- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

PARIS — High gas prices have long been a fact of life in Europe, but with crude-oil prices skyrocketing, European motorists are beginning to feel a pain similar to that afflicting American drivers.

Britons are paying nearly $10 a gallon for gasoline. Add to that panic triggered by a 48-hour strike over the weekend at Scotland’s only oil refinery, which forced the closure of a pipeline that delivers nearly one-third of the nation’s North Sea crude.

By 6 p.m. Saturday, motorists lined up at gas stations in and around Edinburgh, Scotland. Some stations ran out of gas. Others began limiting purchases to $40 per visit — all for a meager 4 gallons.

When it comes to adjusting lifestyles to rely less on cars, Europeans may take some comfort in having a head start over Americans.

Filling up his wife’s dark-blue SUV at a convenience-store pump in northern Paris, Didier Marchand almost laughed when told that the price of gasoline for American motorists is approaching $4 a gallon.

“If we had that price … we’d be delighted,” Mr. Marchand said.

The prices posted at the 8-a-Huit store reflect French reality: more than $8 per gallon for regular.

“What shocks me is not the price of gas, but the taxes the government adds on to it. They’re really, really high,” Mr. Marchand said. “It’s scandalous.”

More than a generation of high gas taxes, nearly double those in the U.S., have encouraged Europeans to opt for public transportation, bicycles and smaller, more fuel-efficient cars than their U.S. counterparts, analysts say.

“Better cars, less intensive use of cars has meant overall consumption of fuel in Europe has been going down steadily over the last three years,” said Pierre Noel, an energy researcher at Cambridge University in England.

“We are much better equipped than the U.S. to deal with higher prices and a more volatile market because we are so much less oil intensive than you are,” said Mr. Noel, who bikes to work.

Europe generally has far more extensive public transportation networks than the U.S., with workers in countries such as Britain, Belgium and France packing morning commuter trains and subways.

Transportation planning increasingly factors in bike lanes, and more innovative mayors such as those in Paris and London are designing schemes to facilitate alternative transport and to make driving an ever more arduous option.

This helps soften the bite of soaring oil prices for commuters, but not for those who depend on their vehicles like architect Christopher Assan, who says he cannot work without his motorcycle.

“I’m really feeling the increase,” said Mr. Assan, sporting a dark-blue turtleneck and leather jacket as he carefully poured gas from a plastic bottle into his tank. “I fill my bike up about three times a week. That’s about 60 euros [$94]. Two years ago, I spent about half that.”

Taxi drivers are also hurting. “We’re having a very hard time because fuel is a big expense,” said Bertrand Casagrande, vice president of the Chambre Artisanal des Taxi, representing two-thirds of the 50,000 independent taxi drivers in France.

But because most French taxi drivers own their business, few are considering quitting, he said.

Gas is even more expensive in Britain, where top prices hover at nearly 5 British pounds, or nearly $10 a gallon.

In Scotland, the local government development agency recently warned that nearly half the region’s gas stations might close over the next five years, as price-conscious commuters drive less.

“I’m lucky. I don’t use an awful lot of petrol, and it doesn’t bother me too much because I can afford it,” said Edinburgh resident Erica Donald, 79, using the British term for gasoline.

“But I worry that oil prices are going up so high that it affects businesses, it affects transport. It affects food prices.”

In Paris, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe is not making life easy for drivers. During his six years in City Hall, he has pushed through a virtual revolution in the city’s transportation landscape.

New bike lanes crisscross the city, narrowing car lanes and increasing traffic congestion in the process.

Major arteries hugging the Seine River are closed to drivers on Sundays to make way for bikers and in-line skaters. Last year, he introduced a wildly popular bicycle-for-hire scheme known as “Velib,” parking some 15,000 bikes in pickup stations across the city that can be rented for about $1.60 a ride.

Similar plans are afoot in some U.S. cities. In Washington, SmartBike D.C. is offering a network of bikes stored at computerized racks throughout the city for an annual fee of $40.

This year, Paris added a car-for-hire scheme dubbed ALS (Automobiles-en-Libre-Service) to the mix, with plans to put 2,000 electric cars on the streets over the next two years.

The Velib scheme has been replicated in a number of European cities, including Barcelona, Brussels, Oslo and Vienna, Austria. And it is just one of a raft of “green” measures being tested as European consumers seek to become less oil dependent.

For its part, the city of London plans to more than triple its “congestion tax” against car commuters to nearly $50 a day by the end of October.

Still, critics such as Franziska Achterberg, transportation campaigner for Greenpeace in Brussels, say Europe could do a lot more to wean itself from petroleum.

“People are driving more all the time despite the high prices,” she said. “People just get used to them.”

Anti-car efforts in Paris and London may paradoxically backfire, some experts warn, as drivers simply go further to get around the hurdles. A recent study by King’s College in London, for example, found carbon-dioxide emissions would actually rise with a congestion-tax increase as people drive further to avoid congestion-charge zones.

And despite better rail and bus links than in the United States, the car continues to rule the road in European suburbs and small towns.

Efforts to reduce car dependency or design green alternatives do not factor heavily into European Union plans to slash carbon-dioxide emissions by 2020, Cambridge University’s Mr. Noel noted.

“Cutting carbon emissions in the transportation sectors is just much more difficult and more costly than in other sectors,” he said. “Because emissions are decentralized. They’re hard to track.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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