Is the United States addicted to gasoline?

Appetite for Gasoline

America's fondness for driving off road vehicles "on road" is part of the reason for the country's high gasoline consumption.
America's fondness for driving off road vehicles "on road" is part of the reason for the country's high gasoline consumption.
Victor Malafronte/Getty Images

While the unprecedented price of $4 per gallon of gasoline may have come as a shock to Americans during the summer of 2008, citizens in other countries have been paying at least that much for years. Across Europe, high fuel taxes equate to gasoline prices regularly in the range of $8 per gallon [source: Hargreaves]. In the United States, where the average gas tax in July 2008 was $0.49 per gallon, lower prices have encouraged a range of habits that have simply exacerbated gasoline consumption [source: Energy API].

While Europeans were gravitating toward smaller, more efficient cars to save money at the pump, their American counterparts were ogling gargantuan SUVs. Stemming from consumer demand as well as government requirements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and make cars more efficient, the average vehicle in Europe gets more than 32 miles (51 kilometers) per gallon. In the United States, though, a similar-size car doesn't even manage 22 mpg (35 kpg) [source: Ford]. Why the discrepancy? Perhaps because fuel efficiency standards in the United States were largely ignored from 1985 to 2005. If those standards had instead been raised as little as 0.4 miles (0.6 kilometers) per year, the United States could possibly have saved about 3.3 million barrels of oil a day [source: Baker and Szembrot].

The demand for fuel efficiency in Europe also creates a better market for diesel cars, further lessening the area's reliance on gas. Only 4 percent of the cars in the United States run on diesel; in Europe the percentage is 10 times higher. Again, Americans can lay some of the blame for that on their government, which discourages the more fuel-efficient diesel cars by taxing this fuel more heavily [source: Ford].

The United States' appetite for gasoline can't solely be attributed to the large number of inefficient cars on the road. As you learned on the previous page, those cars drive an awful lot of miles -- an awful lot being 7 billion miles (11.3 billion kilometers) every day [source: EIA]. Part of that long commute can be traced to personal choice -- with access to historically low gas prices, Americans saw no need to live near the city center to save energy like people in some other countries do. Instead, they packed up and headed out to the suburbs.

The other side of that coin is the government's inability to fund public transportation projects adequately. Whereas new highway construction receives an ample 80 percent of federal funding, new public transportation projects receive just 50 percent. In 2009, the proposed U.S. budget would cut $202 million from transit spending and transfer $3.2 billion from funds dedicated to transit. These cuts come despite an estimate from the Treasury Department that the Highway Trust Fund and the Mass Transit Account will both face massive deficits in 2009 and 2010 respectively [source: PIRG].

Meanwhile, the governments of other nations throughout Europe and Japan and China have avidly supported transportation alternatives like high-speed rail. Better public transportation options combined with more compact cities equals less gasoline consumption. In Paris, people complete almost half of their trips without cars; in the United States, that number is closer to 20 percent [source: Ford].

But times, they are a-changin'. After years of rampant gasoline consumption, Americans could be ready to call it quits and break the addiction.