Sunday, June 15, 2008

Obviously not painful enough.

One of the reasons I like to go to events is because I'm fascinated by peoples spending habits. Often it's as fascinating as the event itself. I even have a big ol' crush for economists, and how the economy moves.

I view most large groups of people like a school of fish. They move the same way. When times are good, they all swim cohesively together. When something freaks them out, they scatter the same way. And - I love to watch that in action.

Anyway - I figured there was a better than 50% chance that this years RoboGames was going to suck. But, it was a good opportunity to see how much gas prices were affecting people. If they were driving. If they were still spending money. And, this is what I found:

Gas prices piss people off - but not enough to get them to stay off the roads. This is what it looked like on the freeway at 7:00 Saturday night. Roughly what it would look like during weekday commute hours. I was shocked. Bumper to bumper all the way from San Fransisco to the East Bay. In both directions. It took us almost 2 hours to get home. On a weekend it should take about an hour.

It wasn't just the freeway. We didn't stay at the games long, so we went to get lunch in Sausalito. It was still sunny over there. The downtown area was similarly packed. So much so, we got lunch and left. Most of the places we went in San Fransisco were also packed.

I know this isn't a scientific study or anything, but gas prices don't seem to be affecting people as badly as most people seem to indicate.


  1. My unscientific hunch is that people will cut down about half their discretionary, long-distance driving -- they're not going to drive from Maryland to Colorado on vacation, for example. But they'll continue most of their local discretionary driving, because that seems like a relatively small indulgence.

    Your economist friends tend to think that people spend money rationally, which is the funniest thing in the entire field of economics. So people are looking to save, say, ten cents a gallon on gas, which works out to a dollar on a ten-gallon purchase.

    If your car gets 32 miles to the gallon, at $4 a gallon you've saved enough to drive eight miles. If you get 24 mpg, you've saved enough to drive six.

    Changing driving habits is hard. If you're 40 years old, you've probably had your own car for more than 20 years, which means you're conditioned that you can go where you want, when you want. And in urban areas, the entire landscape is set up (at least in theory) to accommodate you and your car.

    When I lived in the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC (and not the far-out ones where they still take Confederate money), you had to go two miles from my house to find the nearest place you could spend money. So even if you wanted to walk, it'd be a one-hour round trip to buy a newspaper, get a soda, pick up a few groceries, get to the drugstore, have a snack.

  2. Do you really think economists think that? Silly economists. I still crush them.

    I generally agree that most people think irrationally when it comes to most things. Why else would they drive 10 miles out of their way to save 2 cents on gas? Aren't we designed to think impulsively though?

    Isn't that what evolution thinks will keep us alive?

    I also agree that people would stop driving long distances, but considering the average daily commute around here is 30 miles a day, I figured that would translate in people driving less on the weekends. So far - not so much.

  3. I can only speak from my own experience, but weekend traffic in the D.C. area is virtually the same volume as weekday traffic -- it's just different trips. Instead of going to work and daycare, it's going to sports practice, kids' games, the shopping and errands you couldn't get done during the week.