While American families say they don’t scale back their summer vacations because of higher gasoline prices, as many as a third significantly change their travel plans, according to travel experts.
However, Tulsa’s central location and historically low fuel prices hardly puts a dent in travelers’ pocketbooks, say local observers.
“We’re a good regional destination, and gas prices are more reasonable here than in other parts of the country,” said Suzann Stewart, senior vice president of the Tulsa Metro Chamber.
Mode of Choice
Automobiles continue to be the travel mode of choice for vacations within the region, said Chuck Mai, AAA Oklahoma spokesman.
“Even at $3-plus a gallon, driving is still the economical way to get there,” Mai said. “Plus, with a car at your disposal, you have such flexibility. In most cases, you’ll wind up renting a car at your fly destination anyway.”
Looking at traffic statewide, there definitely is a relationship between traffic and gasoline prices in the summer months, said Jack Damrill, public relations director for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
“Especially during the holidays, when more discretionary traffic usually takes place,” Damrill said.
The state’s urban areas have less of that type of traffic since many motorists are simply traveling to and from work, Damrill said.
“Passenger vehicles, and passenger vehicles pulling one and two axle trailers, basically summer boat traffic, the more discretionary traffic, show a direct relationship between gasoline prices and traffic,” he said.
Commercial traffic keeps on trucking, since goods have to be delivered to various parts of the country, Damrill said.
“Therefore, commercial traffic is less sensitive to gasoline prices,” he said.
Hurricane Affects Traffic
Numbers from the OTA reveal the decline in traffic following Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita in 2005. Those storms struck the Gulf Coast, heavily damaging crude oil and refined products facilities. As much as one-fourth of the nation’s refining capacity was impacted in a six week span.
Local gasoline prices shot past $3 per gallon in late August 2005 and didn’t decline significantly until winter. Prices returned to the $3 per gallon level last summer until finally dropping nearly one year after the devastating season.
Three- and four-axle traffic, passenger vehicles with one- and two-axle trailers, dropped 4.99 percent in 2005 and fell 8.55 percent in September — compared to traffic the previous year, according to OTA statistics.
Figures show passenger car volume slipped 0.80 percent in August but dipped 2.26 percent in September 2005 when compared to 2004.
For the summer 2005 driving season (May through September), normal traffic flow on turnpikes was up 2.31 percent for passenger vehicles, and up 1.63 percent for passenger vehicles towing one- and two-axle trailers, figures show.
Discretionary traffic increased in August and September 2006, exactly the time gasoline prices began to decline from the record high prices following Hurricane Katrina, Damrill said.
Oklahomans Price Tolerant
While turnpike traffic was impacted, Oklahomans show a surprisingly high tolerance for soaring gasoline prices overall, said Mai.
“We learned that last year when prices approached $3 a gallon,” he said. “Oklahomans still traveled in large numbers.”
Mai believes prices at the pump have to top $4 before there is an appreciable decline in the number of auto trips taken.
“Even at $3-plus a gallon, auto travel is still the cheapest way to get to destinations within our region,” he said.
When pump prices jump, people tend to remain in state and visit local places, he said.
“Certainly that’s what happened last August – Oklahomans still traveled, they just chose destinations closer to home,” he said. “The number of trips did not decline; the number of miles traveled did.”
The price motorist’s pay at the pump is the primary determinator regarding travel choices, Mai said.
“We pay attention to stories in the news, of course, but it’s the price we pay today that governs our planning choices more than anything else,” he said.
Mai predicts that unless something “huge” happens to dramatically affect oil and natural gas supplies and distribution, he does not see prices topping $3 for regular self-serve gasoline in Oklahoma over the next six months.
“Our AAA travel offices have been extremely busy this year – which tells me we are likely to see just as many Oklahomans traveling this summer as we did last summer, perhaps more,” Mai said. “I predict we’ll not even see $2.75 per gallon.”
Among families who are changing plans because of the run-up in gas prices, 63 percent say they stay close to home, about 26 percent say they postpone or plan to shorten their vacations, and about the same number say they are canceling vacation plans because of high gas prices, the Conference Board reports in a special survey.
The survey covered 5,000 U.S. households.
“These survey results show that while most Americans haven’t changed their vacation plans because of rising gas prices, a substantial proportion — one in three — have been compelled to alter vacation activities. Looking ahead, the combination of high gas prices and possible fallout from the recent terrorist threat could further change Americans’ travel plans,” the survey reported.
Gas Prices and Commuting
When asked if higher gas prices have affected their commute to work, nearly one-fifth said yes.
Among those who have changed their commuting routines, about 20 percent said they are doing more work from home, another 16 percent said they are car-pooling, and 10 percent are using public transportation.
With summer approaching, Tulsa is preparing for kids’ sports and the horseshow season, Stewart said.
“Both bring heavy drive (amounts) to Tulsa customers from all over the country,” she said. “Our central location and lower gas prices are a big plus.” ?