Gas Prices: Californians Are Mad as Hell but Still Driving

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Californians are frustrated with gas prices that have spiked above $4 per gallon, but few admit to price shopping or changing their driving habits

The driver of a white Porsche zips into the Costco gas station in Marina del Rey, Calif., and takes his place in line. It's a Friday afternoon and all 16 of the pumps are taken. At $4.19 per gallon, prices there are among the least expensive on the west side of Los Angeles these days. The Porsche owner, Santa Monica attorney Matt Jones, ends up paying $56 to fill up — $15 more than it would have cost him a year ago, but $10 less than he could have spent last week at a more expensive station in Santa Monica.

The smart-phone app GasBuddy, which identifies the least expensive prices in a given ZIP code, is currently yielding results as low as $4.08 and as high as $4.79 for the Los Angeles metro area; anything in the sub-$4.30 range is considered a deal in many neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the national average is at $3.85 and not a single state is selling gas for less than $3.50 per gallon, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. Commuters are expressing frustration with prices that spiked above $4 per gallon last month but, so far, few individual drivers will admit they are price shopping aggressively or making significant changes to their driving habits. People who own businesses and those who run gas stations are another story.

Some local delivery businesses and other companies whose services require extensive crosstown travel are being pushed to the breaking point. Landscaper Raul Viramontes estimates he logs 300 to 400 miles each week driving his pickup truck between clients' houses across Los Angeles. If the trend continues, he'll have to start charging his customers more. "It's getting ridiculous," he says.

For Jackson May, a driver for the food-delivery company Edible Arrangements, the price hike is affecting his personal finances even while he's at work. May gets reimbursed a flat $10 fee per day — an amount that hasn't changed with the rise in gas prices. "I'm running on empty a lot because I'm reluctant to buy gas," May says.

Even if drivers say they're not drastically altering their gas-buying habits, some gas stations are noticing a big difference. "We're selling 3,000 gallons less a day," says Gabriel Cortez, manager of a 76 station in Beverly Hills with middle-of-the-road prices. The current price increase is the most significant one Cortez can remember in 31 years working at this station, and he's fearful it may cause irreparable damage to the business. "The owner is getting nervous," Cortez says. "This is a disaster."

At Cortez's Beverly Hills station, customers are still willing to pay 50 cents per gallon more to have their gas pumped for them — but they're not happy about it. One day last week, a full-service customer lashed out at Cortez, demanding that he wash her windshield a second time. "She said, 'Do my window again. I'm paying a high price,'" he recalls. When he explained he wasn't responsible for pricing, the customer apologized, blaming her outburst on anger over the soaring cost of fuel.

Yet, many noncommercial drivers are shrugging off the price increases. "I'm making more of an effort to buy gas at Costco, but I'm not losing sleep over it," says Jones, the Porsche owner. "The bar keeps getting higher and higher," laments Maxx Labella, a Hollywood-based writer. "Before, I didn't want it to go above $3, but now it might hit $5. I would be happy if it stayed at $4." Yet Labella isn't willing to make significant changes to his driving habits — he bought gas at one of the most expensive pumps in the city last week, spending $4.79 per gallon to fill his maroon Chevy Malibu. "I don't feel like roaming around. Who has time to look for the one Arco that has cheap gas?" he says. He adds that he won't be carpooling anytime soon or using public transportation (the latter has never been widely embraced, or particularly convenient, in Los Angeles).

Drivers cite busy schedules and mandatory commutes by car as the reasons they're not changing their ways. "When you have to drive every day to work, it's just one of your costs," explains Maricela Escoto, a personal assistant in the Westwood area of Los Angeles who estimates she spends 35% to 40% more on gas now. However, since the money she budgets for commuting is fixed, she's looking for other ways to make up the difference.

Back at the Marina del Rey Costco, college student Jeremy Hassan is overtly frustrated as he fills his 2001 Lexus SUV. "My gas bill is higher than any other bill I have," he says. Hassan, who claims he already drives as little as possible, goes to Costco expressly for the gas, but he's still not saving enough money. "I should stop driving and get a bicycle," he says. And then he gets in his car and drives away.