Paying more, using less

Per capita gas consumption by motorists in the Pacific Northwest has dropped to its lowest level in nearly 50 years.

Several factors are likely in play for Washington and Oregon drivers, according to the study of gas consumption by the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based sustainability think tank.

Clearly, rising gas prices are playing a role, reducing the number of miles that drivers are racking up on the road. Personal vehicle travel has declined some 13 percent on the state’s public highways since 2002.

The economic recession is also playing a role. And younger drivers appear to be rethinking their driving habits, relying more on social media, which is less expensive than driving and maintaining a car, to stay in touch with friends and family.

The authors of the study said weekly per capita fuel consumption in 2011 was about 7.1 gallons in Oregon and 7.3 gallons in Washington. That compares with about 10.4 gallons per week in the Northwest at its peak in the late 1970s.

But it’s premature to suggest that the love affair Americans have with their cars and trucks is waning. Auto sales in August were expected to be 17 percent higher than the same month a year ago.

Pacific Northwest motorists are driving less, but money spent on fuel reached a record $21.5 billion last year, which is about six times as much as was spent as recently as 1998, according to the Sightline report.