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Self-Inflicted Pain at the Pump

by Ted Johnson

I had a 170-mile commute by car this morning — from the southern ‘burbs of Phoenix all the way to Flagstaff, Arizona. I was about 35 miles along when I realized I needed to fill up the car with gas. And while filling up I also realized that I probably haven’t personally purchased gasoline in about two months.

As I’m writing this, I’m hoping this will be one of those posts that you can forward to your gas-addicted friends, but I’m not sure that’s where this is going.

Punctured: My Blissful Insolation from High Gas Prices

Hello, Stranger.

Yes, I do follow the news. I know there’s a lot of grumbling about high gas prices right now — and over the weekend there was a political snipefest all about it.

I also understand that the politicians, their benefactors, and their strategists are calculating that the most political damage will occur to those whom Americans blame for the high gas prices.

But I was in need of a reminder of how this affects the vast majority of Americans, because to me, reading about gas price politics was a getting to be a little like reading about the San Elizario Salt War of 1877.

Salt? Really? That’s what the fuss was about? I don’t get it.

My wife and I hit Phoenix’ rush hour this morning. As soon as I could I merged over to the HOV lane. And within seconds we were whizzing past hundreds — thousands — of cars occupied by only one person. I looked at these drivers and remembered the likelihood that they were driving, on average, 17 miles to work.

These are the people who politicians are counting on to blame and/or punish other politicians for high gas prices.

As my gas-gauge needle nudged past empty, I decided to exit the highway, which happened to be in north Scottsdale, which happened to take me right into a hive of high-priced auto dealerships: Acura, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Bughatti, Cooper MINI, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Smart Car, and Volkswagen.

My Car

No hippie bumper stickers either, unless Bike Shop Hub counts

Our car was probably the dirtiest, and least valuable car within ten miles. But I felt no longing for any of these “prestige” vehicles. And I realized that I really have left the reservation.

I found a gas station where I paid $3.899 per gallon. (Premium gas was more than $4.) I thought, This would suck if I had to do this every few days.

The thing is, even back when I thought I “had to” buy gas every few days, I didn’t really have to. I’ve bike commuted in varying degrees most of my working life. The low end might have been once or twice a month (my first job out of high school; ten miles). The high end is now; I bike commute almost every day (less than two miles; I catch a ride from my wife once or twice a month. And she’s the one who usually fills the tank now.)

Were you forwarded this article by some crazy cycling friend of yours? I’m talking to you now.

I’m a fortysomething, sorta-mainsteam dude with flabby arms and a daunting mortgage on a little McMansion. I spend most of my work day typing. Hardly a hippie.

But I’ve achieved a distance from the politics of gas prices to the point where I look upon it with the same kind of head-scratching bewilderment that you may feel toward CM Punk’s feud with Chris Brown.

(Note: The aforementioned feud was not referenced off the top if my head; I spent 10 minutes searching “ridiculous feuds.” I don’t know who either of those people are. So if that fued makes any sense to you at all, I’ve probably picked a bad comparison.)

My lifestyle is not that different from a typical suburbanite. I just commute by bike almost every day. I acknowledge that “pain at the pump” is largely self-inflicted, and I get to choose when to inflict it upon myself. The freedom to bike commute — and exercising that freedom — keeps me from feeling like a victim of political machinations beyond my control. (The same could be said of walking or taking public transportation to work, or working from home.)

I figured that out in 2004 when gas hit a record price of $1.74 per gallon — less than half the price I paid today.

I’ve made some pretty dumb decisions in my life, but the decision to reduce the amount of gas I consume was not one of them. All of the cascading consequences of that decision have had a net benefit in my quality of life. It helps that I enjoy bicycling.

I also understand that this freedom that I choose to exercise was made easier by my circumstances at the time: I lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, a small, bike-friendly suburb of Washington, DC, with excellent public transportation. But many of the decisions I’ve made since then have been filtered through my desire to continue to exercise this freedom. I now live in a different city. The first question I asked when I contemplated moving to Flagstaff was, Could I live there happily without having to drive every day?

So this political finger-pointing going on right now over the price of gas… Well, it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s an argument over how much Peter should be robbed to pay Paul. Shall we full-out mug Peter at gunpoint, or rob him subtly so that he doesn’t know he’s being robbed? Shall we pick his right pocket or his left? The price of gas is artificial to begin with. Gas is highly-subsidized. If it weren’t, we’d be paying more than $10 per gallon (as some people believe we inevitably will pay).

The political price to pay should be paid by the politicians who would deny you the freedom to bike (or walk) safely to work; the ones who can only think of transportation in terms of moving gas-powered automobiles, not in terms of moving people and goods. Those politicians are pretty easy to spot. They’re the ones who support a Transportation Bill without programs for biking and walking.

If you’re not into following the politics of transportation, fine. Just don’t follow the pointing fingers that place blame on one group or another for high gas prices. Instead, work on estranging yourself from the pump bit by bit. You too may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about.

 
Burley nomad 229

16 Responses to “Self-Inflicted Pain at the Pump”

  1. Joel says:

    Dear Ted,

    I use multimode during my commute. I cycle about six miles to the bus park-n-ride. At 6:45am, there was one other bike at the rack. There is an average of about one bike per bus in the cargo bay or front carrier from my casual observations. As the weather gets better, this amount increases significantly.

    I take various buses in the morning according to my predicted work schedule for the day. All of my buses in the past six months have been hovering at 50% to 75% capacity during commuting hours. As the gas prices increased these past two weeks, the average has increased from 75% to 100% capacity. Mine is a casual and unscientific method of capacity but the amount of tickets and passengers on board is indicated on a large LED screen at the front of the bus for everyone to see.

    I do not know if this is a temporary blimp which will decline if gas prices go back to previous levels.

    The bus gets about 8 MPG because it is a high efficiency diesel. With 44 passengers, it works out to 352 passenger miles per $4.00 of diesel fuel or or just about ONE Penny per mile per passenger. Of course, this does not take into consideration insurance, maintenance, driver cost, and capital purchase expenses. Not every bus is filled to seated capacity for every trip. There are still pollution emissions, even though they have been minimized as much as possible.

    My six mile bike commute cost me about 300 calories: a bowl of cereal and milk. Milk cost about 25 cents/cup and the cereal goes for about 25 cents/portion. My bike commute cost me $0.50 BUT I was going to eat those calories whether I drove a car or rode my bike so in effect, my commute was free. I do not want to get into details about the pollution I contribute to the environment but lets say that my sewer bill would have been the same whether I drove a car or rode my bike. The carbon dioxide that I emitted is far easier on the environment than auto emissions. My body does not need oil changes. My capital cost were minimal, I already had a bike, lock, and helmet. I spent about $50 on lights so I could safely ride in the absence of the sun.

    Biking is not the answer to all of our commuting or energy problems but it can be a much larger part of the solution than it is right now.

    It just takes one person at a time and I am glad I gave it a try.

    Here’s to one less gallon of fuel being consumed during my commute!

  2. bergerandfries says:

    Right there with you, up to the point that I have to drive my family on our vacations. DREADING Spring Break and Summer Vacation, as we have long trips scheduled during both.

  3. Dr. M says:

    Ted, I got the same memo in 2004 myself. I had always enjoyed cycling anyway but when gas prices jumped back then I made a commitment to at least run all of my local errands by bicycle.
    Years later I have trunks and panniers for shopping as well as touring to a family picnic. Not the total solution of course. Produce and goods aren’t transported on the interstate by bicycle so high gas prices mean a price increase in most everything we buy.
    Still I hope people will join us for Bike to Work Month in May. Just give bike commuting a chance. Most Americans STILL use their cars for errands under 4 miles. What is it going to take people?

  4. Douglas Fawkes says:

    Hi, the pain at the pump. What a laugh!!! I got rid of that pain in 2007 when I decided to sell my car and bike to work. How do you handle those long commutes? Simple… live close to work! Our traffic in Nassau, the Bahamas has constant gridlock during our rush hours. How do I get through this mess? Simple, with cars on the left and right, I ride in the middle of the lane…. that my friend is your ‘natural bike path.’ I don’t expect any favors from the government or my the people who I work for they are car crazy on this island which has over 250,000 cars in an area of only 80 square miles. As you can see using a car in this island is quite a waste of time and an inconvenience!!!

  5. Well said, Ted. I refuse to feel sorry for people who have willfully chosen to ignore the fact that gas prices will always go up. I have a car but it’s always the second option. It would be lower if I was on a bus route. I’m not being self righteous. We’ve been warned repeatedly since my Weekly Reader days that when the price of gas would go through the roof and we need options. None have a really been coming from our electeds so we owe to ourselves to stop crying and find them on our own.

  6. Phillip Ness says:

    A point of pride for me was the day I filled up in October and looked at my previous receipt. It was a month to the day. One whole month I was able to reject the bullshit car/oil treadmill (buy this car to drive to work, drive to work to pay for this car, oh and use a scarce, finite, wasteful, and dirty resource at the same).

    Hopefully, this summer, I can make it three months…

  7. Ron says:

    Bike riding to work is great fun as I pass the high priced gas pumps.

    Grease on your pants! Not anymore – I invented the Leg Shield to protect bike riders right pant leg from grease. I use every time I commute by bike with pants.

  8. Tim Sherman says:

    I have commuted by bicycle four years. Each year a coworker in my department leaves the country for a month to visit family. To cover the work load I need to arrive at work very early so I drive our car that sits in the driveway a lot because my wife rides in good weather and carpools during the cold months. With lots of overtime and little sleep I drove to the gas station to fill up and found that gasoline is $3.99 in Seattle. The bottom line is that the pump took away the money that I had earned working long hours. It is better to get your rest and ride a bicycle than to work long hours to finance transportation by a motorized vehicle. I really miss my bicycle commute even when February and March are very cold in the morning. I’ll do it for my coworker and that is the only reason.

  9. Island Dave says:

    I went from very car light last Spring to car free. Haven’t bought gas in over 10 months. Turned in my license plates and canceled my car insurance. I do all trips via tandem or triplet bicycles depending whether I’m riding with one or both kids or by Velomobile, human powered vehicle when riding solo. It has helped the house hold economy greatly not blowing it on gas.

    Gas has been been well over $4.50 a gallon for over a year now but the roads are still crowed with huge pickup trucks and SUVs.

    Self induced indeed.

  10. Hoppity says:

    Here in the UK we pay the equivalent of about $8.40 per US gallon for what you call gas. Consider yourselves lucky.

  11. JonO says:

    Over the past few weeks I’ve had a co-worker tease me about my obsession with biking everywhere I can possibly bike nowadays (commute by bike is partially to thank for my obsession). Its gotten to the point where its fairly annoying but since my coworker is a woman, I have to go easy on how I respond to her jests. Long story short, last week she and some other folks who sit near me were complaining bitterly about gas prices and she commented on how she was upset the other day because Costco’s gas pumps stop at $100 (she drives a mega sized SUV). During this conversation, the coworker who bugs me about biking asked me how much I pay for gas and I told her I wasn’t sure because I haven’t filled up in over a month. She doesn’t tease me about biking anymore.

    SUCK ON THAT!

    ps…said co-worker lives four miles from the office via a paved and well maintained bike trail that runs directly behind our company.

  12. Peter says:

    I’ve been lucky – I’ve always lived close enough to work to bike commute. Less than 10 miles for all my homes and jobs. That was partly by design. And by living this close, even if I had to drive the price of gas wouldn’t be a big concern to me.

    But most people are not so lucky. Even if you try to live close to work, sooner or later your job might go away and you have to look for jobs in the next town over and you don’t want to uproot your family. Or you and your wife can only find jobs in different towns so one of you is going to have to commute.

    So most people I know don’t commute long distances by design. Many of them really WOULD like to live close enough to bike commute.

  13. Ben says:

    I’ve only been out of college for a little under a year and have been biking to work since I first started my full-time job. I’ve always biked for fun, but at the end of my last year of school, I changed jobs and was spending more on rent than I made. I got through it on savings and by biking to work. I literally did not use my car for 3 months. Nowadays I still bike almost everywhere, with exceptions when I’m going to be out very late (think Saturday night after being out with friends returning home at 3AM), if I’m carrying a heavy load since I haven’t gotten around to getting a cargo bike or trailer yet, or if time is a factor for large distances.

  14. Ben says:

    I guess I should make sure I’m finished before I submit… Now that I bike everywhere, I’ve spent around $70 on gas for the entire year, which is just over one tank. My friends tease me about biking, but I also have a lot more discretionary money than they do. I’ve also added being within 10 miles of work to my list of apartment hunting criteria and would never even dream of living in the suburbs and commuting huge distances. I work with people who have hour-long commutes and I always feel sorry for them.

  15. Dan says:

    Our current situation of sprawl and car-centric life is a difficult one to address. I’m lucky enough to live fairly close to work and shopping, but my daughter’s school is not nearby, and biking to school is actively discouraged. And as Peter mentioned above, it is tough to find two jobs near the same house for both spouses to be close. As gas prices inevitably increase, Americans will grudgingly move into town or pay an ever growing percentage of their income for travel.

  16. Oldskoolskater says:

    My commuting by bike means that I only have to fill the car up every 3-4 months, but when I do it costs £125 (approx $200!!!) which really hurts..

    Every time I’m stood at the pump I think what bike stuff I could buy with the money instead, and how much prices have gone up since last time I filled up – what a bummer :(

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