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Gasoline use down in state, study says

During the past decade, SUVs seemed to take over the roads. Average incomes rose. The price of gas remained relatively low.

And yet, despite all that, per-capita gasoline consumption in Washington actually dropped 2 percent, according to a new report from the Seattle think tank Northwest Environment Watch.

The report attributes the decline mostly to “smart-growth” policies aimed at reining in sprawl and encouraging higher-density development, which in turn discourage drive-alone commuting and promote transit and other options.

“We think that’s the main cause,” said Eric de Place, research associate at Northwest Environment Watch and chief author of the report.

But it’s not the only cause, said Bruce Agnew, one of three Seattle-area outsiders who reviewed the report before publication.

“The economy is down,” said Agnew, director of the Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Project and a former Republican Snohomish County councilman. “People are losing jobs. There’s less discretionary income. That’s got to have an effect (on gas consumption). But I don’t disagree that growth management has helped.”

In Oregon, a growth-management pioneer, per-capita gas consumption dropped just 1 percent during the decade, the report says.

Oregon may have cut gas use less than Washington because trucks, sport-utility vehicles and minivans make up a higher percentage of Oregon’s vehicles, de Place said.

Consumption elsewhere in the Northwest went up — 7 percent in British Columbia, 12 percent in Idaho.

But the typical Washingtonian still burns more gasoline each week than the typical British Columbian: 8.4 gallons versus 5.5 gallons, the report says. Average weekly per-capita consumption is 8.5 gallons in Oregon and 9.7 gallons in Idaho.

British Columbians consume less gas because they are more likely to live in high-density, urban neighborhoods, de Place said. Per-capita consumption increased in part because a much higher percentage of the province’s population is driving now compared with a decade ago, the report says.

With the declines of the past decade, Washington and Oregon now rank below the national average in per-capita gas consumption for the first time, the report says. What’s more, it adds, Washington and Oregon were the only states in the nation in which the percentage of commuters who drive alone to work didn’t increase significantly in the 1990s.

There’s a strong correlation between density, driving and fuel consumption, the report says. In King County, where multifamily and other higher-density development accounted for much of the growth during the past decade, each increase of 100 jobs generated just 43 new solo commuters.

In Snohomish County, where new development generally was lower-density, 100 new jobs meant 76 new drive-alone commuters. In Pierce County, the figure was 89.

The report analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Federal Highway Administration and other agencies.

Northwest Environment Watch calls itself a nonprofit research and communication center that “promotes a sustainable economy and way of life in the Pacific Northwest.” Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company