Transportation wasn’t at the top of the list of things I thought my partner and I should change during our Fishtailing Joyride. Before we started living more frugally, we only had one car, my partner had been taking public transit to work for the past 8 years, we both worked close to home, and our kids’ daycare was a quick walk from home. We also viewed vehicles as simply a way to get around, not status symbols or toys—an outlook that helps us minimize costs related to the one vehicle we do have.
The MMM blog encouraged me to take a second look at the way I get around with posts making arguments like most car use in the U.S. is ridiculous, biking may be the best move you can make toward financial freedom, and you can do far more with a bike than most people realize.
And although I didn’t expect transportation to be a high-yielding source of positive life changes for our family, it lies at the heart of some of my favorite life changes:
Switching from a car to a bike commute
I bought a used touring bike for commuting, and it’s been a game-changer for me:
I get more exercise. Before the Fishtailing Joyride, I hadn’t owned a bike since my teenage years. Working a mere two miles from home, I never thought driving to work was a big deal—the car was barely on, after all. But consider that I’d been bemoaning my lack of time for exercise since having kids. Biking to and from work gave me a way to fit some physical activity, albeit not as much as I’d like, into my day in a way that hardly impacts my commute time at all; it also functions as a much-needed mental buffer between work and home, a way to clear my mind, that a two-mile car commute just couldn’t provide.
I save more money than I expected. My two-mile car commute added up quickly in terms of costs. I had never done the math before reading MMM’s blog. When I finally did, I was stunned. I chose to use the federal reimbursement rate of $0.54/mile as a rough estimate of cost, despite the ways that might be problematic (e.g., that rate accounts for depreciation, and our car has probably already depreciated about as much as it ever will…I figure that’s balanced out by the fact the rate doesn’t account for environmental costs of driving). That’s $561.60 a year. My bike cost $230, the helmet cost $40, and the lock cost $30. At a total of $300, the bike and its accessories will have paid for themselves in another two months, and they’ll pay for themselves even faster if I bike for other trips where I’d have otherwise driven.
I’m more connected with my neighborhood. Driving had been isolating me more than I realized from the awesomeness in my neighborhood. On my bike commute I notice local businesses I’d never noticed before and use quiet paths unavailable to cars, which are stuck using the busy, dirty roads that connect my neighborhood to my office. I also have started getting to know pedestrians and other bikers at stoplights because we can talk to each other and tend to be the same group of people every day.
I’m happier. Transportation was yet another area of my life where my actions didn’t line up with my values. I know biking is better for the environment, my body, my connection to the world around me, and my bottom line. Acting in a way that’s consistent with that knowledge just feels better; I’m more at ease with myself and the world around me. On top of all that, I get endorphins from exercise and a vitamin D boost from the sunshine.
Treating driving like a video game
Another change I made is to make a game out of driving with techniques that increase fuel efficiency. Although driving less altogether is my main focus, when I do drive, increasing fuel efficiency gives driving a purpose. It’s no longer throw-away time where I’m a captive, practically hypnotized audience listening to news, music, or an audiobook (I never do my best thinking in the car, so I won’t pretend it’s a good time to quietly reflect).
I’d never heard of hypermiling before reading an MMM blog post about it. Hypermiling means trying to maximize the fuel efficiency of the vehicle you drive. There are basic strategies like looking far ahead to avoid accelerating at times you’ll just need to brake soon and using an MPG gauge to gain instant feedback on fuel efficiency, both in the moment and on average. Then there are extreme tips like drafting, which means driving closely behind a large truck on a highway to take advantage of reduced wind resistance, and turning off the engine when coasting down inclines. I use the basic ideas and ignore the more extreme ones, since I feel they’re too dangerous. Basically I’ve just been easing off the gas pedal as much as possible.
The impact has been to increase the average MPG of our 2011 Honda CR-V from 21.3 in mid-April to 22.8 by the end of August. Note that our average MPG for these 4.5 months really exceeded 22.8, since it’s the average over the life of the vehicle; because much of that driving was done by me, I can say with certainty that our vehicle was driven less efficiently before I started using hypermiling skills. I hope to eventually bring the average for our vehicle above 28 MPG, which happens to be the manufacturer’s estimate for highway driving for this make and model.
The MPG gauge makes seeking greater fuel efficiency feel like a Nintendo game. The gauge’s in-time data keeps me trying various strategies to get my foot off the gas, like coasting down hills (with the engine on, though!) and coasting to a stop when I can instead of using brakes. With these strategies, the gauge often shoots up to 60+ MPG (60 MPG is the highest the gauge goes). Reaching such high MPGs feels kind of like scoring a bunch of gold coins in Mario Bros. Then there’s the average MPG stat. When it goes up by 0.1 miles, it feels like slaying the dragon at the end of a level I’ve worked hard to beat.
Connecting more dots (I’m getting better at this)
None of what I wrote here is rocket science, but I hadn’t thought of it before starting the Fishtailing Joyride. It’s remarkable and a bit disturbing how little of my day-to-day activity I’d thought through, actually. I didn’t have a well-considered reason for why I did many things the way I did them.
Given this lack of critical thought, I leaned toward consuming, not producing, what I needed. I bought gas for energy to drive to work instead of using my own muscle power, I frequently ate out rather than cooking, I ordered crap on Amazon because it seemed fun/nice/whatever, and much more…and these spending decisions became more frequent as my income increased. Another way to say all this is I lacked connection with many of the things I was doing or using—and did I mention feeling a sense of connection is important to me?