By Vidhan Rana

With gas prices hovering over $4 a gallon in recent weeks, almost everyone is changing their economic behavior and trying to save money in any way possible. We see more people riding public transportation, more motorbikes and scooters on the street, businesses talking about 4-day work weeks, people quitting jobs because of their commute time; the list goes on and on.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, in 2006, only 5% of workers commuted to work using the public transit system around the country, even though about 20% of households have easy access to buses and trains. This scenario is changing fast, though. APTA data shows that rides on public transit rose by 3% during the first quarter of 2008. Light rail systems, with a rise in ridership of 10%, saw the biggest jump in usage. Public transportation is widely accepted in big metro areas like New York, Chicago, Boston, or San Francisco, but with rising gas prices more people are going to use, not just approve of, public transit. This means city officials in smaller cities need to come up with a plan to deal with a sudden surge in demand for public transportation systems.

You may have noticed a number of brightly colored scooters whizzing on the streets. Scooters generally get between 75 to 120 miles per gallon, based on their weight and engine capacity. In terms of cost, you can find scooters as cheap as $800 and as expensive as $8000. However, regular name brands cost around $2000-$3000. Based on their mileage, scooters can pay for themselves in fuel savings in one to three years. With such numbers, scooters sales are rising phenomenally. Sales of name-brand scooters such as Honda, Yamaha, Vespa and Suzuki rose 24 percent in the first quarter of the year, said Mike Mount, spokesman for the Motorcycle Industry Council. This month, city officials in Columbus, Ohio, opened the city’s first scooter parking. They estimate that around 3,000 scooters operate in the city already, and the number is expected to rise. On the other hand, parking officials in Hartford, Connecticut, have banned scooters from public garages, stating that scooters are dangerous for riders and other patrons. These are certainly challenging times for city officials!

A recent Gallup Poll asked Americans to react to eight possible ways in which families could in theory cope with rising prices. In response, an overwhelming 81% reported that they have made more of an effort to find the cheapest prices for the products they buy. 73% said that they have cut back on spending on entertainment, recreation, or eating out. This is not good news for those in entertainment, recreation and restaurant industry and for communities that depend largely on its tourism industry. United Airlines recently decided to cut 7,000 jobs and decrease the number of flights it operates to fight higher fuel prices.

Some are using creative ways to deal with changing economic circumstances. Come August 1, Utah is instituting a mandatory four-day work week for most state employees. The change will apply to the state’s 17,000 employees, roughly 80%of state workers. Governor Jon Huntsman of Utah says that the state is expected to save $3 million in annual energy costs, in addition to the 20% saved in commuting costs by workers.

If energy costs rise further, or even stay at the current level, we are likely to see many changes in consumer behavior, leading to more changes from businesses and governments.