With $8-$10 gas, Europeans drive less, use more transit, bikes
- Published Wednesday, April 23, 2008, by the San Francisco Chronicle
Europeans turning backs on cars
Astronomical fuel prices stoke use of public transportation, bikes
By Elizabeth Bryant
Chronicle Foreign Service
PARIS -- Filling up his wife's dark blue SUV at a convenience store
pump in northern Paris, Didier Marchand almost laughs when he hears
about the cost of a tank of gas now nosing up to the $4 mark across
the Atlantic. But he is polite.
"If we had that price -- it's about half of ours -- we'd be
delighted," said Marchand.
The prices posted at the station where he is getting his gas reflect
French reality: 1.35 euros a liter for normal gas going up to 1.50
euros for premium -- or between roughly $8 and nearly $9 a gallon.
"What shocks me is not the price of gas, but the taxes the government
adds on to it. They're really, really high," Marchand said. "It's
The sticker shock at the pump that is now sending Americans reeling
has long been a fact of life in Europe, where many countries like
France and Britain add on hefty government tariffs. And while the
recent hike in oil prices has been felt here as well, many Europeans
have long been able to adapt, opting for public transportation and
bikes and for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars than their U.S.
counterparts, experts say.
"Better cars, less intensive use of cars has meant overall
consumption of fuel in Europe has been going down steadily over
the last three years," said Pierre Noel, an energy researcher at
Cambridge University in England.
"We are much better equipped than the U.S. to deal with higher prices
and a more volatile market because we are so much less oil intensive
than you are," said Noel, who bikes to work.
Europe generally has far better public transportation than the United
States, with workers in countries like Britain, Belgium and France
packing morning commuter trains and subways. Transportation planning
increasingly factors in bike lanes, and more innovative mayors like
those in Paris and London are designing schemes to facilitate
alternative transport -- and to make driving an ever more arduous
All of this helps soften the bite of soaring oil prices for
commuters -- but not for those who depend on their vehicles like
architect Christopher Assan, who said he cannot work without his
"I'm really feeling the increase," said Assan as he carefully poured
gas from a plastic bottle into his tank. "I fill my bike up about
three times a week. That's about 60 euros ($94). Two years ago, I
spent about half that."
Taxi drivers are also hurting. "We're having a very hard time because
fuel is a big expense," said Bertrand Casagrande, vice president of
the Chambre Artisanal des Taxi, representing two-thirds of the 50,000
independent taxi drivers in France.
But because most French taxi drivers own their business, few are
considering quitting, he says.
Gas is even more expensive in Britain, where top prices hover at
almost 5 pounds -- or nearly $10 -- a gallon. In Scotland, the local
government development agency recently warned that nearly half the
region's gas stations might close over the next five years as price-
conscious commuters drive less.
"I'm lucky. I don't use an awful lot of petrol, and it doesn't bother
me too much because I can afford it," said Edinburgh resident Erica
Donald, 79. "But I worry that oil prices are going up so high that it
affects businesses, it affects transport. It affects food prices."
In Paris, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe is not making life easy for drivers.
During his six years in City Hall, he has pushed through a virtual
revolution in the city's transportation landscape. New bike lanes
crisscross the city -- narrowing car lanes and increasing traffic
Major arteries hugging the Seine River are closed to drivers on
Sundays to make way for bikers and in-line skaters. Last year,
Delanoe introduced a popular bicycle-for-hire scheme known as
"Velib" -- a combination of velo or bicycle and liberté or freedom
-- which parked some 15,000 bikes in pickup stations across the
city to be rented for about $1.60 a ride.
This year, the city has added a car-for-hire program called ALS
(Automobiles-en-Libre-Service) to the mix, with plans to put 2,000
electric cars on the streets over the next two years.
The Velib scheme has been replicated in many European cities,
including Barcelona, Spain; Brussels; Oslo, Norway; and Vienna. And
it is just one of a raft of green measures being tested in Europe
so the continent can become less oil dependent.
Sweden put its first bio-gas train into service in 2005. The British
government is drafting plans to build 15 new "eco towns," with homes
located near shops and public transportation, central areas closed
to drivers and 15 mph speed limits on major arteries.
For its part, London plans to more than triple its daily "congestion
tax" on car commuters to nearly $50 by the end of October.
Still, critics like Franziska Achterberg, transportation campaigner
for Greenpeace in Brussels, say Europe could do a lot more to wean
itself from petroleum. "People are driving more all the time,
despite the high prices," she said. "People just get used to them."
Anti-car efforts in Paris and London may backfire, some experts warn,
as drivers simply go farther to get around the hurdles. A recent
study by King's College in London, for example, found carbon dioxide
emissions would actually rise with a congestion tax hike as people
drive farther to avoid congestion-charging zones.
And despite better rail and bus links than in the United States, the
car continues to rule the road in European suburbs and small towns.
Efforts to reduce car dependency -- or design green alternatives --
do not factor heavily into European Union plans to slash CO2
emissions by 2020, Noel noted.
"Cutting carbon emissions in the transportation sectors is just
much more difficult and more costly than in other sectors," he said.
"Because emissions are decentralized, they're hard to track."
E-mail Elizabeth Bryant at foreign@...