By Amanda Ripley
The world had long assumed that Americans were just unrepentant energy pigs. If gas prices went up, well, we kept our Explorers aimed at the horizon, and little changed. We truthfully didn't have lots of options. Unlike Europeans, we didn't have jobs we could bike to or convenient public transit. Gasoline prices never stayed high enough long enough to force those kinds of shifts in how we lived.
Now here we are. Gas prices are near $4 per gal., as no one needs to tell you, and they are likely to stay that way. Most of us still don't have the alternatives we need to adapt with grace, which means that many will adapt just by suffering. We will run out of gas on I-80, ease our minivans over to the shoulder and tell the kids everything is O.K. We'll fall behind on Visa bills to pay for gas so we can buy food made ever more expensive by energy costs.
But it's also true that Americans are finding options where there seemed to be none. They're ready to change — and waiting for their infrastructure to catch up. They are driving to commuter-rail lines only to find there are no parking spots left. They are running fewer errands and dumping their SUVs. Public-transit use is at a 50-year high. Gas purchases are down 2% to 3%. And all those changes bring secondary, hard-earned benefits.
"You suddenly are reminded how the economy works," says Eric Roston, author of a new book about energy, The Carbon Age. "Nobody wants high prices for oil. But there's also no faster mechanism to change behavior." The suffering will go on. But the story, like any good tragedy, is not without redemption.
1. Globalized Jobs Return Home
The world suddenly seems big again. A family of four can't fly cross-country for much less than $2,000. The cost of shipping a standard 40-ft. (12 m) container of couches from Shanghai to New Jersey has tripled since 2000. Trucking carrots from Mexico to Georgia makes less and less economic sense.
When John Smith started a high-end furniture company in Washington in 2003, he couldn't make everything in the U.S. and stay competitive. So his company, Willem Smith, started operations in Vietnam and Ecuador. He found himself visiting factories 11 time zones away from his four small daughters.
By last year, the cost of making and importing one of his favorite pieces, the Caballero chair, was ballooning. He was shipping Italian leather to Vietnam and then shipping the large chair back to the States. There were other problems too, like inflation in Vietnam. So last January, Willem Smith "repatriated" the Caballero to Hickory, N.C. That shift helps contain shipping costs and has other perks. "People are happy to buy American," Smith says. "And it felt kind of nice to bring this one home."
In more industries, such as steel, lawn-mower batteries and upscale furniture, doing business in the U.S. is starting to look slightly more feasible.
2. Sprawl Stalls
Across the country, real estate agents are reporting that many home buyers are looking to move closer to cities. Gas prices are shaping their decisions. A May study that examined housing values in five cities found prices had fared worse in more-distant neighborhoods. "The collapse of America's housing bubble — and its reverberations in financial markets — has obscured a tectonic shift in housing demand," wrote economist Joe Cortright in the study, sponsored by CEOs for Cities, a nonprofit group that promotes cities. "Housing in cities and neighborhoods that require lengthy commutes and provide few transportation alternatives to the private vehicle are falling in value more precipitously than in more central, compact and accessible places."
3. Four-Day Workweeks
Companies, colleges and governments are moving to four-day weeks. Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Fla., went to four days for the 2007 summer session and saved $268,000 in energy costs. There were unforeseen benefits too. Over the year, sick leave fell 50%, and turnover among the 1,500-person staff dropped 44%. "We thought the energy savings would be a plus. But the reaction was about what it meant to people's family lives and their ability to take care of themselves," says college president Jim Drake. Brevard is doing four-day weeks again this summer and may make the change year-round.
4. Less Pollution
As people consume less fuel in America, vehicle emissions should drop. Less pollution means bluer skies and longer lives — and the potential to slow global warming, albeit slightly. Lower energy demand means the air will contain fewer toxic agents, like particle pollution, which can get deep into your lungs and cause serious health problems. Bottom line, About 2,220 lives have already been saved over the past year because of higher gas prices and less pollution, according to an estimate calculated for TIME by J. Paul Leigh, a University of California at Davis health-economics professor who co-wrote a study on the topic in the March 2008 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. If prices remain high, we can expect some 2,000 people to avoid dying from pollution in the next 12 months.
5. More Frugality
Trucking companies are using software to help identify optimal places for drivers to refuel and the most efficient delivery routes. Waste haulers are checking tire pressure twice a day instead of every couple of days. We're all wasting less. Vespa scooter sales increased 106% in May compared with the same time last year; Ford SUV sales dropped 55% in June. Columbia, Md., resident Glenn Conrad, 58, bought a Honda Insight a few years ago and, like many so-called hypermilers, became obsessed with his miles-per-gallon gauge. "That thing is really addictive," he says. Although a police officer recently gave him a warning for going too slowly, he is undeterred. "If I roll both of my windows up," he says, "I instantly get about two more miles per gallon."
6. Fewer Traffic Deaths
Every year, about 40,000 people die in traffic accidents in the U.S. If you are age 5 through 34, you are more likely to die this way than any other way. Ordinary things we do — or don't do — have extraordinary consequences. We know that higher gas prices cause many of us to slow down and drive less — which means fewer people die. Early research into 2006 accident data suggests that many lives have already been spared. If gas remains at $4 per gal. for a year or more, expect as many as 1,000 fewer fatalities a month, according to professor Michael Morrisey at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and associate professor David Grabowski at Harvard Medical School, who calculated that estimate for TIME. That means annual deaths could be cut by almost one-third — a public-health triumph.
7. Cheaper Insurance
If you are driving less, you could qualify for lower car-insurance rates. For example, if you have stopped driving to work, your classification has changed to "pleasure driver," and you could save 10% to 15% (or $94 to $142 on an average premium), according to the Consumer Federation of America. So if you're parked more, call your insurer.
8. Less Traffic
Travel on all roads dropped 2.1% in the first four months of 2008, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Wherever people can take public transit, they are doing so. Even before the biggest gas-price hikes, a Congressional Budget Office study of California freeways from 2003 to 2006 showed that the number of freeway trips went down 0.7% for every 50-cent increase in gas prices — but only in areas near public transit. Cities are struggling to keep up. BART, the San Francisco Bay Area rail system, removed seats to open up more standing room. In Boston, where turnpike use declined by 600,000 cars in May, officials are pleading with public-transit passengers to travel at nonpeak times.
9. More Cops on the Beat
Across the country, police bike and foot patrols are up, and cops are being told to cut down on idling their cruisers — which is sort of like telling a teenager to stop using his cell phone. Georgia state police have been told to cut driving time 25%. In Shelby, N.C., police officers have been ordered to park their cars for 15 min. every two hours and to stop taking patrol cars out for lunch. In May the city government's fuel consumption decreased. The longer-term effects may include better community relations — and slimmer police.
10. Less Obesity
People walk more, bike more and eat out less when gas is pricey. A permanent $1 hike in prices may cut obesity 10%, saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars a year, estimates Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. At Orange Cycle, the largest bike store in Orlando, Fla., sales of upright urban bikes from March to June rose 57% compared with the same period last year. The shop was around for the 1970s gas crisis too, but this feels different, says co-owner Deena Breed. "I don't think it's just gas," she says. "It has to do with weight, exercise, community — a general sense of not being so wasteful."