My friend Craig rides the bus to work every day. His family gets by with just one car. “Do you do it to save money?” I asked him recently.

“Well, owning just one car certainly does save money — car payments, gas, insurance, parking — and that’s a major reason I do it,” he said. “But I also do it because it helps the environment, and because it gives me a chance to unwind before I get home.”

Cheap transportation seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. High fuel prices and increased concern for the environment have spurred many of my friends and family to explore alternate methods of transportation. Even I have begun to look for ways to decrease my transportation costs — and I work from home!

Drive less, save more
Some people go even further than Craig to save money. When my friends Chris and Nicole visited Portland last month, they rented a vehicle to make the drive down from Seattle. “Don’t you own a car?” I asked.

“Yes,” Nicole said. “Sort of. We own an old beater, but I only use it to ferry my daughter around town. The rest of the time, I do car-sharing with Zipcar. Chris buys a monthly bus pass and uses that to commute.”

It was difficult for me to believe that these many small expenses actually saved them any money. “Is all of that cost-effective?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” Nicole said. “It’s a lot cheaper than owning and maintaining a new car.”

“Yes, it’s cheaper,” seems to be a common response when I speak with people who have cut back on driving.

Our friends Mike and Rhonda were once a two-car family. They owned a Toyota Forerunner and a Toyota Camry. A few years ago, they moved closer to Portland, sold both vehicles, and replaced them with a new Toyota Prius. Mike now bikes to work most days, and Rhonda drives the Prius. Their primary motivation was a desire to “go green”, but I recently asked Mike if the switch had saved them any money. “Oh yeah,” he said. “A lot!”

Finding ways to save
If driving less can save so much money, why aren’t more people aren’t doing it? Actually, there are signs that maybe they’re starting to. Here are some additional examples from my own life:

  • Two of Kris’ co-workers have purchased “commuter cars”, old beaters with good gas mileage specifically for driving to and from work. I’m not sure how cost effective this is — buying an additional car instead of replacing an existing one? — but it’s the strategy they’ve chosen to deal with rising fuel prices.
  • I’ve talked to several families who altered vacation plans this summer because of the high cost of fuel. My brother, Jeff, for example, stayed home while his wife and two children jetted to see her parents in Canada. “We couldn’t justify the expense of another ticket,” he told me.
  • At the gym recently, two of the guys were talking about their next car purchases as they lifted weights. They both drive SUVs, but they plan to give them up. “I don’t understand why anyone would buy anything but a Prius,” one of the guys said. “That’s what I plan to buy” said the other.
  • My youngest brother, Tony, drives a Chevy Silverado pickup truck. He too has begun to consider alternative transportation. “Gas is so expensive,” he told me over dinner the other night. “Biking would save a lot of money. But it’s 15 miles from my house to the office. That’s an hour each way.” Instead, he’s looking at scooters. “I did the math,” he said, “and commuting by scooter would pay for itself within a year. They save that much gas!”

Tony isn’t the only one fascinated by scooters. There’s strong demand for them around the United States. I’ve actually been considering one myself. Since I began working from home, I’ve realized that my crush on the Mini Cooper is impractical. Sure, I want one, but I don’t drive as much as I used to. What’s the sense in buying a $25,000 driveway decoration? Besides, most of my trips are local now. I haven’t ruled out a Mini, but scooters (at $5,000 or less) are looking more attractive every day.

No town is an island
Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether a trend in the Pacific Northwest is representative of the entire country. Portland, especially, can be sort of an island sometimes. (Bikes, for example, are huge here, something I forget until I visit other cities and don’t see any on the road.) This time, however, it seems like maybe the move to alternative transportation is more wide-spread:

Are people in your city changing their habits to cope with rising fuel prices? Do you plan to make any changes? Are you walking to the store? Biking to work? Have you changed our travel plans? Or are things the same as always?

Scooter photo by paPisc.

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