Alternative commutes
High gas prices lead more people to change driving habits

LAWRENCEVILLE - Even before gas hit $3.73 a gallon - up 79 cents from its price a year ago - Nicole Benton decided carpooling was a good idea.

She lived in Douglasville and worked in Jefferson, so anything that would make her hour and a half commute more palatable was worth it.

But then her schedule got in the way. Benton, who works as a product coordinator for the textile company TenCate, was sometimes late for her after-work commitments. She was sometimes late for her carpool.

So Benton went back to driving alone.

Fast forward to March, though, and a move to Duluth, and she was back in a carpool.

"The gas, that was the biggest thing," Benton said. "Of course, gas prices."

The cost of filling a car has been steadily rising. And local experts say that has changed the way that people use their vehicles.

Kevin Green, executive director of the Clean Air Campaign, said the organization has seen a 39 percent increase in new carpoolers in the past three months. Phil Boyd, Gwinnett's transit director, said there was a 7.6 percent increase in express bus riders from March to April.

Normally, he said, the system loses commuters during that period as school schedules begin to get hectic. But this year, the system saw about 215 more boardings a day.

Local buses saw about 165 more boardings daily.

"The numbers of people we're seeing this spring are probably all due to gasoline," Boyd said.

Gas changed Linda Autrey's commute. Although the paralegal used to ride the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority's system as a child, she said it had been more than 30 years since she last set foot on a MARTA train.

More than six months ago, though, Autrey got fed up. Now, she drives from her Norcross home to the Doraville MARTA station and takes the train.

The switch has cut her commute time in half because she no longer has to sit in unpredictable traffic, she said, and saved her more than $1,000 in gasoline.

"Now, I probably use two tanks a month," Autrey said. "I don't need an oil change as often, I'm not polluting the air as much."

Both Autrey and Benton said they thought high gas prices were what had pushed other commuters over the edge, changing their minds about how to get to work. Green, from the Clean Air Campaign, said as the cost per gallon rises two or three cents daily, he expects even more people to look for alternatives to driving alone.

"Gas prices are something people are feeling in their wallets," he said. "The cost of gas is a major tipping point."

Tracy Lee, the president of the Great American Vette Club in Gwinnett, said he is worried that the price of filling the tank will negatively impact club members' philanthropy. Last month, the Corvette aficionados raised $1,000 to help a Snellville woman in need. If the price at the pump keeps rising, not only will people have less money to spare for charity - they'll have a hard time getting to the meetings at all.

"It is affecting the hobby, but we're trying hard not to let it ruin it for us," Lee said. "It's why I want to see the club continue to survive hard times. We do a lot of good things for the community."

While Lee is spending $80 every time he fills his red 1994 Corvette convertible with premium gasoline, Natasha Byrd said she saves $75 a month on parking alone since she started riding the Gwinnett County express bus to her downtown job at Merrill Lynch.

Byrd said that she wishes she had made the change long ago.

"Even in my office, all the people around me started riding the express bus, taking it downtown," she said. "They're getting more passengers. That's one of the main topics of conversation."