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Old Gas Pumps

With the record-breaking spikes in gas prices last summer, followed by the economic downturn, it's not surprising that people aren't driving as much.

A new report from the Seattle-based Sightline Institute verifies that per capita gasoline use is falling nationally, but focuses on how and why that the downward trend is most remarkable in Northwest states (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho). In the Northwest, the amount of gasoline used per person in 2008 was at its lowest level since 1965, with the biggest drop in total gasoline consumption since 1980.

Some of undoubtedly is due to increased unemployment and the loss of commuter miles traveled, and there's evidence that the spike in gas prices last summer left a lasting impression on drivers. But Sightline notes that it's also part of a long-term trend that's been underway for a decade, also mentioning skyrocketing mass-transit figures in Seattle and Portland.

Americans nationwide consumed about 8.2 gallons of gasoline per week, down from 8.6 gallons in 2007. In the Northwest, per capita consumption went down five percent from 2007 to 2008, to 7.4 gallons--and that's down 15 percent from 1999 levels, when Northwest per capita use fell below the national average.

According to the federal government's Energy Information Administration, total U.S. gasoline consumption fell by more than three percent from 2007 to 2008, after a very slight drop from 2006 to 2007. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) levels are now where they were in 2004, and overall U.S. gasoline consumption was down in 2008 to pre-2004 levels.

It's likely that we'll see a continued slide in overall gas consumption this year--some of it due to the incremental advances in fuel economy we've been seing recently in new vehicles that we've reported on, including the 2010 Kia Forte, 2010 Subaru Legacy, and of course the new 2010 Toyota Prius (NYSE:TM). Then look for it all to kick into overdrive in 2012, as new 2016 federal fuel economy rules start to phase in.

Source: U.S. Gasoline Use Falling - Especially in Northwest