Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Squeezing Oil Out of Your Travel (Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017, Part 2)

Make Your Life Less Oily in 2017
     Part 1: Taking Stock
     Part 2: Squeezing Oil Out of Your Travel

Part 2: Squeezing Oil Out of Your Travel
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” ― Jane Goodall

"Actions speak louder than words, but not nearly as often." -- Mark Twain

In Part I: Taking Stock, we covered how every dollar we spend on oil products supports fracking, tar sands, multinational corporate profits, and the beheadings, stonings, and terrorism financed or perpetrated by Saudi Arabia. We also covered how American life is so saturated with oil, it’s nearly impossible to wring it entirely out of one’s daily existence. To make our oil-use more conscious, Part I had a nifty on-line calculator to estimate personal oil consumption. If you haven’t done it yet, or don’t recall your results, go back and do it now. I’ll wait.

What our money buys
You’re back? Good. Now that you have an understanding of your oil consumption, let’s say we don’t want to support the rather nasty activities that oil production necessitates or that oil profits make possible. What to do? Well, we can certainly send emails, sign petitions, and call our congress critters to request changes in US policy towards oil companies and Saudi Arabia. We can also donate to non-profits working on the issue. We could even organize/march in protests. Still, there’s no escaping that the personal is political. As long as you and I consume oil, we make oil nastiness possible in the most basic way. Our money, and how we spend it, is an extension of our values, our intent, our convictions. If we don’t consume the oil, then, yes, someone else might. But when we participate in the ugly world of oil by consuming its products, we not only make it profitable, we give the whole craziness our implicit consent. Our efforts to change this are not useless drops in the bucket. Paradigm shifts most often happen first within small subgroups that eventually form enough critical mass to cause large-scale cultural change.

Kicking the Oil Habit
But our lives are so oily! It’s nearly impossible to live in the United States at the moment without at least some of the black ooze seeping into our lives. Never fear. Even if we can’t go 100% oil-free, we can reduce our consumption substantially. And this matters. Remember, as a commenter on Part I said, the price of oil is set at the margin, and since the dirtiest forms of oil—oil produced by tar sands and fracking—are the most expensive to produce, they are the first to be dropped when demand drops. Not to mention that low oil prices hurt oil companies and oil-nations far more than any divestment campaign can ever hope to. (Not to say that divestment is a bad idea.) As we’ll see, a side benefit of dropping our oil use is that we’ll be healthier, probably happier, and our communities more prosperous. But we’ll get to that.

Your money counts
We can divide personal oil consumption into five basic categories: oil for private vehicle travel, oil for all other travel, oil for heat, oil in your food and beverages, and oil in your stuff. Check what the calculator told you. Your car may be your biggest oil slurper, but depending on your lifestyle, it could also be the stuff you buy each year, or your air travel. Our solutions in this part and the next will range from heat pumps to PEBLs to sating the hungry ghost. Let’s begin! Remember, we’re looking through the lens of reducing oil consumption, not greenhouse gases or resource depletion, although both are also important, and I may mention them from time to time. (Note: I receive no monetary or other reward for any products or websites that I point out. I just share what I like and have found useful.)

Oil in Your Private Vehicle Travel
Travel is responsible for two-thirds of US oil use. American vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are insane. In 2009, our 211 million vehicles belonging to 113 million households traveled 2.2 trillion miles, close to 20,000 miles per household. Do you know how many vehicle miles your household accrues in a year? If not, start tracking it.

This may surprise you, but the first order of business is not to electrify junk miles, but to shed them from your travel diet. After all, whether it causes you to consume oil or not, time spent in a car is not quality time. For most people it makes them stressed, unhappy, and fat. By shedding VMT, you will not only give less money to corporate CEOs and Saudi princes, you’ll make your family healthier, happier and likely wealthier in the process. So let's look at how to do this.

Walking the Hills --Edward Potthast
1.) Embrace walking as a feature, not a bug, of human existence. Getting thirty minutes of moderate exercise like walking each day is essential to your health. (See The Brilliance of Walking.) You can be a bit overweight and be healthy, but you cannot be sedentary and healthy. Walking prevents all sorts of disease, from heart disease to diabetes to Alzheimer’s to many forms of cancer, not to mention it boosts your immune system and alleviates depression better than any drug you can take. Walking is so amazing for your health, in fact, that if the benefits could be put into a drug, some pharmaceutical company would be making billions in profits from it. Instead, it’s free! It brings you health and joy! It helps you get to know your neighbors, it reduces crime by putting eyes on the street, and every trip made on foot instead of by car reduces the pollution, grime, noise, and vibrations that your neighborhood experiences, improving housing values as well as the sociability and happiness of your community. And it saves you $2500 a year in out-of-pocket health care costs! The easiest, most sure-fire way to get this exercise is to embed walking in your daily life. The most sure-fire way to embed walking in your daily life is to have lots of destinations that you routinely go to within walking distance. Which leads to . . .

People over cars (granolashotgun.com)
2.) Live in a ten-minute neighborhood. What the heck is a ten-minute neighborhood, you ask? A neighborhood where essential goods, services and transit can be reached within a ten-minute walk. This doesn’t have to be in a quaint village or hip coastal city that are expensive as all get out. There are many small towns and rust-belt cities with good urban bones that offer excellent value. Now moving may seem a radical option, but 25% of renters and 5% of homeowners in the US move each year. If you’re going to move anyway, don’t just consider housing costs in your calculations of what is affordable. Add up housing+transportation+energy+healthcare costs, and recognize that long commutes are one of the leading causes of unhappiness in the US. A large house in a far-flung suburb might appear to be the best bang for your buck, but once you’ve factored in extra costs for transportation, energy, and healthcare, a smaller house with a smaller yard in a walkable neighborhood might turn out not only to make you happier and healthier but also wealthier.

Why is living in a walkable neighborhood so important? Since only a quarter of all trips are commute trips (and only 28% of all VMT is for commutes), being close enough to walk to a grocery store, pharmacy, coffee shop, elementary school, restaurants, dentist, post office, bakery, library, and your family doctor is going to reduce your VMT significantly. If you can’t live within a ten-minute walk (half a mile), living within a ten-minute bike ride (1.8 miles) isn’t bad. As long as you’re not riding near crazed, reckless drivers, bicycling is a great way to add exhilaration and even joy to your life. (Yes, once you become moderately fit, cycling can feel that good.) Check out this site, and it will show you what you can reach in ten minutes by walking or by bicycle.

My SUV of bikes
The site doesn’t take into account hills, but that’s where electric bicycles come in. On an electric bike you can cover five miles of hilly terrain in half an hour while toting two kids and five bags of groceries without breaking a sweat. It’s true! I live in a ten-minute neighborhood, and over the last ten years--with a change in attitude, better bicycle infrastructure in my city, and the acquisition of an electric bike--my trip mode share has become 40% walking, 40% biking (half regular, half electric), 10% transit and 10% driving. What is your mode share? Make a guess and then keep a travel diary for the next two weeks and see how real life compares.

Note: don’t move to a ten-minute neighborhood and then continue to drive everywhere. You’ll just make your new neighbors miserable with the congestion and danger you create. Let someone who wants a car-lite lifestyle take that spot.

Excellent bones
What if you like where you live and don’t want to move? Well, first check and see if your neighborhood is more walkable and bikeable than you know. People tend to overestimate how far away things are, and more destinations may be in reach under your own power than you realize. Next, does your neighborhood have sidewalks, bike lanes? If it doesn’t, this is something that can be changed with some organizing and lobbying. (Here's an example of a town that used a roundabout and a road diet to create walkability.) Lastly, could your neighborhood become a ten-minute neighborhood by beefing up a traditional Main Street that could once again offer an array of goods and services if only there was enough density to support it? The easiest way to add density painlessly is to replace parking lots along this street with infill development, adding stories of mixed use residential over ground floor retail. Several blocks of two to four story buildings with no parking lots pushing destinations apart will make a world of difference. Though physically this is not hard to accomplish, your town probably has a ridiculous number of legal and cultural obstacles in the way of such development. However, these are not immutable laws of physics but rather human constructs that can be altered by any town interested in achieving prosperity through modest incremental investment. I suggest checking out Strong Towns for all sorts of ideas on how towns can stop going broke by focusing on their cores rather than the illusory get-rich-schemes of ponzi-sprawl.

If the answer is you live in the sticks and your location is never going to become walkable or bikeable, then continue on. There are still things you can do.
Feel the ice at -8 degrees F. No excuses!
3.) Live in a location where you and/or your spouse/partner can commute to work by non-car means. Even if you can’t live in a ten-minute neighborhood, you will still achieve big oil reductions if one of you can get to work without a car—by walking, biking, transit, electric scooter, or even electric skateboard. I have a good friend my age (55) in Minneapolis who walks forty minutes each way to work, even in winter. Even when it’s 8 degrees below zero. It’s all about attitude and the right clothes. (She does have the advantage of sidewalks the entire route.) If you’re younger than 55, no excuses! If your town has better weather than Minneapolis, no excuses! For longer distances, consider an electric bike, and/or for winter commutes, consider a velomobile, or a four-season pedal electric vehicle such as the ELF or the PEBL. They may seem expensive, but they’re way, way cheaper than owning a car. “But it will add half an hour a day to my commute!” you say. “I just don’t have the energy or the time.” First off, an active commute is going to make you feel great, so you’ll have more energy and vitality at work and home. Secondly, we’re going to free up more than thirty minutes a day for you when we get to sating the hungry ghost in part 3. So still no excuses!
Kid shuttling solved.
4.) Arrange carpools for kids’ activities; opt out of the kid activity rat race. If your child likes to dance or play soccer, find studios/leagues that don’t require lots of travel time, especially if your child is under twelve. You’re not a bad parent if you don’t spend every weekend traveling for soccer. You’re not a bad parent if you don’t drive hours for music or chess or tae kwon do lessons. Children don’t need seven activities apiece, even if it seems as if all their friends have that many. In fact, they’re likely better off if they just have one or two activities and are allowed to drop the ones they don’t like and pick up new ones that suit them. They’re children. Let them explore and experiment. What they should not be doing is spending an hour a day strapped immobile in a car.

5.) Choose the “pretty good” service/activity closer to home. If the best dentist or pediatrician in the region is twenty miles away, but a pretty good dentist or pediatrician is just down the block, choose the pretty good one nearby. (Go to a specialist the few times you have specialized problems.) Instead of the best church with the most brilliant minister/best music, attend a local church and visit the brilliant one only occasionally. You’ll build connections with your neighbors better that way anyway. And so on. You get the idea.

6.) Take the train for 30 to 300 mile trips. Trains have very good passenger miles per gallon (pmpg). The northeast corridor trains between Washington DC and Boston, being electric, use no oil at all. I realize trains aren’t options everywhere, but where they exist, make use of them!

Your bus could be electric
7.) Take electrified local transit. Only San Francisco and Seattle have an extensive system of electric trolley buses, but a number of cities are now offering oil-free electric buses or shuttles (including Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga. Stockton, and Reno). And most heavy rail rapid transit systems  (Such as MARTA, BART, MBTA, New York City Subway, LA Metro Rail, and Washington Metro) are electric, as are most light rail systems. All VMT you can convert to public electric miles are miles that don’t count towards oil use at all. For those of you that take corporate buses, all those buses can and should be electric. (Check out the range on the new Proterra buses.) Start bugging your employer to convert.

8.) Drop education VMT. Where you send your children to school has a major impact on your VMT.  The best is a school walkable from your home. Second best is a bikeable school. Third best is a school on public transit. This is true for lower grades as well as high school, but especially high school. The way your teen is most likely to die is in a car with friends. Let that sink in. If your child’s high school has a huge parking lot with lots of cars, the odds of your child getting in one are high.

Bike-friendly UC Davis
Also consider oil use in college choice. There are many factors that go into picking a college, so why not let oil use be one of them? After all, supplying your child with a car over his/her four years of college is roughly equal to four years of in-state public university tuition or one year of private university tuition. A car-free college career can equal $40K of college debt your child doesn’t have to take on. Could your child get to the college he/she is considering by non-oil or low-oil means? (Is the college accessible by train?) Could your child survive four years happily there without a car? Does the college campus offer shuttles to nearby cities or shopping? Does it offer Zipcars or some other carshare for students? Lots of bikes on campus is usually a good sign that student culture is oriented towards low oil use. A policy mandating that freshman (and sometimes even sophomores) can’t have cars on campus is another good one.

Early programming
9.) Eliminate car brainwashing. Mr. Money Mustache covers this really well, so I’ll let him do the heavy lifting on this one. (Click on the link. If you don’t know about Mr. Money Mustache, you can thank me later for introducing him to you.) Let me just point out that $20 billion in advertising dollars are spent every year to make you, the American consumer, believe that your car equals your value, your status, your virility (if male), your competence (if female), not to mention your parenting ability. No! Your car is a tool, no more, no less. Keep clear that a car’s value is its usefulness, not the other emotionally laden gobbledygook that nearly infinite advertising so desperately wants us to gulp down whole.  Your car is not a penis-extender, nor is it a metal womb to keep your family safe. The power it’s capable of can be useful, but it doesn’t increase your personal merit, status, or attractiveness except in the eyes of people who are deeply car brainwashed. In fact, too much time in a car will render you flabby, sick and wholly unattractive. Let me confirm that in-the-know-people (such as the ones who read this blog) will have more respect for your high mileage, beat up, old, dented, paid-off car than a shiny new one that’s just going to get dented/scratched/lose its value precipitously. Your car is not a reflection of your worth as a human being! More about the perniciousness of advertising will be covered in part 3.

10.) Drop down one car. US households on average have more vehicles than drivers. This is ridiculous. After you’ve reduced your VMT and car brainwashing, consider saving boatloads of money by having your household drop down one car. This is especially possible if one of the adults has a non-car commute. Owning fewer cars will further encourage you to replace VMT with other transportation options. As a corollary, the more transportation options you have, the easier it is to drop down one car.

Replace that car! (OliviaCleansGreen.com)
Look at it this way: the average car spends 160 hours per week not moving. The 8 hours per week it does move cost you $6000 - $15,000 a year, depending how old/new/fancy your car is. The average vehicle takes three one-way trips a day for a total of 29 miles. Can you make those trips by other means? When our family jettisoned our minivan to become a one-car household, we were already living in a ten-minute neighborhood, my husband was already biking to work, and I was already a queen of kids’ carpools. Still, the idea of just one car was daunting. To make our transition easier, I got a wire handcart and an electrified cargo bike, and we joined a carshare non-profit. Even though we rarely utilized the carshare, it gave us a sense of security at the time to have it as a back up. Don’t pooh-pooh secondary and/or back up measures; they may be the tipping point to give you the confidence you need to shed a vehicle.

Car replacements (consider in combinations):
A.)  Bike with panniers or trailer for carrying stuff
B.)  Handcart to walk groceries/stuff home
C.)  Sturdy stroller to push young children around
D.)  Walk/bike with your children to school instead of drive them
E.)  Electric bikes (Check out The Pluses and Minuses of Electric Bikes)
F.)   Electric adult trikes (many elderly who have trouble walking find electric trikes extremely liberating as well as safer than driving a car)
G.)  Electric cargo bikes (mine carries 5 bags of groceries)
H.)  Velomobile or pedal electric vehicle (ELF, PEBL)
I.)    Electric skateboard or foot scooter
J.)    Join a carshare company for when you need a car/second car, van, or truck for a day or even just an hour.
K.)  Electric scootershare
L.)   Rideshare/taxis on occasion (bad weather/last mile issues.)
M.) Let your teens use rideshare on occasion. (Way cheaper and safer than giving them a car.)
N.)  Make a deal with a friend/neighbor/family member to use their car in a pinch. Repay with food, favors, etc.
O.)  Have large items delivered, or rent a van/truck by the hour.
P.)  Create family calendar to keep track of car-necessary activities.
Q.)  Convert far away activities into local ones.
R.)  Teach your children how to ride public transit.
S.)   Persuade your boss to let you work from home one or two days a week.
T.)  Combine/plan errands. Meal plan. Grow vegetables/fruit at home if possible so you can eat from the garden in the summer.
U.)  Other ideas? Leave them in the comments below.

Scootershare--coming to a city near you?
When dropping down a car, my advice is to jettison the vehicle with the worst gas mileage and highest maintenance costs. But perhaps your other car has the most expensive payments and highest insurance, so that’s the one you’d like to get rid of. You know your situation best, but do consider the option seriously. Shedding a car can free up valuable funds to pay for groovy electric bikes, but the money can also be used towards higher rent/mortgage payments in a ten-minute neighborhood, with the attendant health and happiness benefits.

11. Make your own biodiesel. As a commenter in Part I said, this is a good choice for some people. Instructions here. Corn-based ethanol, however, is a scam politicians inflicted on us to buy votes from Midwest farmers. Don’t pretend adding it to your gasoline is any kind of solution.

Scythe revolution! (permaculture.co.uk)
12. Electrify or make manual your yard and garden care. This doesn’t amount to a lot of oil (and is not officially for travel) but let’s tackle gas-powered lawnmowers, leaf blowers and snow blowers anyway since they’re noisy and polluting. Sweeping and raking are moderate forms of exercise (like walking) that are extremely good for you and don’t take much longer than oil-powered leaf blowers. Instead of a gas-powered lawnmower, get an electric mower, a push mower, or, if you want to really freak out your neighbors, a European scythe. Now I have never scythed, but it looks so amazing that I’m on the verge of getting one, and I don’t even have a lawn. As for snow, don’t use salt or chemicals; they’re terrible for the environment. Sweep or shovel small areas; use electric snow blowers for larger ones. For really large areas, get an electric tractor with a snow shovel attachment or convert a gas garden tractor to electric. If you happen to be redoing your driveway or sidewalk anyway, put in a hydronic snow melt system and you’ll never worry about snow again.

13. Get an electric car. Yes, this is last. There is a lot of embedded oil in an electric car, as we’ll talk about under stuff. And merely electrifying your VMT won’t improve your health, it won’t increase your joy, it won’t improve your neighborhood, it won’t save you oodles of money. An electric car will still cause traffic and congestion, and it’ll still prevent others from enjoying a car-lite lifestyle because it hogs public space, it’s fundamentally a death machine to bicyclists and pedestrians, and its need for parking pushes destinations further apart. But it’s better than buying oil, and for all but the most coal-intensive states (West Virginia, Kentucky, Wyoming) it’ll produce fewer greenhouse gases than driving a vehicle with a grossly inefficient internal combustion engine. (All internal combustion engines are grossly wasteful and inefficient, every single one.)

Oil in Your Other Travel
Long distance travel is my downfall. My husband and I have squeezed our other categories down pretty well, but my kids now live across the country, and I love to travel. What to do? Here are some options.

     1.)  Learn to love long distance trains. Yes, they’re more expensive than flying. Yes, they take more time. Yes, Amtrak has its problems. The good news is long distance trains can give you lots of undistracted time to work (great for writing), the scenery is often spectacular, and you’ll gain an appreciation of America that is hard to describe and hard to get any other way. View long distance trains as an adventure, embrace their quirks, and if you’re going overnight, do yourself a favor and get a sleeper.
     2.)  Take medium distance trains instead of short hop flights, especially the Northeast Regional electric trains between Boston and Washington DC. Seriously, this is easy. Just do it. Other good regional lines, often with evocative names, mostly financed by the states they pass through: The Capitol Corridor (San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento), the Pacific Surfliner (San Diego, LA, San Luis Obispo), the Amtrak Cascades (Vancouver BC, Seattle, Portland, Eugene), the San Joaquin (Oakland, Sacramento, Bakersfield), the Missouri River Runner (Kansas City, St. Louis), the Heartland Flyer (Oklahoma City, Fort Worth), the Keystone (New York, Philadelphia, Harrisburg), the Empire Service (Buffalo, Albany, NYC), the Ethan Allen Express (Rutland, Albany, NYC), the Vermonter (Essex Junction/Burlington, Springfield, NYC), the Downeaster (Boston, Portland, Brunswick) and the lines connecting Chicago with Milwaukee, St. Louis, Carbondale, Quincy, Grand Rapids, Port Huron, Indianapolis, and Detroit. 
    3.) Fly on airlines that use biofuel. Granted, this is a short list at the moment, encompassing just United Airlines between SF and LA, and only 30% biofuel at that. There are rumors that Southwest Airlines will start using biofuel as well. These biofuels aren’t the scam ethanol is and will likely be more expensive than oil-based jet fuel. Let airlines know you will actively seek out flights powered by biofuel.
Walk it! (drawntheroadagain.com)
4.) Consider oil use in vacation destinations. Is there a way to go somewhere fun via train or a long-distance bike ride? Can you have as much fun closer to home? Have you seen all the great things in your own state or those states nearby? How about a staycation in a fancy hotel in your nearest city? I met a man this fall who was walking the 21 missions in California, roughly following the old Spanish El Camino Real. He’d started in San Diego and had three left to go when I met him with his backpack and walking stick as I sat on the bench in front of my house. All sorts of non-oily adventures are possible! 
     5.) Combine destinations. If you can link two trips to nearby destinations, that will reduce some air miles.
      6.) Drive instead of fly, but with a full car.  The more passengers in your car, the less oil attributed to you personally. If your car has empty seats, consider long distance rideshare such as Ridester or Rideboard.
     7.)  Long distance buses. Not my favorite, but they’re often good value. I don’t know if SleepBus is going to catch on, but maybe.
      8.)  Electric ferries. Not too many in the US, but Norway has them.
      9.)  Hybrid ferries. Take them to Alcatraz and maybe other places soon.

Now I know you’re not going to shed your junk miles, move to a ten-minute neighborhood or replace all your flights with trains tomorrow. It may, in fact, take you years to squeeze the oil out of your travel. I suggest for 2017 that you adopt the task as a kind of  hobby, (after all, we don’t mind spending time and money on our hobbies) and get creative, flexible and even adventurous about the options available. You may be surprised by the life benefits that cheap oil has been hiding from you.

Continue on to Part 3, Wringing Oil from Your Food, Stuff, Heat and Everything Else !

Note: if you’re under 70 and can’t comfortably walk at least a mile without getting tired, you have a health emergency that you should treat with the same urgency as you would an asthma attack or a foot with gangrene. Assuming your doctor hasn't forbidden you all physical activity, here’s your sixty-day program to walk with ease. Walk for five minutes today and five minutes tomorrow, no matter how slowly. Get outside if at all possible. Steps to and from your car or around the house don’t count! Increase to ten minutes for days three through seven. Walk fifteen minutes days eight through fourteen, and then twenty minutes every day for the following two weeks. Month two, move on to thirty minutes a day without fail. By the end of that month, your health will be so much better, you’ll be amazed. Start today. I’m serious.