Thursday, February 12, 2009

Economic Leverage in Hard Times: Part 3—Transportation

This is the third installment of my series on how everyone can get more of the life they want while at the same time spending less money to make it happen. My motivation is that most folks today need to be more careful about their economic choices, and I have some good news.

Through what's been learned about cooperative sharing in community living, it''ll be possible for most of us to continue to enhance the quality of our life while at the same time cutting back on cash outlays. To be sure, my suggestions will require some lifestyle changes. Yet what I'm offering is meant to be widely accessible, and does not involve a change in personality or altering one's core values. In Part 1 I focused on Housing; in Part 2 I looked at Food. Today I'll discuss Transportation.

• • •
The "typical" American family spends about 17% of its budget on Transportation. While for most people these are the expenses related to owning and operating one or more private cars, it also includes expenditures on public transportation. In addition to the challenge of trying to cope with less money being available in general, Transportation faces a double whammy in that gasloine prices are certain to rise long term, as we slide along the downward sloping side of the Peak Oil bell curve. Here are a half dozen suggestions for how to realize some substantial savings in this segment of our lives:

1. Car Pooling
A year ago I had a meeting set up with a community on the south side of Atlanta on a Thursday evening. My host lived on the north side of town and drove me to the community. We were navigating a six-lane section of I-75 through downtown Atlanta at a snail's pace at 6 pm—which was ostensibly post rush hour—wondering if we'd make our 7 pm start time. Suddenly, access to the HOV lane opened up. We scooted in, immediately tripled our speed, and were just able to make our meeting on time

HOV, of course, stands for High Occupancy Vehicle. In the US it takes only two people to qualify. What a country! When HOV lanes were first established, the norm was that you needed at least three people in the car, but it quickly became apparent that these special lanes weren't being used enough with the bar set that high, and the number was subsequently reduced to two. So here I am in zipping by all these cars stuck bumper-to-bumper in the five lanes to my right, when it hits me that every damn one of those cars has only one person in them. Oil crisis anyone?

While it is undeniably convenient to be the only person in the car (so long as you don't mind doing all the driving), it is horribly inefficient and there are considerable savings possible by coordinating rides. Yes, it can be a logistical hassle (and potentially awkward agreeing on what station you can tune the radio to), yet there are social opportunities to compensate. I have friends, for example, where a reliable fraction of our quality conversations take place during long car rides (and the time just flies by).

Car co-ops are beginning to make inroads in this country (imported from Europe, where they are more established). I have two friends in Berkeley (where, wouldn't you know it, there are mutliple car co-ops available) who belong to one of the car co-ops and simply love it. While strcutured systems may be a long time reaching all parts of the country, why wait? Set something up informally with friends and neighbors now!

Among the three Rutledge communities (Sandhill, Dancing Rabbit, and Red Earth), we operate a web-based Rutledge Travel Calendar, whereby anyone proposing to make a trip to area destinations can post what they're doing and others can check there first to see if trips can be combined. It eliminates a gob of duplication.

While the immediate savings is gas, once you start to make a serious dent in the number trips that need to be made in your car, there is a point at which you can collectively do with one less vehicle, and then savings take a quantum leap (think parking, insurance, registration, depreciation, etc.)

2. Multi-tasking
In addition to adding more people to the same vehicle, consider running errands for others as well. Two weeks ago I needed to drive to south-central TN for two days of meetings for the FIC's Oversight Committee at Dunmire Hollow. I traveled alone both ways. However, since I was going anyway… here's all the other things that I did in addition to attending the meetings, to milk the most out of those "last hours of ancient sunlight":

o Dropped nine loads of Sandhill products off en route (five deliveries in Columbia MO & four in St Louis).
o Picked up two empty 5-gallon containers from a bakery (one of my deliveries) that could be washed and reused for future sorghum sales.
o Bought hard-to-find health care products at a natural food store (at one the delivery points in Columbia).
o Bought a birthday present at a bookstore located, within walking distance of one of my sorghum deliveries in St Louis.
o Picked up seven empty one-gallon apple juice jars at Dunmire Hollow, to be washed and reused for sorghum.
o After the meetings ended, I swung by The Farm—located just 30 miles down the road from Dunmire Hollow—and: a) bought shiitake spawn (four kilos for Sandhill and one for folks at Dancing Rabbit); b) collected a video camera to return to California on my trip there the end of the month (saving the postage); and c) picked up the last of Geoph Kozeny's effects at the house where he stayed while working on the Visions of Utopia video. I've cleaned up four different caches of possessions my peripatetic friend had left around the country when he died in October 2007, and this was the last of them, filling up all the remaining space in my car.

Not only was I multi-tasking, but at each stop I had a chance for a conversation and a connection. These were not merely economic exchanges; they were social exchanges as well.

3. Take the Train
I travel a lot. Both as a community networker and as a process consultant, I go all over the country and am on the road half the time. Wherever possible, I take the train. Because Amtrak only offers a skeleton of the rail passenger system we had in the US 50 years ago, the train doesn't always work. But I try.

I like the train because I don't have to drive (I can look out the window, read book, write, or even take a nap) and because it doesn't crowd one's psychic space like planes and buses do. The train proceeds at a human pace and with humane space.

However, the broadest version of this piece of advice is to consider public transportation as an alternative to using a private car, whether commuting or traveling long distance. If you do it enough, you might not even need a car. For exmaple, I relied solely on public transportation when I lived for two years in DC (1971-73) and worked a 9-5 M-F job for the US Dept of Transportation. Yes, I bought a lot of bus fares (and had to have three pairs of shoes resoled), yet that was a small price in exchange for no money spent on buying, maintaining, or parking a car in DC.

I saved thousands over the course of two years of not owning a car—
enough that I was able to contribute the bulk of the money needed to buy Sandhill's original 63 acres outright in 1974. What's more, it was a definite quality-of-life issue to not drive in DC rush hour traffic. I used to read regularly while taking buses (this was pre-Metro), and generally enjoyed the ride. In contrast, commuter driving has to be one of the most diabolical ways humans ever concocted to spend time. Studies have shown that heart surgeons typically register higher blood pressure readings while commuting than when performing open heart surgery (though you have to wonder about studies that would walk into an OR and strap the ol' sphygmomanometer onto the attending physician and pump 'er up for a reading while the patient waits… well, patiently, I guess). Commuting is yucky.

When Jamaica Plain Cohousing sited their community 10 years ago, they purposefully picked a site within easy walking distance of a stop on the Boston subway system. Though the city required the community to develop a certain number of parking spaces based on a formula that relates to the number of adults expected to live in the community, members have successfully reduced their car use to where they need less than 75% of the spaces to accommodate their own cars. Collectively, they own way less than one car per adult, while the national average is about 1.2 registered vehicles per licensed driver.

If you have good neighbors, how many cars do you really need?

4. Ride a Bike
For most people—especially urban dwellers—most trips are short distance. If your trip is 10 miles or less (and especially if under four miles) and the weather is decent, consider using a bike instead of a vehicle. Not only will you be pumping less gas, you'll be pumping less pollutants into the air, and more air into your lungs (read aerobic exercise).

To be sure, making this shift will require leaving earlier to keep appointments, and your hauling capacity will be sharply diminished. These limitations notwithstanding, there are a surprising number of trips routinely made by a single person in a car that travel only short distances and don't require much payload. I'm asking you to be more mindful about the possibilities—
and thereby more economically prudent and more healthful—and not just grab for the car keys every time without thinking.

Back in 2000 I spent two months living in Berkeley, and had a part-time job rennovating a house located about four miles away from where I was staying. Three times a week, I rode a bike to and from the job. I earned enough money to cover my expenses, didn't need to own a car, and enjoyed the exercise (even though it was during the winter rainy season and half the time I was dodging raindrops). I loved it.

5. Walk
Stripping down one more layer, how about walking? My wife, Ma'ikwe, lives at Dancing Rabbit, which is located three miles from Sandhill. During clement weather in the March-October range, I try to walk to see her as much as possible. It's reflective time (of which I never have too much) and offers low-impact exercise. Sometimes I pick up highway trash en route, and it doesn't tie up a community vehicle in case someone else needs it.

When I have errands in town and am driving, I try to park the car centrally and walk to different stores instead of changing parking spots to save a few steps.

On the farm, I'll often choose to get a job done with 2-3 trips with a Garden Way cart instead of firing up the pick-up.

Combining this with the points I rasied about Housing (see my Feb 5 blog),
if you select a place to live that's near enough to where you work or go to school (or your kids go to school), you may be able to bike or walk there and make do with one less vehicle.

6. Telecommuniting
The world of employment is changing substantially and it is now more possible than ever to deliver services without leaving home. An increasing number of employers offer options in telecommuting, where employees work from a computer terminal (or a phone) from home. "Commuting" in this sense is merely walking down the hall to the den. Often you egt to work your own hours, and you don't even have to get out of your pajamas.

When considering your job future, don't overlook the potential savings you might be able to realize if you're not required to physically appear at the office more than 2-3 days/week. Or consider flex-hours. If you work four 10-hour shifts instead of five 8-hour shifts per week you'll be putting in the same number of hours yet can save one round-trip commute every seven days, or 50 in a year. It adds up.

What's more, videoconferencing is just around the corner. In my line of work—as a process consultant—I'll need to be thinking about webinars and delivering live peformances from remote locations. While I may no longer be able to get away with working in my pajamas (depending on how careful I am with the camera), this has obvious savings potential when it comes to transportation costs. In the not-too-distant future, I expect at least some fraction of future FIC board meetings will be shifted to videoconferencing.

As Transportation costs sprial upward, we'll all need to get our needs met by being smarter about traveling.

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