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High gas prices force some to change habits

Ten bucks. That's all the money Rochelle Dabney had to put fuel in the voracious gas tank of her '98 Dodge Stratus, and it had to last through the long holiday weekend.

Eric Andracchio of South Phila. pumps $10.10 worth of gas at the Xpress Gas station on Columbus Boulevard.
Eric Andracchio of South Phila. pumps $10.10 worth of gas at the Xpress Gas station on Columbus Boulevard.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Inquirer Staff

Ten bucks. That's all the money Rochelle Dabney had to put fuel in the voracious gas tank of her '98 Dodge Stratus, and it had to last through the long holiday weekend.

Good luck with that.

"I'm trying to make it stretch," the 38-year-old mother of three said at a West Conshohocken Lukoil, where customers were shaken to see a gallon of regular gas at $4.05 costing nearly as much as a gallon of milk.

For Dabney and a lot of other people stunned by the daily uptick in gas prices, the stretch marks are beginning to show.

With oil now at $130 a barrel and gas above $4 per gallon at a sprinkling of stations in the area, higher prices are cutting into the driving habits of some people.

Some drivers say that they are trying to cut back on consumption - walking more, consolidating local errands, forgoing a trip - but that they find it's hard to kick the habit when they live in the car-reliant suburbs.

Dabney, who lives in West Conshohocken and works three miles away at Spring Mill Presbyterian Village in Lafayette Hill, said she uses her car only to get to work and back.

"We don't go anywhere," she said.

A couple of weeks ago when her children wanted ice cream, they walked a half-mile to Scoops in Conshohocken rather than drive. They've cut out trips to the movies, Wendy's and the go-carts park, and she carpools with two other women to go to the grocery store.

After her 7-to-11 a.m. shift, she drives home and parks the car until she goes to work the next morning.

As Memorial Day weekend approaches, the average price for regular gasoline in Philadelphia was $3.84 a gallon.

On the other side of the Delaware River, Mid-Atlantic AAA expects 45,000 fewer Garden State residents will be on the road this weekend, compared with 2007.

However, Jersey Shore business owners said this week that they expect the usual beach crowds. Those drivers will find gasoline is, on average, $3.69 a gallon in New Jersey.

Schane Vonhartleben, 30, would love to imitate Dabney and drive less, but he sometimes has to make two trips a day from his home in Lafayette Hill to the skateshop he owns on South Street. Sometimes he has to go home to tend to his 4-year-old daughter for a few hours in the middle of the day.

He has seen his gas bill shoot up to about $125 every few days.

Yesterday, seeing his hard-earned cash pour into the tank of his Range Rover, he got an idea.

"I'm definitely going to get a motorcycle," he said.

Then he had an even better idea.

"If I could skateboard in, I would," he said.

Not many people would go that far to save a few dollars. In fact, most consumers don't adjust their driving patterns in the short term, said Chris Lafakis, an associate economist at Moody's in West Chester.

"There's no tipping point," he said.

"For some years now we've been saying this is the threshold price that's going to cause the economy to spiral in a nasty recession and consumers are going to stop buying gasoline, but each time that forecast has been issued people have continued to buy gasoline," Lafakis said.

In other words, many suburban drivers are resigned to forking over a C-note a week for gas. Aside from getting a hybrid, they say there's little else they can do.

"I have three little kids and I drive all the time - to the doctor's, to the grocery store, to school," said Anna Pelletier, 36, of Pottstown. "If you live in the suburbs, you don't have many options."

Last year she downsized from a Chevrolet Tahoe to a Toyota Highlander but she still sinks $55 into the tank every five days or so.

"That's just toting the kids around. There's no leisure driving," she said.

"My husband says, 'Drive less.' I can't do any less," she said.

The only extra driving they do is on their once-a-month date night. But they don't go far. After paying the babysitter $10 an hour, "We can't afford to drive anywhere."

John Hines, 54, of Huntingdon Valley, has figured out how to get by on a once-a-month fill-up of his '95 Mustang - stay home. He takes the train to his job running the maintenance department at the Westin Hotel in Philadelphia, and that's about it for going out.

"I do stuff at home," he said, citing building a new deck, gardening, and household chores.

When he absolutely has to go out, he makes sure to bundle errands into one trip.

His wife, on the other hand, "is not as conscientious as me," he said. "She pays what she has to pay."

When gas in the area crossed $4 a gallon earlier this week, customers at the Xpress Gas station at South Columbus Boulevard and Tasker Street in Philadelphia found they could save 10 cents a gallon if they paid cash.

"I go to school every day, I work part time, and every month it costs me a lot" said student Johnny Quach, 21, who takes classes in Bensalem and works in Southwest Philadelphia.

Retired truck driver Nelson Spencer, 67, who recently moved to the area from Connecticut, said he was considering public transportation and alternative routes for his commute into the city from the suburbs.

"We made a mistake," Spencer said. "We rent in Norristown and the commute is $120 a week, which we didn't figure into our budget. We should have rented closer."

But one customer was unwilling to pay for the rising cost of gas . . . sort of.

After realizing that buying with a credit card was 10 cents a gallon more - $4.05 rather than $3.95 - Priscilla McDonald, jumped back in her car.

"I'm moving on; I'm not paying 10 cents more," she said as she headed for another station, adding, "I don't carry cash."