Rising Gas Prices Got You Down? Think Different

gas pricesThe Energy Department said last week that the average American household will pay $700 more for gas in 2011, thanks to rising oil prices. And, we're only about 20% through the year so if prices keeping going up, we could wind up paying a lot more than the estimated $3,235.

President Obama and the House Republicans have proposed a lot of solutions to this problem, like tapping the strategic oil reserves (a temporary solution at best); developing new sources of oil here in the U.S. (which couldn't have much of an impact, either, given the small amount of oil available here compared to the Middle East); developing new and better alternative fuels (a long-term solution); and more efficient technologies (same).What no one has really suggested is the strategy that would really get the gas-price monkey off our backs: Less driving. Take me. So far this year, I've paid exactly $0 for gas. (Last year, for comparison, I paid about $150, all while borrowing family members' cars.) I don't drive; instead, I ride my bike or take the city bus.

Sure, I have it good. I live in a bike-friendly city; I have access to great public transit, including three bus lines within a five-minute walk of my front door; I'm a freelancer and don't commute to work (although my two older boys do have to get to school). Still, I'm not alone in committing to avoiding or greatly reducing my reliance on cheap gas to get me from place to place in my life. Many people -- even in places with terrible bike infrastructure and even worse public transportation options -- have come up with creative solutions to change the way they approach paying big at the pump.

Did you know that 15.6% of the average American budget (that's about $7,600) went to transportation in 2009? What could you do with that money if you were able to change some transportation habits? Eat better? Work less? Spend a little more on housing so that you could live closer to work?

Or maybe change your lifestyle altogether and freelance. Or start your own business. Or go back to school. Or try a new city that is more bike- and public-transit friendly.

It could, or could not, take a full lifestyle change for many of us to cut our fuel purchases by 30% to 50%. But with prices rising at least that much, it could make sense. Once the cuts were made, perhaps we'd start finding other ways to conserve, and end up with a slower (and happier) lifestyle and a chance at saving the planet as we know it.

Here are a few ways to think different (to borrow Apple's old slogan) about fuel:

1. Commute by Bicycle a Few Days a Week

A good friend works about 16 miles from home; because she can't give that much of her life to bike commuting, she does it just two days a week. The commitment is enough so it keeps her from resorting to the car on easy trips in her neighborhood on the weekends and evenings; and to bike she has to stay in shape so there are no excuses. Given the length of her commute and the other lifestyle changes it helps, this reduces her fuel cost by 60%.

2. Try a Van Pool

Most metro areas have municipal van pools outside of normal transit routes, especially during morning and late afternoon hours; nearly every airport is served by a van pool of some kind. VPSI is a private company that offers corporate and individual van pools for many areas in the country; other companies offer similar services, or you could look on craigslist in your area for some like-minded friends.

3. Move to a Transit-Friendly City.

New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, Boston: All are very amenable to a car-free lifestyle. Some cities that wouldn't have occurred to you are friendly to alternative transit: Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Austin, Texas. In fact, more and more children growing up in these cities don't ever learn to drive, relying on bicycles and subways and the occasional splurge on a taxi or carpool with a friend. Creating a rich life around the assumption that cheap gas will always be available is looking less and less savvy; and many wonderful people, careers and communities are located in cities like these. Maybe it's what you were meant to do all along.

4. Change Your 'Nevers'

I know lots of people who "can't" drive less because they can't imagine their lives without a huge yard, or living close to a golf course, or being in a specific neighborhood, or having the flexibility to go to Costco on a whim, or keeping their kids in lessons and sports and activities dozens of miles away from home.

You'll never live in the Southeast; you'll never move to a townhouse; you'll never give up on Ms. Ito, the violin teacher to the stars. But, life just isn't something you can give ultimatums too.

I know so many people -- I'm one of them -- who've had to change their "nevers" because the world made them: layoffs and divorces and kids with unexpected needs and health problems, and now -- greatly rising prices. Maybe you'd like to take a little control and let your "nevers" go.

Go ahead, cancel that soccer club in the suburbs, let your Costco membership lapse. You can live without them, and you might just be happier.

5. Walk More

I have a number of friends who have changed their commute or routine so that they could walk on errands. I'm not referring to errands within a mile from home; these are three or four miles away.

They all glow when they talk about their walks; Katie tells me that she lost 20 pounds walking three miles to work each day. Judith took up photography on her walks, and her wildlife snaps became a whole side career as an artist. My boys love to walk, and it keeps us from going on wild errands that end up costing money (we can't go to IKEA on a whim and bring home a new leather swivel chair, for instance).

Walking builds community and opens your eyes and it's great for your health, too -- and it's totally free.
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