Crying over gas? Europeans cope

Apr 13, 2004 02:00 AM

by Todd Richissin

Motorists abroad pay far more for petrol, buy smaller cars and drive less. Laurent Garigue has one word for Americans griping about the cost of gasoline these days. Actually, he has many, but the first is, "Ha!"
"It's almost funny to hear about," he said. "I don't think they're laughing in America, but if they came here they'd see they have nothing to cry about."

Except that if Americans came here -- and were paying Europe's gas prices -- they might well shed some tears. In the United States, gasoline was averaging about $ 1.76 a gallon for regular unleaded, with some motorists in California paying well over $ 2.
The average price of gasoline in Britain was $ 5.38 a gallon, a bargain compared with The Netherlands, where it was $ 5.69. In Germany it was $ 5.01. The French were paying $ 4.78.

The higher gas prices have led to the occasional protest in Europe, usually by truck drivers, but mostly people have responded in ways as unimaginative as they are effective: They drive less, take public transportation more, buy more fuel-efficient cars and occasionally walk to the corner to pick up milk rather than drive.
"It's just not part of our mindset to hop into the car anytime we need to go more than a few feet," said Garigue, who owns a fabric business in West London. "It is part of the mindset to kind of automatically calculate how best to take a trip."
That is one reason Garigue, in addition to his Mercedes-Benz, owns a Smart, a two-seat, buggy-looking car that seems as if it could fit into the trunk of most vehicles in the United States. It gets close to 60 miles per gallon.

The reason for the higher prices in Europe is predictable: taxes. When currency and measurements are converted, the $ 5.38 that Britons were paying for gas included $ 4.16 in taxes. Rates are similar throughout Europe. In the United States, each gallon is taxed 18.4 cents by the federal government, and with state taxes added on, Americans pay an average of 27 cents extra.
"If not forour taxes, petrol would cost less than mineral water," said Richard Freeman, a spokesman for Britain's Automobile Association, an organization similar to AAA in the United States. "Nobody would put up with a 75 % tax on anything else, but the petrol is different. It's just become a part of life here." If the high taxes are keeping Europeans out of cars -- and they are to a degree -- they are working as designed.

The images of flocks of Dutch and Danes cruising their bicycles through the streets should not be mistaken for a lack of roads congested with cars. In The Netherlands, in particular, highways leading into Rotterdam and Amsterdam are bumper-to-bumper with cars during rush hour, and bikes are primarily a sight in larger cities, used mostly by those who live there. And while there are about 500 cars for every 1,000 people in the European Union, compared with about 770 for every 1,000 people living in the United States, the number of cars on European roads has doubled since 1975.
"We still have thecommuter problem in almost every part of Europe," said Adam McCarthy, manager for transport mobility for the International Automobile Federation in Brussels, Belgium. "The only way to get people out of their cars is to price them out, and then take the money from that and beef up public transportation."

In Britain, which with The Netherlands suffers the worst road congestion in Europe, commuters can get old waiting for a train. More than 80 % of commuter trains fail to arrive on time. But with few exceptions in Europe, a trip of most any distance is quicker by train than by road and commuter railways are generally improving.
That does not come cheap. In 2001, the last year for which figures are available, European Union countries collected about $ 357 bn in taxes on gasoline and road-use fees. Of that, about $ 86 bn was pumped into public transportation systems, according to the EU.
"The improvements help move people to public transport," McCarthy said. "Still, there are a lot of people who won't give up their cars no matter what, and that's where the taxes come in. If they're going to drive, they're going to pay."

Governments in Europe also have forced carmakers to increase gas mileage at a far faster rate than in the United States. In 2001, the most recent year for which comparative statistics are available, the average passenger vehicle in the United States got about 20 miles per gallon; cars sold in the European Union got 28, according to Eurostat, the EU's statistical bureau.
The European Union is debating ways to make driving cars even more expensive, with proposals to charge motorists a premium for driving in congested areas -- already done in part of London -- setting up toll roads and increasing taxes on the cars themselves according to how much they pollute and how much noise they make.

Environmentalists say they are pleased with what is essentially a penalty tax on cars and gas in Europe, but as the number of cars increases, gains in fuel efficiency are being wiped out.
"The global climate is spinning out of control because of our fossil fuel habit," said Anita Goldsmith of Greenpeace. "It's time to confine the Oil Age to history and embrace clean energy solutions now."
But that is not going to happen anytime soon, no matter what governments in Europe do. The United States consumes more than 25 % of the oil produced worldwide and imports more than half what it uses. The Bush administration's 2001 energy plan predicted higher demand for oil, with imports increasing from 10.4 mm bpd to 16.7 mm bpd by 2020.

"It's all very well for Americans that they have this standard of living and can drive around in big, empty cars, but don't they realize that at some point they're going to have to pay for it?" asked Nigel James, who was loaded down with plums and corn flakes to deliver to the elderly on his bike.
"Soon, driving in America is going to be another privilege that only the wealthy can afford," he said. "It's already starting to be the case here."
Yet people in the United States continue to make decisions that increase demand and then complain when supply is down and prices rise. Motorists are putting more miles on their cars, not less, with average yearly mileage now about 12,000, according to AAA.

Geoff Sundstrom, director of public relations for the national AAA in Orlando, Florida, said his group has tried to stress the fluctuating nature of gas prices but without much success.
"Sometimes there's a bit of a confusion about what Americans are upset about with the gas prices," Sundstrom said. "It's not so much the price itself as the instability. When you go out to purchase a new vehicle and you calculate the cost of operating it at a given price of gas, and then gas skyrockets, you don't have the option to turn around to sell that car." But he says the answer is fairly simple.
"The long-term solution for motorists is to recognize that over time, the cost of gas is going to go up. ... Maybe gas prices won't go as high as in Europe, but they're going to go up."

Source: The Baltimore Sun
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