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Steve Abelar pumps gas at the Chevron station on 14th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard on Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITYWIDE — As the price of gas nears $5 a gallon, the pump has the same connotation as dentists’ offices — you know you have to go, and you know it’s going to hurt.

Nationwide, prices have begun to creep up in response to increased demand for petroleum from developing countries and unrest in the Middle East. The West Coast languishes under the highest prices — an average of $4.08 a gallon — while the Rocky Mountain region enjoys the lowest at $3.61 per gallon.

Living in Southern California isn’t helping anything.

Of the 10 cities noted on the federal Department of Energy website, Los Angeles tops out with the highest average price at $4.23, beating even San Francisco by just over a tenth of a cent.

That’s over $1 higher than this time last year.

The big jumps in fuel costs have both an economic and psychological effect said Dr. Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business.

“It’s a very emotional subject for Americans. When people find they can drive less, it poses a considerable psychological threat, particularly here in the L.A. area where there’s less public transport,” Perner said. “It’s better in Santa Monica, but outside that immediate area, it’s more difficult.”

Higher gas prices tend to change the way people drive, because they have a large impact on the budgets of those in the lower third of the population in terms of income, Perner said, with that $5 price tag representing the mental tipping point for many drivers.

“People above that resent paying extra for gas, but it’s not necessarily going to be a huge problem,” he said.

Santa Monica resident Trevor Dicarlo was filling his boss’ car up with gas late Thursday morning.

Although he is a dedicated bicyclist — he only takes his van out once every two weeks or so — he definitely noticed gas had reached $4.99 on a recent trip to San Diego.

Julio Matos, part owner of the Thrifty Tree Service, was also filling up. His truck, fully loaded with gear he needs to complete jobs, only gets 12 miles to the gallon on a good day.

“The street is what kills me,” Matos said. “Driving through the city, and to residential jobs, is the roughest part.”

To make up for the increases, Matos is more selective about which gas stations he frequents, and tries to make a more concerted effort to conserve gas.

Local businesses that rely on delivery to meet their customers’ needs are also being forced to re-evaluate the way they serve their clients.

Emily Denver owns and runs the Language of Flowers florist on the 700 block of Montana Avenue with her husband Cliff Foerster. The couple has offered free local delivery since they opened two years ago, but they recently decided that they’d need to start charging for those trips.

“Our monthly expense on gas has almost doubled,” Denver said. “It has to do with getting more orders as well, but gas prices have definitely made a difference. We use electric vehicles to try to keep our footprint as small as possible, but even utilizing all that, it’s still a problem.”

Workers in some industries find it impossible to raise rates to cover costs.

Sandy Clair, a driver for Taxi! Taxi!, finds himself spending between $55 and $60 a day on gas alone for the van he uses to ferry people around the city.

“It’s brutal,” he said.

Not only has it changed the way Clair drives — gone are the days of cruising for fares or idling in front of a client’s home — he also has to work longer to make up the difference.

“I work an extra hour at night,” Clair said. “I used to stop at 5 or 6 p.m. Tonight, I have a 3:15 p.m. pickup, I’ll go home for an hour, and Tivo ‘American Idol.’ It’s tough to go back out and work for an extra hour.”

Price increases have made themselves apparent in other businesses as well, partly because transportation costs have gone up and mostly because petroleum is used in a variety of other industries, including agriculture.

“As prices go up, it’s more attractive to produce ethanol, so you have a lot of farmers that would grow other types of food, rotate their crops and produce a great deal of soy, diverting to corn,” Perner said.

Beyond that, food is bulky, and costs a great deal to transport.

Restaurants are seeing the impact in a big way, said Steve Trager, owner of Wildflour Pizza on the 2800 block of Main Street.

His suppliers’ prices have gone up nearly 18 percent in the last year, Trager estimated, and at some point he was forced to pass some of those increases onto his customers. He’s received complaints.

“It’s a rat race, and the rats are winning,” Trager said.

ashley@smdp.com