Saving money with my feet: The joys of a walkable neighborhood

On Saturday, I bumped into Rhonda at the local natural food market. Rhonda is one of Kris’s co-workers and friends. I haven’t seen her much since the divorce, although we live only a mile-and-a-half apart. For 20 minutes, she and I stood in the freezer aisle and chatted about life and the neighborhood.

“Do you know any other places to shop for groceries?” I asked. “We like this store, but it’s pretty expensive. I know there’s another market near your house, but its prices don’t seem any better and the food quality is worse.” (This is actually the subject of an already-written but yet-to-be published post I’ve produced for GRS.)

“I know,” Rhonda said. “That store has great seafood at good prices, but that’s about it. Their produce sucks. You could always hit the fancy supermarket across the river, I guess.”

“We do that from time-to-time,” I said. “But holy cats, it’s expensive. What about the Safeway in Woodstock?”

Rhonda laughed. “You know, that Safeway is only a couple of miles from our house, but it might as well be in another city. People think I’m crazy when I say this, but we’re so spoiled from walking everywhere that it’s a chore to get in the car to run errands. Besides, if I’m going to go over there, I’d rather go to Trader Joe’s.”

Rhonda and her husband, Mike, are typical Portlanders. They own a Toyota Prius, but they bike and walk as much as possible. Soon after I bought my condo, Mike scolded me: “I see you around,” he said, “but you’re always driving. What’s up with that?”

I nodded in agreement with Rhonda. “Kim and I had to make a trip to Woodstock the other day. It’s only three miles from our house — just a 10-minute drive — but it seems like such a hassle. We’re spoiled too, I guess. For instance, we used to try new restaurants all over the city. But there are so many great spots nearby it seems like a waste of time to go elsewhere.”

After agreeing that the four of us should have dinner together soon, Rhonda and I went our separate ways — both of us walking home with our groceries.

The Way It Was
Over the past few days, I’ve thought a lot about my conversation with Rhonda. It’s made me realize that perspective is a funny thing. In this case, choosing to live in a walkable neighborhood has made me really appreciate how amazing such a place can be. I used to think I had to own a car, but now I’ve given serious thought to selling my beloved Mini Cooper.

I grew up in the country. My parents owned a trailer house on two acres of land about five miles outside of Canby, a rural farm community between Portland and Salem. There were a couple of country stores scattered around the area, but they didn’t stock much besides Doritos and donuts. Whenever we needed groceries or lumber or health care, we drove to town. And for bigger stuff, it took nearly an hour to drive to Portland or Salem.

During my college years, I lived in downtown Salem. I felt like I’d moved to a metropolis! Many of my classmates complained that the city was too small (about 100,000 people at the time) and that there was nothing to do. I felt like the place was huge and there was so much to do that I’d never get to it all. I walked everywhere I could. I biked to more distant areas.

When Kris and I got married and returned to Canby, we bought a house near the downtown area. (Well, as “downtown” as Canby can get, anyhow.) We did walk here and there — during the years she taught high school, she walked the few blocks to work, for instance — but mostly we drove. The nearest grocery store was only 15 minutes away on foot, and still we drove. If we were ambitious, maybe we’d take our bikes. That didn’t happen very often.

Later still, Kris and I bought a home in Oak Grove, an unincorporated area about 20 minutes south of Portland. There I forced myself to bike and walk, but that was more for fitness than out of principle. I had a favorite three-mile loop through the neighborhood, and I’d often take an hour-long stroll while reading a book. (This is a surprisingly non-difficult task, and even after I moved into Portland following the divorce, I’d frequently walk a couple of miles on city sidewalks while reading. This scares a lot of people, but I’m not sure why.)

The Way It Is
Now, Kim and I live in Sellwood, which is a typical Portland neighborhood filled with hip and trendy restaurants and stores. There’s a small pod of food-carts nearby. The Westmoreland neighborhood is exactly a mile away, and there we can find a movie theater, a hardware store, and a couple of cool bars. Our gym is just two miles from the house along the Springwater Trail, one of Portland’s many multi-use paths. Perhaps best of all, downtown Portland is only four miles away along that same trail. When I’m feeling ambitious, I walk into the city. And on a summer day, I’ll sometimes bike into downtown for meetings or errands.

If Kim and I are up for crossing the Sellwood Bridge, we can walk to the fancy supermarket and more restaurants. (And just today, I realized it’s only a two-mile walk — albeit half uphill — to one of our favorite supermarkets!)

When I travel, I make a point of exploring my destinations on foot. In Venice (where “on foot” was the only option), I jogged through the twisting maze of tiny streets during the early morning so I could see more of the city. In Rome, while the rest of our tour group rode the bus, I walked from the Vatican back to our hotel. In Paris, I once made poor Kris walk nearly 20 miles across the city in a single day. In Quito last autumn, I spent a Sunday hiking the city’s hillsides, soaking in the sounds and sights of South America.

Again, I walk like this more because I enjoy it than out of any noble principle. Sure, it’s nice that I use less gas when I bike or walk, but I’m not out to save the world. That said, there is one side effect that I enjoy: I save money.

Saving Money with My Feet
According to the American Automobile Association, the average vehicle costs 60 cents per mile to operate. (Costs range from 46 cents per mile for a small car like my Mini Cooper to 77 cents per mile for an SUV.) The average drive spends just over $9,000 per year on her automobile. That’s a lot of money! And in my case, I’d rather spend the money on something else.

So, I walk. Walking saves me money directly (because I’m not using the car), but it also gives me other benefits. It betters my health. It gives me time to think. Sometimes I listen to audiobooks. I meet my neighbors. I see more of the neighborhood. And so on.

Again, I’m not opposed to driving. I know from experience that sometimes it’s a necessity. But I’ve learned that it’s important to me to live in a place where I can bike and walk to as many places as possible. I enjoy it. It saves me money. It makes me healthy. And when I can, I encourage other people to consider whether biking or walking might not be an option for them. (This is especially true when they’re considering where to live. I think it’s always best to prefer a foot-centric neighborhood!)

Transportation is the second-largest expense for most Americans (after housing). Anything we can do to cut our costs on cars and trucks is a good thing, right? Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to walk to gym for my workout!

More about...Frugality, Health & Fitness, Home & Garden, Transportation

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