I’ve always been a car guy. It’s not that I’m mechanically inclined or that I get into the latest makes and models — neither of these is anywhere close to the truth — but that a car has always been my primary mode of transportation.

When I was a boy, my family lived in rural Oregon, six miles from the nearest town. Automobiles were our only real option for getting around. Even when I went away to college, I relied on a car for most of my mobility. And so it’s been for forty years. As I say, I’ve always been a car guy.

This summer, though, I’ve had a sort of epiphany, one prompted by your comments and suggestions. I’ve learned that I can save money and improve my fitness by leaving my car at home — by exploring alternate modes of transportation.

The bus
After my small adventure riding the bus in April, I’ve begun to view it as a valid means for getting around town. I think it helps that our friends Chris and Jolie are huge bus advocates, and use it to travel to and from our house. If they can use the bus, so can I — right? Now, instead of seeing the bus as something other people use, I know it’s something that I can use as well.

For example, I’m hoping to take a French class at a local college when the fall term starts. (Kris and I are teaching ourselves French in preparation for our planned vacation to Paris next autumn.) If I do this, I intend to take the bus to school three mornings a week.

I still don’t use the bus often, but it’s now in my pool of options, especially if I don’t want to hassle with a car. Portland’s transit system has an awesome website, so it’s easy to find a route that works for me.

The bike
I love cycling, but I rarely hop on a bike anymore. For a couple of years during the late 1990s, I regularly rode my bike 5.8 miles to-and-from the box factory during the summer. I was biking over 1000 miles a year. I’ve biked occasionally here at our new house, but I’m older and fatter than I used to be, and my bike no longer really fits me.

I spent the better part of this summer avoiding a bike purchase — I just bought a car, for goodness sake — but two weeks ago, I finally realized that I was being foolish. I bought a city bike, one that actually fits, one that I actually use. Even though I could afford it, I felt apprehensive spending the money. (Still haven’t shaken all of the old mindsets.) But after a fortnight using my new vehicle, I’m pleased with the purchase.

A bicycle is handy not only for exercise, but also for handling middle-distance errands. If a destination is within 10-15 miles and it’s not raining (an important consideration here in Oregon), a bike is a viable option. Biking to my friend Andrew’s house takes about 25 minutes, for example; that’s only 10 minutes longer than it takes by car. And biking to the nearest grocery store barely takes any time at all.

Now that I have a bike that fits me — and one specifically designed for city cycling — I’m eager to make frequent use of it. It’s been over a decade since I had a 1000-mile year. It’d be great to ride that far again in 2010!

My feet
The bus and the bike are great, but the real revelation in alternate transportation this summer has come from my own two feet. I’ve been walking all over the place.

Kris and I don’t live in a very walkable neighborhood. Despite a “somewhat walkable” Walk Score of 68, there’s nothing much close by. (In calculating walkability for us, the Walk Score counts two minimarts as grocery stores and two bars as restaurants — including one with the dubious distinction of being named “the best dive bar in Portland”.)

After I developed another running injury in June, I decided that I’d have to get my exercise by walking. That meant jaunting five or six miles each day to get the same time on my feet that I’d spent running. It also meant learning to see the surrounding communities in new ways.

For example, I’ve always felt that the nearest city was too far to walk to. It’s 2-1/2 miles to the near side of town and three miles to the far side. But I recently made a deal with myself: Once per week, I allow myself to go to the comic book store and to eat at the cheap taco place — but only if I walk. Walking creates a barrier. By setting this requirement, I can’t just indulge myself on a whim.

It’s not just the comic book store and the taco stand, though. I walk three miles to the credit union. I walk a mile-and-a-half to the public library. I walk a mile to the grocery store. And once, I even walked two miles to the lawnmower repair shop, and then pushed my mower home.

I never thought I could make the time to walk five miles per day, but I was wrong.

And here’s something I’ve learned: Once you start walking five miles a day, your world gets bigger. I know this seems counter-intuitive — a car takes you further faster — but it’s true. You begin to realize that things are closer than you thought they were. Walking is a great way to save money, see your neighborhood, and have fun.

Other options
Although I may be new convert to alternate modes of transportation, many GRS readers have been working to reduce their car use for a long time, and for a variety of reasons. On Twitter last week, I asked people to share their stories:

Here are some of the replies:

  • @apricotrabbit wrote: “Between the bus & Zipcar, I don’t need a car in the city & I save tons of money. Plus, I can read while someone drives me around.”
  • @mrawdon wrote: “I’ve been biking to work twice a week this summer, for the exercise. Cuts down on gas consumption significantly, too.”
  • @grouchyladybug wrote: “i take the train & bus to work b/c it’s cheaper & more relaxing than driving”
  • @sarahperiwinkle wrote: “I take the commuter rail b/c its free with employer transit pass, w/in walking distance of home and work, and as fast as car.”
  • @jessemecham wrote: “is a sweet scooter alternate transportation? 70 mpg and I look good. (Yes, it was partially to save gas).”

It’s important to note that not everyone likes biking or taking the bus. I heard from some people who wish they could use a car more often, or who opt not to use other methods because they’re inconvenient.

Conclusion
Not all Americans have the luxury of being able to explore alternate means of transportation. For good or ill, we’re a car-centric nation that has built car-centric cities that encourage us to stay in our automobiles. But I suspect that there are a large number of people who could travel by bus, bike, or feet — if they only realized how easy it is. (That was certainly true in my case, anyhow.)

For some people, time is an issue, but I have intentionally created a lifestyle that allows me an opportunity to explore more leisurely modes of transportation.

All of this is well and good during the warm, dry months. But what happens when the Oregon rain returns in mid-October? I’m not sure. I suspect my bicycle will go into hibernation, I’ll only walk a couple of times each week, and I’ll really get to learn how Portland’s bus system works. And my spending on gas and car maintenance will continue to drop.

Walking photo by The Giant Vermin. Bus photo by Jason McHuff, who appears to be something of a bus fanatic.

This article is about Cars, Frugality, Real-Life