By BEN GOAD and DUG BEGLEYThe Press-Enterprise
Most Californians are driving less, eating at home more and using their most fuel-efficient vehicles because of high gas prices, according to a survey of registered voters released today.
But many are still resisting carpools and public transportation, according to the Field Poll, produced for The Press-Enterprise and other California media subscribers.
"We do no weekend driving -- we don't go out," said Charley Stillwagon, a truck driver and single father of five from Rancho Cucamonga. "If we feel like a movie, we rent one."
Stillwagon, 50, said he has cut his electrical bill by 60 percent and his grocery bill by 30 percent, but he's still struggling to make ends meet. Stillwagon has ceased using his air conditioner and keeps on the lookout for unnecessary light bulbs to remove in his home.
The number of voters who consider gas prices to be a "very serious" problem has jumped to 47 percent from 35 percent last March, according to the survey results. The percentage that doesn't see them as a serious concern fell to 19 percent from 29 percent during the same period.
Still, voter concern about the increase hasn't translated into a major move toward public transportation systems. Only 17 percent of voters reported using public trains and buses more frequently, a slight increase from the 13 percent who said the same thing in 2005. The number is even lower -- 11 percent -- in the portions of Southern California outside Los Angeles, said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo.
"California was almost built around the car," he said. "Its pretty much designed for automobile traffic."
Riverside Transit Agency spokesman Brad Weaver said the bus system remains optimistic about attracting more riders.
"Contrary to what the poll indicates, our ridership numbers show more Inland-area residents are warming up to public transit," he said.
The agency's commuter buses connecting riders to Metrolink stations in Corona, Montclair and Riverside are showing unprecedented growth, with ridership on each of the five routes up between 20 and 30 percent over the same time last year.
Weaver acknowledged that it isn't easy to get Inland residents on board.
"Time and again, people new to public transit say the biggest challenge was just trying it once," he said.
Public transit is not a viable way to travel for everyone, said Anne Mayer, executive director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission. If people can't get where they need to go or can't arrive in a timely manner, they won't consider it.
As the area becomes more urban, public transportation will play a larger role, said Ty Schuiling, director of planning and programming for San Bernardino Associated Governments.
"Two years ago, the cost of transportation wasn't entering people's minds," he said. "Now it enters prominently into decisions of where to live, where to locate a business."
Like most of the survey's participants, Stillwagon wants changes in the nation's energy policies.
Half of the state's voters say they favor building more nuclear power plants -- the highest number since the late 1970s. Almost two-thirds want more natural-gas power plants, the poll found.
Although Californians want expanded energy production, they don't want it at the expense of the environment. Seven in 10 voters want California's strict emissions standards maintained, and most still oppose offshore oil drilling.
"Voters are resistant to go down that path," DiCamillo said. "Californians are out front of other Americans regarding their level of concern about global warming and their desire to do something about it."
Rather than give up driving, Californians want more energy production, but they have mixed views on where it should come from, the poll found.
"I think there are ways you can do that safely," said Eric Quincey, 56, of Riverside, referring to offshore drilling. "I favor alternative fuels and alternative energy sources."
But Quincey, a fire manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, does not support more oil drilling off the California coast.
Slightly more than half of California voters oppose the idea -- which proponents say would lead to lower gas prices. But a growing number appear to be receptive, the poll found.
The 43 percent of voters who support offshore drilling reflect the highest number in the past two decades.
Among them is Stillwagon, who said he slapped a pro-drilling bumper sticker on his own vehicle.
"Drill, drill, drill," he said. "We can drill ourselves out of this."
The Field Poll survey of 809 registered voters was conducted by phone between July 8 and Monday. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for questions asked to the entire group and plus or minus 4.9 percentage points for a subset of questions asked to about half of the participants.