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With $8-$10 gas, Europeans drive less, use more transit, bikes

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  • 4/23 SF Chronicle
    Published Wednesday, April 23, 2008, by the San Francisco Chronicle Europeans turning backs on cars Astronomical fuel prices stoke use of public
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 23, 2008
      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@...
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