How to Get Out of the Car

Little House on the Prairie illustration by Garth Williams

I am so excited reading all of your comments about driving from the last post. There seem to be two camps - people who live out of town and organise themselves super efficiently to batch all their errands together in their occasional trips to town, and people who live in walkable communities who walk and bike to do all their local trips. And then there is the third camp, which is me, who clearly could do better. I am inspired and motivated by both groups.

I think there are two stories I need to tell myself. One is that most places I need to go are much closer than I think they are. When you hop into a car to drive everywhere you start to believe that walking is much harder and takes much longer than it actually does. The other story is, that when it comes to using the car, I need to believe that I am living in the Little House on the Prairie. I can't find the quote now, but I loved the line where Pa declared that they would all just have to make do with whatever it was that they were out of, "because you can't go running into town every few weeks for every little thing..". I am imagining the huge effort to get the horses hitched up and to drive for hours over a muddy cart track to get to town - that level of organisation and necessity should go into every car trip I make, because I am using such a lot of such a precious and irreplaceable resource to do it.

I have been very inspired by two blog posts by Karen Allen, an intrepid city biker and sustainability enthusiast from San Francisco. In her first post about reducing the amount of oil we use in our lives she included a nifty quiz to calculate approximately how many gallons of oil each of us are using per year, some in surprising hidden places. I took the test and reported my findings in the comments. It would be fascinating to see some more results! The most difficult part for me was transferring the US imperial measures into litres and kilograms and back again, but google conversion calculators are our friends! Part 2 of the series focuses on ideas to get the oil out of our travel - and this is exactly what I need to hear this week. From thinking about where we live to where we choose to shop and go to the dentist to how we get around to changing our perceptions of car use, I am challenged and inspired by the issues in this post, and feel like Karen has opened an important discussion. Our love affair with cars just can't continue..

Angus Wallace blogs from Adelaide where he is busily converting his suburban family home into a sustainable oasis. His latest post also gave me pause for thought. He points out that 1 litre of petrol provides 10kWh of energy, making his family trip to a free-range zoo out of town very expensive in terms of energy use:

So the round trip is about 130 km. Our car uses about 8 L per 100km on the open road, so that works out to about 10.4 L of petrol, which is about 100 kWh (each liter of petrol has about 10 kWh of energy). For us, that is a month's worth of energy (as consumed by our house of four people) used in 1h:20m of travel.

Now, two things strike me here - one is the thought stopper about the energy embodied in a litre of petrol, the other is how little electricity Angus' family uses in a month - approximately a quarter of what our family uses. So when I start in on attacking my electricity use next week, I hope Angus will weigh in!

My car uses about 8.5 to 9L per 100km on the open road, and about 10L per 100km for town driving (for those of you in the US, a litre is approximately equal to a quart, or 0.26 of a gallon, so 10km per litre is about 23.5mpg for town driving in my car, and, I hope my maths is correct, that means that each gallon of gas pumped over there in the USofA embodies approximately 40kWh of energy).

All this really means is that driving a car = huge expenditure of energy, and that maybe, just maybe, we can think of better things to do with that energy than to use it to pick up loaves of bread from the shop.

Both Karen and Angus use and recommend bikes and electric bikes. Commenters on the last post ride bikes. All the people dressed in lycra who clutter up all the local cafes every week-end morning ride bikes. Me, I am very afraid of bikes as I am incredibly unco-ordinated, and also live on the side of a very steep hill. In fact, a lot of my town is on one side or the other of a number of very steep hills. I feel like a whiny scaredy-pants as I whine and complain about this, but there you have it. Still, all the enthusiasm here about bike-riding makes me almost think that I could maybe have a little look at the possible idea of maybe possibly looking at an electric bike. Maybe. Please tell me everything you know about them in the comments. Start at the very beginning. I know nothing. Do you ride a bike? I delegated bike riding teaching for the children to my ex-husband, and actually haven't ridden a bike since approximately 1984. So not only are the hills steep, but also the learning curve..

And I'm not promising anything..


Anonymous said…
Hi Jo
Thanks for the link to that very informative site.My number is 303 gallons. Probably lower that some as we don't drive a lot. While we are not within a 10 minute walk to places we are within a 10 minute drive. We have a half walkable community, we have grocery stores,library and hairdresser. For doctors and dentists we drive.
My husband walks for an hour each day and he usually picks up goods at the store when needed. We also do all the errands together when driving.
I have a bike and I do use it, but every spring I have to work up the courage all over again to ride on the busy roads. I'm afraid I would not be able to manage hilly terrain.
Lisa said…
Wow, your car is not very economical with the fuel - 8.5-9l per 100km is a lot, I think I'd freak out if I was using that much fuel. My old Honda Jazz used just under 6l per 100km and my 1 yr old ford focus does about 6.6-7l per 100km.
If it's an option (it isn't always) I'd put getting a car that uses less fuel on the to do list too.
Lisa said…
Also, as for bikes, have you heard about cargo bikes? They are more stable, so you wouldn't feel as uncoordinated and you can carry your shopping easily too:)
Treaders said…
I bought myself an electric-assistance bike, by which I mean you can have the battery kick in when you need it but can do without it when you don't. That is the theory anyway but I found that the battery actually kicked in when I didn't want it/wasn't expecting it and it was not pleasant. Talking to others that would seem to be one of the faults of this particular make. The other thing is it is VERY heavy - 22kg - and that is very off-putting. I took it out for a practice run about a year ago and got stuck on a speed bump -- I kid you not - I couldn't get the bloody thing going again as it was just so heavy. I was bemoaning this to my sister who told me she cycles everywhere. Well bully for her - she lives in Copenhagen and I live in the French alps. I think if it was flat and safe I would get more out of it but I most certainly would not cycle round Geneva on it. Just a few things to take into consideration - the weight is a biggie. Anna
Jo said…
Marieann, isn't Kate's site great? 303 gallons is a very respectable number. Mine was 120 gallons, but that is because I literally bought nothing new in 2016 except things like a tea strainer and some children's clothes, which don't add up to much poundage, and didn't travel anywhere at all. 2017 will add up to much more in the way of oil usage because I plan to buy all the things for my new house - rain water tanks and solar, and who knows, maybe a bike??

Your community sounds like a useful place to live, and isn't it brilliant to use the daily walk to do errands? I often combine dog walking with dropping off books at the library or picking up groceries. It's nice that you and your husband can organise your errands list together.

I think you are super brave to be out riding on busy roads!I'm not even that keen about walking alongside them..

Lisa, thank you for that info on your cars' fuel efficiency. I have NO IDEA about what is possible there, because I have never done the research. My current car (Subaru XV) is more efficient than the old minivan, and that's all I knew about the subject. My ex-husband very kindly bought the car for me when I was in a complete tizz about impending divorce, and honestly, my interest in cars as objects is practically nil. So this opens a whole extra area of research for me:) Your cars sound very fuel efficient indeed.. is it possible to go lower I wonder, without buying a tiny smart car? Wait, I know the answer to that - electric bike!

Yes, I have seen cargo bikes - they do look good, but I would definitely need to go electric with one of those heavy beasts!

Anna, that is a hilarious story, thank you SO much for bravely sharing that, I am having hysterics here - and that is EXACTLY the kind of thing that would happen to me, without any doubt at all.. and yes, I would much prefer to live in Copenhagen than Geneva for biking reasons. When he moved to Tasmania my dad bought The Boy's old bike and merrily bikes around the very flat town they decided to move to.. that was one of their criteria for buying a house - it had to be flat for walking and biking. Hence why they don't live in Launceston with me!

Bek said…
I commented (just before reading this post) in response to your question about how I transitioned from car to bike. The short answer is I did it slowly. And I think that's the key. I gently encouraged (read: forced - no not really :) ) my partner into bike riding when he hadn't riden since he was a kid, and now we bike for most places we need to go. That said this took maybe 18 months to go from nothing to everywhere. And he had me to follow, rather than heading out on his own. So I would say: 1. start biking slowly, maybe find a nice level area (maybe a park, or track somewhere) to start out. Then build up slowly. Definitely start on the road with an experienced cyclist if you can, to get used to cars. Google maps can be good to find bike lanes or parks you can ride through, which often you don't know about if you are used to only looking for roads. A cargo bike would definitely be more stable, but in my experience they can be a bit uncoordinated to ride. But each to their own. An electric bike I think is worth considering, but they can be pricey. But they would make the hills a lot less of an issue. Or you can just walk the bike up and down the hill and ride the flat bits (if there are any) where you are. Hope this helps. If you ever come to Melbourne I'll take you for a bike ride :)
Anonymous said…
That's my all time favourite Little House picture. It prompted many getting to sleep relaxing dreams.

As to car use, I kinda skimmed with all the gallons, quarts, litres and energy kilowatts. But it's like the thing I said about air travel. Imagine the energy in jet fuel?

As to biking, I think you should walk. I've been to Lonnie. You'll be the fittest woman in a few weeks. And I think you should plan and organise your shopping and jobs that need doing in town so you maximise your car use and load up on the needed shopping.

How much energy needed in the creation of the bike? Would it be better to walk, use online to do jobs and be organised so you minimise use of car? And track your use. If it works, move to a bike if needed.

Can you imagine riding when it is cold and wet in winter up and down all those Lonnie hills?

I want a bike but it is just too dangerous in Sydney traffic. But if I lived in a small town with only little hills, I'd be biking. Mr S and I have picked out the bike I want. A lovely shade of pale blue.
Jo said…
Bek, thanks for both your comments - And I really want you to teach me how to ride a bike! I can see the sense of your advice, and honestly, can't imagine diving into a biking project, but it is definitely on the cards. Maybe I just need to find a partner who is as 'persuasive' as you:)

Lucinda, I can absolutely see you on a pale blue bike. With a basket. I hear you on all those points you raise, plus there are other difficulties I have thought of too, such as where to store this putative bike? And the stairs I have to negotiate to leave the garden.. but a pale blue bike.. ooh, I want one:)
Angus Wallace said…
I think it's important to try to understand the technical side of our luxurious lifestyle (otherwise we can end up a bit like a Roman emperor: "I don't care how many slaves die, just make it so!" ;-) but I understand that terms like kWh are fairly unintuitive to non-technical people.

Wherever you see 'kWh', just imagine a draft horse working as hard as it can for 80 minutes (the two are about equivalent). Thus, my 100 kWh drive was equivalent to 10 draft horses working flat-out for 13 hours. It's a lot of energy!

Jo, I'm not sure what I'd recommend about learning to cycle -- do you have any friends who cycle or want to learn? Most things are much more fun with two people! I'd choose flatter land to start with, preferably off-road (a sealed track in a park, perhaps?)

I like the little house on the prarie quote too. Will look at Karen Allen's posts later -- sounds good. Happy to chime in with electricity suggestions, if I have some.

Cheers, Angus
Anonymous said…
I just wanted to thank you for the links to the two blogs. I've been reading through them with interest. Any others you could suggest for us like minded folk?
Specks 🤓
Linda said…
I don't like bikes! As a child I didn't, never ridden one as an adult and really dislike driving around them as a car driver. Also as a pedestrian I heartily dislike bikes - or rather their riders who stealthily come behind you, rush past you, nearly knocking you down as you walk along pathways. There used to be a stipulation that cycles had to have a bell which had to be rung to alert pedestrians. Has that been dropped? Not PC? So I'll stick to walking as much as possible and -as we have done for a long time - only use the car when we have to and run lots of errands in one car trip.
Jo said…
Angus, I like that comparison - that does provide a real picture of the amount of energy we use. I am considering ways and means for practising my bike riding - my first job will be to get my dad over to give our one family bike an overhaul. He is the go to bike fixer of the family..

Specks, check out my blog list on the side bar. Lots of gems! Will be adding more soon:)

Linda, I am a bit scared of riding - scared of traffic, scared of falling off! Yes, I remember that bell-ringing rule from childhood bike riding. I wonder if it still applies? I haven't experienced it. I am not sure if bike riders are even allowed to use footpaths/pavements, are they? Must look into that..

To be honest, as a lifelong accident prone person, I am more inclined to stick to walking.. but feel I should give riding a little go, just so I know I can.
Barbara said…
Don't be put off by all the show offs (mostly male) in lycra-
there are plenty of people like me who ride ordinary bikes in
ordinary clothes as their daily transport (just go to Denmark
or Japan). I've never considered a cargo bike since I have
hip problems and I think it would be too heavy for me. But
I did try an electric bike in Japan (not by choice - it was
all that tourist office in that particular town had to hire).
Once you got over the weird sensation of the pedals going a
lot faster than you expected it was okay to ride. But the
town we were in was very flat so we didn't try it on hills.
Plus the battery on my husband's bike must not have been
charged enough since it ran out too soon. The bike was very
heavy and it was a long slow slog to get back!
Jo said…
Barbara, what an exciting adventure on the electric bike.. Your poor husband got an unexpected workout there. Yes, I would definitely like to try out an electric bike before I bought one - I wonder if any of the local bike shops hire them out?? Do you ride far on your bike? And do you use it to carry anything? I am trying to picture my weekly trips in my head, and wondering which of them would be best served by bike. I might have to keep a little diary and work it out.

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