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Higher Costs and Harder Choices for Transportation

People around the world are feeling the effects of the rising price of petroleum-based fuel. More expensive fuel means changes in transportation habits as well as hard times in places where the cost of basic goods is also rising. How are higher transportation costs affecting the way we live and work, and our quality of life?

Families and workers in the West African country of Senegal are struggling to find ways to make ends meet. It is a familiar and painful situation felt throughout the world. Transportation and food costs are rising. Salaries are not.

People in Senegal use buses to go to work, school, market, mosque and family gatherings. But the price of a trip recently has gone from 25 to 40 cents. That is a huge increase for people make about one dollar a day.

Mohammed Pape takes four bus trips a day between different jobs and his home in a poor suburb. He says he must work. So he has no choice but to pay for the costly bus trips. He says salaries are not moving at all.

Worldwide, the rising cost of fuel is forcing many people to find new ways to get from one place to another. In developing nations, some people are giving up public transportation and are walking to work.

Joseph Muendo Musyoka lives in a Nairobi slum. He walks three hours between home and work each day. He can no longer afford public transportation. "Life has become very hard. The oil prices have gone up, so I realized that it is better for me to walk. Then I keep some of that money for my daily use," says Musyoka.

In richer, industrial countries, expensive gasoline has led many people to leave their cars behind and take mass transit.

In the United States, it is harder to find a seat on buses and trains these days. More than one dollar per liter for gasoline is the reason. Public transport ridership in America's big cities is up five to 15 percent over last year.

Drivers are making the switch in other places as well. Jakarta commuter Risa Riana is leaving her car behind more frequently as gasoline becomes more expensive. "Since the fuel price increase, I take the bus more often," says Riana.

Food Costs Rise

Higher fuel prices are driving up the costs of many other goods and services, including food.

In Dakar, Senegal, businessman Aliou Dia buys bread every morning. He says that 10 years ago, one baguette cost ten cents. Now it costs more than 40 cents. He says breakfast for his extended family of nine used to cost about one dollar, but now it is four dollars. A 100-kilogram bag of rice cost five dollars several years ago. Now he says he is lucky if he can find a bag half that size for less than 40 dollars.

Farmers, truckers and other people around the world have taken to the streets in recent months to protest high fuel costs.

Bettina Luescher is with the United Nation's World Food Program, which helps feed people in need. She says the spike in food prices has led to concerns about political stability. "We have seen riots in some 30 countries around the world -- protests where people really went into the streets and protested because they could not afford the flour anymore and the rice and the maize and the corn," says Luscher. "And I think that is what is concerning so many government leaders."

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Spiraling oil prices are also having a profound effect on airlines, especially in the United States. American Airlines and Delta Airlines have each lost more than one-billion dollars so far this year. And Industry spokesman Jim May expects more trouble. "We are deeply, deeply concerned about the future of this industry -- and for that matter the entire U.S. economy -- given the impact that high oil prices are having on every walk of life," says May.

In some parts of the world, train travel is becoming more popular. For years, the huge subsidized rail system was a symbol of socialist India -- keeping fares low, but piling up huge losses. Now Indian Railways offers bigger, better trains, to carry larger freight loads and more passengers. Last year, Indian Railways turned a profit of more than six-billion dollars.

Sudhir Kumar is leading the railroad's turnaround. He says soaring fuel prices make freight trains more efficient than trucks. "Rising oil prices may be bad news for the country and for the trucking industry," says Kumar. "But it is wonderful news for Indian Railways because if my competitors consume nine liters of diesel per unit of transport, I consume only one."

Expensive fuel also means big changes for automobile makers. America's two largest car companies -- General Motors and Ford -- have posted huge losses from slumping U.S. sales.

G.M. Chairman Rick Wagoner says his company, like Ford, will close some factories where its least fuel-efficient vehicles are made. "We can't sit back and wait for U.S. conditions to improve. We need to continue to be proactive and even take some very tough actions to ensure our survival and our success."

Terry Schachstschneider will lose his job when General Motors closes the truck plant where he works. "They have three plants making these big things and the gas mileage is terrible on them. So, you know, they probably only need one plant."

New Fuels and Lifestyles

The auto industry is shifting its focus to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and developing vehicles that run on other sources of energy, like hydrogen, electricity and biofuels.
Indonesian researchers like Dibyo Pranomo have another idea: a fast-growing weed called jatropha. The seed is poisonous for humans. But it can be processed and blended with gasoline or diesel fuel to make biofuel. Indonesia plans to have ten-million hectares of jatropha plantations by next year.

Meanwhile, some people are looking for alternatives to motorized transport. In Los Angeles, Ramona Marks avoids the crowded freeways and rides her bicycle to work. "I'm hopeful for the city and for the people who live here -- that some people are making a change for the better."

Here in Washington, Chuck Wilsker leads an organization of people who work at home via the telephone and computer. "I have never had more calls; I have never seen more buzz [i.e., interest]. There has not been more press [coverage] than once gasoline hit four dollars a gallon [i.e., more than one dollar per liter]."

It is clear, most experts say, that such a wide-ranging problem will require a broad variety of solutions.