Rolling with Ever-Changing Gas Prices: Lessons from my dumb luck

The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Op-Ed pages took on the subject of gas prices this week, devoting a good fifty column inches to a discussion that could otherwise be summarized like this:

The price of gas might increase by anywhere from a few pennies to a dollar this year. It might also go down, but then it will go up again. And, amidst the fluctuations, expect the ongoing trend of slowly increasing average costs to continue. So we’re right to be concerned.

Not exactly a news flash but nonetheless on par with the ever fatiguing state of our national conversation on energy. To that I’m resigned but then I got to this, from AAA spokesperson Jessica Brady, where the prospect of a solution is suggestively dangled but then never delivered:

[As it relates to price increases,] “the most honest answer is it’s too hard to say with 100 percent confidence at this time. It’s definitely a possibility. Knowledge is power. When the odds are strong, prepare. If it does happen, we won’t be standing at the pump with our mouths open, as if we never saw it coming.”

No, we’ll be standing at the pump with our mouths open even though we saw it coming.

Seriously, what does “prepare” mean? How are people who are fully invested in a consumptive lifestyle dependent on the availability of cheap gas supposed to “prepare” just because their latest check of GasBuddy told them to expect an uptick?

If you’re of means, I suppose you could get yourself a hybrid. Others could prepare by instituting a family ban on eating out. Or canceling the cable TV. Maybe amp up your use of coupons and other forms of calculated shopping. Or worse.

There’s all manner of Americans right now “preparing” for rising gas (and other energy) prices in ways exactly like this. But why does preparing have to be a reactive, punitive exercise?

It doesn’t. There are meaningful ways to prepare proactively. Enjoyable ways. In fact, I discovered a few of them myself, quite by accident.

In 1996 I was a young newlywed shopping for a place to put down roots. Our situation was simple: We wanted an old house and we were relatively broke. So, while we did end up finding what we wanted, it wasn’t exactly where we wanted, in that its surrounding neighborhood was something best described as “sketchy.”

That’s okay, we rationalized. Our block was still better than a couple blocks over. And the schools? We didn’t need to think about that. We didn’t even have a child, much less one of school age. A lot can change. We’d cross that bridge when the time came.

Time went by and things did indeed change. Other folks, as young and oblivious as we were, began moving into the neighborhood. They spent money, fixing up houses and launching local businesses. We had a daughter and pretty soon we started seeing kids all over.

Then, we both made job changes that allowed us to work from home. We weren’t making any sort of calculated career moves so much as we were following our passions and interests. It just worked out.

By the time school age rolled around for our daughter, parents in the neighborhood had achieved a loud enough voice to push for, and get, changes in the school system. As a result, everyone began enrolling their kids in the neighborhood school which, conveniently, was right down the street. We did the same.

As the neighborhood continued to improve, so did the quality of the amenities. We reclaimed our streets and parks and responded enthusiastically with each new pub, restaurant or convenience opening nearby. In time, people were walking all over the place for all kinds of reasons.

That’s when we realized that, between working at home, walking to school, friends’ houses, businesses and the park, having the subway a half mile away, and generally being part of a place where almost all needs can be satisfied within a mile or two of home, we had no use for a second car. And that’s why, in a decidedly Gen-X maneuver, we traded it in for a Vespa.

The end result of all this, these sixteen years of fortuitous stumbling, is that, while the average American household paid $4,155 for gasoline in 2011 (a 25% increase over 2010), we paid about $1,400. And it wasn’t because we made sacrifices. It was because we happened upon an immensely satisfying lifestyle that just happened to be less dependent on gasoline. At whatever price.Beyond that, what we initially sought for a very specific and limited set of reasons ended up delivering a lot more, in more ways. Not only do we save on gas, we spend less time in the car. We’re afforded more time with our daughter who, now a ‘tween, may not want it but certainly needs it. And when she’s had enough, she can always set out — via foot or bike — on her own.

We also live a more active, more localized existence now which, in practice, has led us to a lot of creative and interesting people with whom we’d have never crossed paths had our daily lives been operating at 45 miles per hour.

Long story short, we consider ourselves very fortunate, but I realize that a story predicated on dumb luck and serendipity is, by definition, not directly transferrable. So before anyone feels the need to respond with a snarky “How nice… for you,” let me be clear. The true lesson here is that, since birth, many of us have been indoctrinated into a program of American Dream-like desires that may, in practice, bear little resemblance to the things that actually bring us satisfaction and joy. So long as we continue to pursue them, making decisions as though the cost of energy doesn’t matter, we’ll increasingly find ourselves at the cruel mercy of fluctuating prices.

Instead, try this: The quest to use less gas will often lead you to compact, diverse, walkable mixed-use places offering a wholly unexpected quality of life.They may differ from what you’ve always pictured. They may offer fewer square feet per dollar. They may take a lot of work in partnership with others. But they will undoubtedly deliver on something often promised and rarely fulfilled: Newfound levels of personal freedom.

What’s that worth to ya?

–Scott Doyon

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Comments

  1. You scared me at the beginning, Scott, when you were talking about “preparing” for higher gas prices and I thought you were going to conclude that we should just buy better cars. Delighted you made the point that the best way to prepare is to live in a place where you need to drive less.

    Wanda and I once lived somewhere almost completely unwalkable until we decided to take our talents to South Beach in 2003. Before moving, we averaged about 48,000 miles per year on two cars. Now, we drive about 6,000 miles per year on one car. Typically, we’ll drive just once or twice a week.

    This is possible first because South Beach is so walkable. But once you’re living in a walkable place, you still have to make walkable choices. So we rented an office 5 blocks from home, selected a bank 6 blocks from the office and an accountant, doctor, etc. about the same distance away. Actually, our accountant just moved and now he’s right across the street from the office… but you get the idea.

    Everyone should chart their own Web of Daily Life. Once you’ve done so, ask yourself “how many of these paths will be clipped because I can’t afford them when gas gets to $10/gallon?” and “…to $20/gallon?” Do it today… this is important.

  2. Great Scott!

    I mean Great, Scott!

    Oh you know what I mean: I REALLY like it.

  3. Terrific ideas, and truly helpful for those who haven’t thought it through. In addition to all of the above, another very helpful act is to not buy a “new” car until you can afford one with a plug. If you need a different car from the one you have, for whatever reason, and you can’t afford the GM Volt, the Nissan LEAF, Mitsubishi iMiEV or the Ford Focus EV, then get a used Prius or some other efficient internal combustion car. I’ve been telling my friends and others who want an EV, but can’t afford one, to double the price of gas when they fill up, pay the man his due at the station, but put the other half of money in an untouchable account to be used only to buy their first EV. The reasoning is that gas should be priced at least double it’s current price because of the external costs, but lacking leadership, those costs are not internalized, so it’s up to the individual to charge him or herself these costs and use that money as a forced savings account to be used to get off of oil entirely.

    We all know the cost of gas will increase dramatically at some point, and as the author says, the up and down pricing trends ever upward, so this is a great way to prepare.

  4. Wow, really enjoyed this article. We try to live that way as much as we can, but as you say, you also have to be lucky.

    For those of us who are stuck living where we are now (for whatever reason) and working where we do now, perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit to pick would be to buy either a smaller car, or a car with a smaller engine (our cars generally have _way_ too much power anyway). If you can just shake that vrooOOm ideal, you can save both on the purchase price and at the pump.

    Most carmakers (yes, including Ford et al.) offer their cars with much smaller gas-sippy engines to our friends in Europe and elsewhere already. Some are slowly starting to reach US shores, judging by the noise from the recent Detroit Auto Show. Let’s invite more of those over! Ask your dealer, _you_ are, after all, the buyer.

  5. I was fortunate, as well, to be able to move to an older “sketchy” neighborhood. I am able to walk everywhere I need to go so my car sits in the driveway, sometimes for weeks at a time.

    Only problem. The neighborhood school is definitely “sketchy” as well. What sorts of improvements were you able to make as parents in order to have a better quality school as well as families that really cared about their children’s education?

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