You know the old saw that "the plural of anecdote is data"? Nearly all the media coverage of how drivers are responding to $4 per gallon gasoline has been of that nature–and therefore hardly representative of any real trends.
But we now have at least one statistical look at how drivers in three metro areas–Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and El Paso–are coping. NuStats, a respected survey research firm based in Austin, did a telephone survey of 500 households in those three metro areas during the week of July 21, 2008.
Researchers asked two open-ended questions: what changes in driving have they done in the last 12 months, and what do they plan to do that they haven't done yet? I'm naturally skeptical of the latter, since people are inclined to tell pollsters politically correct things on that kind of question, but are more likely to accurately report what they have actually done. So I will focus on the actual changes in this summary.
As you might expect, two-thirds reported some reduction in the amount they drive. The most common means of doing this (66%) was to combine multiple trips into a single trip. Some 39% said they have eliminated some trips, while a surprising 21% said they had downsized to a more fuel-efficient vehicle (3% switched to a hybrid). But where it really gets interesting is in the alternatives to driving to and from work. The most popular of these was telecommuting (12%), followed by joining a carpool (9%), walking (9%), bicycling (4%) and using public transit (4%).
That last point squares pretty well with my own and several other analysts' number-crunching to estimate what portion of reported decreases in VMT might equate to reported increases in transit boardings. And overall, the results demonstrate people's continued preference for automobile travel, thanks to its convenience and flexibility, despite higher gas prices.
To be sure, these results come only from Texas, and a similar survey in other metro areas might produce different results. But I suspect they'd be broadly similar in most large metro areas, where suburb-to-suburb commuting is the dominant pattern.