Equilibrium & Sustainability

Skyrocketing gas prices cause severe pain for Californians

After eight years of driving for Uber with a perfect 5-star rating, Richard Martin is considering changing gears — not because he dislikes the work, but because California’s soaring gas prices are making his career unsustainable.

“I moved to San Diego from the Los Angeles area a little over eight years ago, and I thought I would do this for a couple of months,” Martin, 60, told The Hill. “I left the other day, and I couldn’t believe that I had over 12,500 rides.”

While California’s gas prices have long topped national averages, filling up a tank in the Golden State came at nearly $6 a gallon over the past week. These formidable pump prices are hitting some Californians harder than others, with those who drive electric vehicles (EVs) counting their blessings.

The average gas price in California was $5.80 per gallon on Friday, according to the American Automobile Association. California’s gas prices tend to be greater than those of the rest of the country due to a combination of factors, including higher taxes and stricter emission laws, as The Hill reported.

Prices at the pump have risen so high that they have become a dealbreaker for many of the people who depend on that fuel for their livelihoods.

Martin, who drives for Uber five to six hours every morning, said he is now working on getting his commercial driver’s license to try out long-haul trucking instead.

“You really can’t make a living too well with Uber, and now with the gas prices going out of sight, it’s become even less lucrative than it was,” said Martin, who drives a Kia Optima.

While he acknowledged that switching to an EV or a hybrid would help, he said that investing in such relatively expensive vehicles might not be worthwhile, given the wear and tear that ride-sharing adds to a car.

“They cost so much that you have to own it for longer in order to see those savings,” Martin said.

A majority of U.S. Uber and Lyft drivers recently surveyed by popular gig work site The Rideshare Guy said they have either quit or are driving less due to high gas prices. The poll collected 325 responses from Rideshare Guy community members from March 7-11. 

To help offset the costs of rising fuel prices, Lyft recently announced a $0.55 fuel surcharge to the price of all rides in most states, while Uber added a similar $0.45 or $0.55 surcharge.

But for Dolores, a former Lyft driver based in Los Angeles, those are inadequate.

“In order for me to get half a tank a gas at this point, it’s $50,” said Dolores, 33, who requested not to use her real name due to concerns about her current job.

“So 50 cents, especially if they’re going to LAX from the Valley, that really doesn’t help,” she added, noting that one-way trips from Hollywood to Orange County have also proved to be unprofitable. 

After seven years of driving for Lyft, Dolores said she is now working in security until she finds a more permanent position. While Dolores, who also drives a Kia Optima, said she is “thinking about getting an electric car,” she stressed that she “wouldn’t being using Uber or Lyft to do it.”

Up north in San Francisco, 74-year-old retiree Bob Goldin said he is grateful that he and his wife ended up buying not one, but two electric cars.

“I wish I was that bright with every decision,” Goldin told The Hill, saying that he has always been “fairly cutting edge” for his age group.

“I just thought, it’s good for the environment,” he continued. “If you can make some contribution, you should.”

Although he previously owned both a Ford Escape hybrid and a Toyota Prius, Goldin said that high gas prices and the cost of maintaining less efficient vehicles contributed to the decision to buy EVs.

The Goldins put in an order in December 2020 for the new Volkswagen ID.4, a small electric SUV, which was supposed to arrive in the spring of 2021 but ended up backordered. In the interim, they tried out a Tesla Y this summer and put a deposit down on that as well, thinking they’d decide later which car to keep.

But now Goldin said they will likely keep both — and share the Tesla with family members who live nearby.

Timothy Martin, a 70-year-old attorney in San Mateo, about 20 miles south of San Francisco, said he has been driving fuel-efficient vehicles for the past decade. He first leased an electric Fiat 500E for three years and then for five years owned a Ford hybrid sedan, which he traded in for a BMW hybrid last week.

“I feel like we save something at the pump just because we don’t fill up that frequently,” he said, noting, however, that he expects electricity prices to continue rising as well.

While happy that he has been able to purchase fuel-efficient vehicles, Martin said that “if you’re a middle-class worker, you’re not going to be able to afford a Tesla or a BMW.”

“These are expensive cars,” he said.

Goldin, too, acknowledged the expensive nature of luxury cars like Tesla, but stressed that other EVs — like his Volkswagen — might be more affordable for middle-class buyers, due to the rebates available.

Michael Macias, who became California’s millionth EV owner in December, owns that same VW ID.4, despite his self-described status of “definitely not high-income.”

“I used to be middle-class income, and then I transitioned out of employment and have been a seminary student,” said Macias, 43, formerly a nonprofit program manager.

Macias calculated that buying the VW at sticker price, including all the taxes and licensing fees, would have amounted to about somewhere in the mid $40,000s. But that price point dropped significantly after his $9,500 in state rebates, $750 from the California Clean Fuel Reward and a $7,500 federal rebate.

And because Macias is a resident of the San Joaquin Valley in Central California, he also gets an additional $3,000 rebate from the Air Pollution Control District, he said. 

California’s gas prices played a significant role in Macias’s decision to purchase an EV — a choice he made even prior to the current price spike. His mother is now about to do the same, due to gas price volatility, he added.

When deciding whether to go electric, Macias said he calculated how much more his monthly car payments would be than his current ones, as well as how much money he would save by not having to fill up at the gas station.

“So those are the two things that I was thinking about, along with the fact that I am committed to being a good steward of the land,” Macias said. “This is part of me living into those principles and values.”

Tags BMW California California gas prices Electric vehicle Electric vehicles EVs fuel costs gas prices Kia Lyft Ridesharing companies Sustainable transport Tesla Toyota Uber Volkswagen

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