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Southern drivers spend the most on gasoline

Want to save money on gasoline? Take the bus—if you can find one.

A study of consumer spending by the U.S. Energy Information Administration released Monday finds that households in areas of the country with mass transit systems spend significantly less on gasoline than areas without public transit.

Drivers in the South—where relatively few cities have large mass transit systems—spend the most per household on gasoline. Only a few cities in the South (including Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Miami and Baltimore) have rapid transit systems serving more than 10 million riders a year. Southern households have more cars—an average of 2.1 vehicles per household compared with 1.6 in the Northeast and 1.9 nationally.

That's why households in the Northeast—where people have access to large mass transit systems—spend the most on public transit but the least on gasoline. Higher expenditures on gasoline tend to reflect the number of vehicles per household.

With a larger public transportation ridership, especially in cities like New York and Boston, the typical household in the Northeast spends the least on gasoline—a average of $2,389 a year, or about $400 less than drivers in the South. But Northeasterners spend nearly $800 a year on public transit—more than twice as much as households in the South.

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Wealthy households are the heaviest spenders on public transit: Those in the highest-income quintile spent more than $1,400 a year to ride the bus or take the train in 2013, the latest data available. That's almost three times the national average and eight times the lowest income quintile.

Those at the top fifth of the income ladder (earning more than $95,000 a year) also spend more on gasoline, more than $4,000 a year. The lowest income quintile (those making under $18,000) spent about $1,200 on gasoline. Higher income households also have more vehicles: 2.8 per household for the highest quintile compared with 0.9 per household for the lowest quintile.

Despite the recent drop in gasoline prices, overall consumption is not expected to rise by much, according to a separate analysis by the Energy Department, which found that pump prices have a lot less impact on consumption than they used to. The researchers said there are a number of possible reasons:

  • People are driving fewer miles per year, a trend that began in the late 1990s.
  • The ongoing aging of baby boomers, who tend to drive less when retired than the working age population.
  • Long-term migrations from rural and suburban areas to urban areas, where people typically drive less.
  • Declining rates of teenagers getting their drivers licenses, as young people delay or avoid buying a car or getting a license.