroit and Washington, the focus was not on the newest, fastest, most tricked-out vehicles, but on the newfangled hybrid-electric and hydrogen cars now offered not just by Japanese market leaders but also struggling American makers like Ford and General Motors.

Even US President George W Bush, long derided as a crony of big oil companies, is getting in on the act. Just a few years after Vice President Dick Cheney mocked fuel conservation, Bush has lauded alternative energies and increased efficiency in his last two state of the union addresses.

But the driving backlash may not just be the result of higher prices at the pump.

Like many cities in Europe, America's metro areas are showing increasing signs of auto overload.

Gridlocks worsen by the day. Commuting times are getting longer. Just trying to get a parking space in downtown New York or San Francisco can put you off car ownership for life - or even in jail, if the road rage gets the better of you.

In famously liberal San Francisco, normally calm residents have become so angst-ridden about finding a spot for their vehicles that city officials are pressing to equip parking wardens with mace canisters and cameras to defend themselves.

According to the city, assaults on parking-control officers in San Francisco rose from 17 in 2005 to 28 last year. During one week in November, four parking officers were attacked and two had to be hospitalised. Los Angeles is suffering the same problem.

Other statistics suggest that the US motorist may have reached the tipping point.

Nationally, total mileage dropped 0.4 percent last year. In notoriously car-centric Los Angeles, a city built around the automobile, use of public transport rose by more than 6 percent.

"The message is that price matters," industry consultant Daniel Yergin told the Los Angeles Times. "There's a greater sense of insecurity, and people don't want to be caught emptying their wallet at the gasoline pump."

There may be other factors, too, that are influencing the trend. According to Yergin, older people tend to drive less. So with the nation's baby boomers approaching retirement and an end to commutes, national driving distances should drop.

Greater environmental consciousness is leading ever more people to forego unnecessary car trips and use alternative means of transport.

Corey Davis, a financial analyst in downtown San Francisco, decided to give up her vehicle last year and now gets around perfectly well using the city's subway and trams.

"Truth is, I haven't used my car much for a few years now," she says. "Once I had a parking space near my house, I didn't want to lose it. The car was more trouble than it was worth."

Now, if Davis needs to go out of town, she uses a car-share service, which charges a monthly subscription plus hourly rates to use its fleet of cars. There are three such services in San Francisco and all report booming business.

"We're battling against the American dream," said John Williams, a spokesman for Flexcar, one of the car-share services. "But we've found tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people who would rather not own a car."