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Rising energy costs driving lifestyle changes

Across the country, the rising cost of fuel is changing the way we live, work and run our businesses.
Commuters Carpool To Save Money And Time
A man gets into a car as people wait in line to be picked up by motorists willing to carpool in San Francisco. Carpooling has become more popular in the San Francisco Bay Area as commuters are hit by high gasoline prices.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Across the country, the rising cost of fuel is changing the way we live, work and run our businesses.

There’s a run on wood stoves in several metropolitan areas. In Denver, more businesses are letting employees work from home. Cities across the country report increases in mass transit ridership. In New Jersey, there's a move to let businesses with auto fleets hedge their gasoline purchases. In Milwaukee, business owners say their top concern is no longer the rising cost of healthcare; it's the soaring price of fuel.

With shortages and price spikes expected for natural gas and heating oil, wood furnace manufacturers and dealers are having trouble keeping up with new demand, the Pittsburgh Business Times reports.

The Business Times reports sales of wood-burning stoves in its area have reached levels not seen since the 1970s energy crisis.

"I am royally stuck here," Barb Metal, owner of the Ultimate Stove Shoppe in Gibsonia, Pa., told the Business Times. "There's a mass shortage."

Larry Brunk, president of L.B. Brunk and Sons, Inc., a supplier from Salem, Ohio, says he's selling stoves all over Ohio, Pennsylvannia and New York. "We're backed up several months," Brunk said.

And manufacturers are also having a hard time keeping up with production of wood pellets -- made from sawdust -- to burn in those stoves.

"It's crazy this year," said Terry Smith, co-owner of Summerhill, Pa.-based Wood Pellets Co., a division of C. & C. Smith Lumber Co. "Three years ago, we had 5,000 tons of pellets in stock. ... Now, we are at maximum capacity, and I don't know if we can keep up. Everybody is out selling all the stoves they can, but they can't get fuel. I don't know how to correct this. I don't know how much more sawdust is available."

While heating homes during the winter is a concern for the future, rising gasoline prices have already hit people in the pocket book. For many, they've hit hard enough to change habits.

Transit systems across the country reported big jumps in ridership earlier this month, thanks in large part to the gas price shocks caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Ridership on Dallas Area Rapid Transit light rail and buses rose 9% to 10% over last year, the Dallas Business Journal reports. The city's van pool program has also seen soaring interest. "With the price of gas going up, we've seen a big increase in requests for that in the last couple months," Doug Allen, DART's executive vice president of planning and development, said. "We started to see that when gas hit about $2.65 a gallon. Now it's flirting with $3. But $2.65 was the tipping point for the latest increase in interest."

It's a similar situation in other cities. In Pittsburgh, the Port Authority of Allegheny County told the Business Times it had seen its highest ridership in 41 months. In the Greensboro area of North Carolina, ridership was up 9 percent in September, The Business Journal serving the Greater Triad Area reports. The Austin Business Journal reports ridership on that city's system has increased across the board.

"It's very clear from the people we've talked to that gas prices are beginning to play a role [in this increase]. Some people are taking a second look and deciding to try transit," Rob Smith of Cap Metro told the Austin Business Journal.

In the San Francisco Bay area and some other metropolitan areas, that high price of gas has meant a return to carpooling, this time with a twist, the East Bay Business Times reports.

The Bay Area has seen an increase in "car sharing." The service run by City CarShare, a San Francisco nonprofit, has grown to 52 pods -- pickup and dropoff sites with one to six vehicles available for short-term use. Its membership has grown to 4,300 people using 90 vehicles.

"Last year was the busiest year we've ever had," Marci McGuire said of the 22-year-old Bishop Ranch Transportation Centre, which promotes carpooling, vanpooling and public transit use, among other options for 365 companies that employ 25,000 Bay Area workers. "It started getting busy 18 months ago and it hasn't slowed down since."

The Philadelphia Business Journal reports that one New Jersey Senator is trying to change the gasoline equation in his state by allowing some businesses to buy a gasoline debit card, locking in the price for gas to the time the card is bought.

"Basically, what you are doing is pre-paying at a particular price that it may be at that time and if the price goes up you're covered if you already paid," state Sen. Anthony Bucco said of his proposal. "It's for businesses that have fleets of trucks or salesmen on the road that want to make sure they can get [gas] at the best possible price or individuals."

Meanwhile, more workers nationwide are seeing the advantage to working at home, and more employers are interested in letting them. Donna Dailey, consultant for the Denver Regional Council of Governments, told the Denver Business Journal queries from businesses about telework had tripled since late in the summer. The Denver Business Journal reports that the trend isn't confined to its metropolitan area. Silicon Valley has seen a revival in telework as well. Nationwide, the number of teleworkers rose to 45.1 million in 2005 from 3.4 million in 1990.