Canadians love their cars so much that high fuel prices won’t change most of us

If you’re expecting clear freeway cruising this long weekend as soaring gas prices have forced every other driver – except you, of course – to leave their cars at home, you might want to -be thinking again.

Some motorists insist that $2-a-litre gas means they’ll drive a lot less, but people who study Canadians’ love affair with their cars are skeptical — and they have the research to back them up. .

Canadian economists who have studied the subject say there are rational economic reasons why people continue to drive despite the rising cost of fuel.

And except for those with the tightest budgets and the most convenient alternatives, gasoline and diesel prices must not only be much higher, but should remain high in order to convince most drivers to change their habits. People are willing to give up other things before they stop driving.

Always in car

“The whole idea of ​​traditional economics ‘price up, people buy less’ doesn’t really apply when it comes to gasoline,” Clarence Woudsma said from his van at 8 a.m. one day. last week as he negotiated the 60 or so kilometres. from his home in Woodstock, Ontario to the University of Waterloo campus, where he was leading a workshop on how municipalities are adapting to climate change.

After learning about working from home during the pandemic, Woudsma, an associate professor at the School of Planning and author of a book on the transport of goodsonly travels when he needs to be on campus.

But like so many Canadians, there is simply no practical alternative. Commercial traffic, dependent on the surge in diesel, has even fewer options, Woudsma said.

Statistics Canada said it does not have hard numbers linking fuel prices to road traffic. US data compiled by transport researcher Michael Sivakalbeit biased by the effects of the pandemic and an increase in commercial shipping, showed that although prices have risen from the lowest in years at the high, traffic did not decline as prices rose.

As economist Noha Razek explained on the phone last week, the economic principle is called elasticity, which she defines as “the responsiveness of consumption to change in price.”

In 2012, Razek, who now teaches at the University of Regina, co-authored a research report on how effective would future carbon taxes be on fuel consumption. The report noted that fuel demand was inelastic.

“If fuel went up to $10 a liter tomorrow, we’d probably see a pretty dramatic change in behavior,” said University of Waterloo engineering professor Bruce Hellinga, who specializes in transportation. But, he noted, the current increases are simply not enough to offset the perceived costs of switching to another mode of travel, especially in the short term.

Non-discretionary, no alternative

As with Woudsma’s commute, many trips are what Hellinga calls “non-discretionary” — such as getting to work, the doctor, or grocery shopping — and alternative modes of transportation are unavailable, expensive, or inconvenient.

Even where there are alternatives, Hellinga pointed to studies aimed at convincing drivers to take public transport that show people think that time is a cost. And the weekends? They are also valuable.

“People place a very high value on their recreational trips,” Hellinga said, confirmed by the Canadian Index of Wellbeingwhich shows that nature getaways make people feel healthy and contented.

Vehicles fill the parking lot and grounds for a religious event near St. John’s. In rural Canada, there are few alternatives to the car. (Radio Canada)

This means that people who can afford the cost are willing to pay more. Even those on a tight budget will ditch other expenses for the continued convenience of driving, which is already expensive outside of gas, said Colleen Kaiser, a low-carbon transportation expert at the Smart Prosperity Institute, a environmental think tank based at the University of Ottawa.

Buying less fuel does not reduce the high fixed costs invested in operating a vehicle, such as the purchase price or lease or loan payments and insurance, she said. Depending on your vehicle and the distance traveled, fuel costs can be a relatively small part of total driving costs.

“The signal that carbon pricing will send to your average person as it relates to driving behaviors is very weak,” Kaiser said, adding that this is why many experts are looking for alternative methods, beyond taxes on carbon, to convince people to move away from fossil fuels. -fuel transportation.

Seductive and addictive

Research by economists Sumeet Gulati and Werner Antweiler of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver shows that the benefits of personal mobility are alluring, even addictive.

“People don’t seem to be able to switch modes of transportation or drive less,” Antweiler said. “But the research I did with my colleague… paints a somewhat different picture in the long run.”

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Canadians continue to face record high gasoline prices. Meanwhile, rising fuel costs are driving up the price of everything else as well, as transportation costs are passed on to consumers.

Those who decide to start driving may conclude that it is too expensive. If people think prices are likely to stay high, they’re willing to make lifestyle changes, like moving closer to work or going to somewhere well served by public transport, but that kind of decision takes time.

Antweiler says the most common option for those already addicted to the pleasures of driving – seen in Europe and in the aftermath of the 1970s oil crisis in North America – is to switch to a more fuel-efficient vehicle.

In the modern context, this can be a hybrid or an electric vehicle. While these vehicles are currently rare, he expects this change to happen again.

“First people have to believe that these price changes are permanent and not temporary,” Antweiler said, and then the change will come gradually as drivers replace their aging cars. “People see that the prices are higher and say ‘OK, maybe the next car I’m going to buy won’t consume 12 liters per hundred kilometres, but maybe only eight or six’.”

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