Tuesday, August 11, 2009


As promised a week ago, another installment in my thoughts on bad habits.

Everyone has bad habits. Things you do because it's easier or cheaper, even though you know it's bad for you and you'll end up paying for it in the end. Things you do because it's routine, even if that routine doesn't make any sense.

In my opinion Americans have a driving habit. For decades government subsidies have assured the American populace cheap gas. Combined with urban planning that has focused primarily on the freeway, and you have what Kunstler over at Clusterfuck calls a state of happy motoring. Drive ins, drive ups, drive throughs, all depending on ever increasing amounts of fossil fuels coming from ever decreasing supplies found on the other side of the world. This habit is so unsustainable it's laughable. Pipe dreams of electric cars or hydrogen cars or cars that run on corn, just aren't going to cut it. The cold hard truth is Americans are going to have to figure out how to drive less in the near future.

This is not a comfortable thought for most people. Even with my dear husband it's a hard sell sometimes. Our family has only one car, a small two door Honda Civic. When our dear son was born, Dave was sure we needed to get a larger "family" car. Now, I'll grant him, the infant rear-facing car seat is a pain with the small car. The front passenger seat can't recline back when the baby is in the car. But, that small inconvenience will be gone once Rowen hits 1 year old and then we'll all fit quite nicely in the car. Most of the time, Rowen isn't even in the car. Most of the time, that car takes Dave to work and gets him home, and that's it. Needless to say, we didn't get a bigger car. But most Americans just assume that everyone needs their own car and preferably something big enough to fit a soccer team in. This is a problem. As a nation, we can not afford the cost of all these cars. The cost to the environment, the cost to import oil, the cost to maintain our expensive highway system, the personal ownership costs... I could go on, but I think you get my drift.

So, that brings us to the question, how do we break these habits? How do we ease ourselves into a transition before we find ourselves looking at 6$ a gallon and no concept of how to get to work?

Start slow. Look into bikes for the family. Most children can probably get themselves to school on a bike, since most neighborhoods are built around schools. Do you live within 6 miles of your work place? You could probably bike to work. With a little practice 12 mph is not a hard pace to keep up on a bike in town and that means a nice 30 minute commute on a bike. Not only do you get to work for free, but you save money on a gym membership too. :-) If you routinely have to carry a laptop or briefcase, look at the wide assortment of panniers available for bike commuters. You'll easily find one that holds your laptop and a change of clothes.

Easier yet, walk more. How many times have you driven the 2 blocks to the nearest gas station just to get a coke or coffee? That's utterly ridiculous, stop it. Just put on some sneakers and walk. I try to do most of the errands during the day with Rowen in his stroller. We walk to the grocery store, the post office, the hardware store, the library, my doctor, one of my garden plots and occasionally to the laundromat. We've lived in two places since Rowen joined us, and both places I was able to do this. Most urban dwellers live within a few miles of these staples. And a few miles is walkable. 100%, not a pain, barely break a sweat even with a baby, WALKABLE. The average American needs to walk more anyway. Studies show that a healthy adult should walk close to 6 miles a day to stay healthy. You're not going to get that by walking from your car to your cubicle. Why pay someone 30$ a month to do it on a treadmill when you can get out and meet your neighbors and smell the flowers and get your errands done all at the same time!

If you absolutely HAVE to use a car to get to work, whether it's too far away or there's 3 feet of snow on the ground, there are still ways to minimize your usage. Carpool, with your spouse, with your neighbor, with your co-worker, there are lots of ways to make this work. Next time you're sitting at a red light during rush hour, amuse yourself by trying to find vehicles with more than one person in them. Keep your car in good condition, properly inflated tires, clean air filters and proper levels of oil can improve your gas mileage significantly. Make do with a smaller car. Sure it's nice to know you can haul the entire soccer team, but how often are you actually driving around with your car full? If 80% of the driving is you and your carpool buddy getting to work, perhaps the Excursion SUV is unnecessary.

Look at your car habit. Is it out of control? Is it using up too much of your monthly budget? Are you totally dependent on your car? What are your backup plans? The day gas hits 6$ is NOT the time to try biking to work. You need to start now, start new habits, work out the kinks before you have to rely on them. Get involved with your local bike community and work to increase the bike lanes in your town. I know here in Des Moines our local bike group has successfully lobbied to put a bike lane in on Ingersoll. It went before the city council last night in fact, after passing unanimously in committee. Or start scoping out bus routes if you're not up to biking. Bus systems take time to adjust to demand, if every American waits till the last second to switch to buses, the buses are not going to be able to handle the influx.

It is possible to break the driving habit, and I argue it's healthier for our country and healthier for ourselves.

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