As gas prices climbed four months ago, Ruben Glover became obsessed with conserving gas.
Now, the 23-year-old bank worker accelerates slowly, uses cruise control and even turns off his car at long red lights.
With prices now falling, though, you might think he'd return to a more laid back attitude about conserving gas.
But like many others who have adopted new habits because of record gas prices, Glover doesn't plan to change back.
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As gas retreats from its high, research and interviews with Charlotte-area consumers suggest the persistently high prices have brought changes that are no temporary fad. They may have ushered in a new, lasting era of personal conservation.
More commuters have become used to riding mass transit, driving smaller cars and riding scooters. They're moving closer to where they work and telecommuting more as four-day work weeks become common and more employees carpool.
Of course, those changes aren't for everyone. Charlotte streets are still filled with large SUVs, and tens of thousands of the region's commuters drive alone to work every day.
The average price for a gallon of regular in the Charlotte area increased steadily from $2.78 a year ago to a peak of $4.07 on July 17.
Since then, however, it has fallen more than 6 percent to below the $4 mark. It fell Wednesday to an average of $3.81 per gallon in the Charlotte area. AAA Carolinas spokeswoman Carol Gifford said the agency predicts a continued slide of about a penny a day through the Labor Day weekend, which would put prices around $3.65 a gallon, and it could keep falling after that.
Gas prices rose so consistently over such a long period some consumers bought new homes closer to work and spent thousands on smaller cars and scooters, said Kim McLynn, spokeswoman for The NPD Group, a market research company that recently surveyed 43,000 drivers.
“Once they've made those major changes, they're not likely to switch back because gas prices have gone down,” she said. “We've been through ups and downs before with rising gas prices, and people have adjusted. But these long-term changes they've made are unique.”
The changes are fundamentally altering how we live and helping ingrain smaller conservation habits into daily routines, she said. For example, someone who invested in a new home near the light-rail line will likely ride the train even if prices continue to fall.
Gifford said if gas falls below $3, that could trigger a return to the driving habits of old.
“We do think the price would have to drop a lot more and fairly dramatically before people change their consumption,” she said.
Chuck Porter, a practicing attorney and maitre d' at uptown's Ratcliffe on the Green, pedals a bike to the courthouse and the restaurant. It's a purple “beach cruiser” he chains to a post in front of the courthouse and to a special U-shaped bar on South Tryon Street in front of the upscale restaurant.
In May, Porter started riding the bike, which he picked up for $200. His gas credit card bill has fallen from highs of $200 in some months to $30 last month, he said on Wednesday, which happened to be Don't Drive Day, a local-government sponsored effort designed to cut air pollution.
Gas expenses and parking hassles prompted his new commute. But he wouldn't change back if prices fell dramatically, he said.
Glover, the Wachovia database manager who rents in Myers Park, never used to worry about paying for gas as a younger man, he said. His mother gave him and his brothers credit cards to be used only at the pump. And in college, he didn't need to drive.
But after graduation, he started to pay and not only felt that pinch but also a double-whammy when prices jumped.
He read about saving and after awhile was squeezing 29 mpg out of his 20-mpg rated Chevy Malibu, he said.
He filled up his tires and started using his air conditioning on the highway instead of opening windows. If he sees a traffic light change to red as he pulls up, he turns off his car, knowing it'll be awhile.
He drives the speed limit: “I've noticed that when people pass me on the highway, I end up seeing them later down the road. We'd be at the same place at the same time. What was the point of speeding?”
He and girlfriend Stephanie Yonce, a Starbucks barista, accepted that it would simply take longer to drive places.
She owns a gas-efficient Ford Focus and said she has gotten used to the new easygoing style of driving.
“It's less stressful,” she said. “People's blood pressure spikes in cars.”
Yonce doesn't want to change back, though she gets a little nervous when her boyfriend turns the car off at red lights.