When did you last fill up?

As my regular readers will know, I’m currently visiting family on the East Coast of the USA. While I’ve been here I’ve been noticing the differences between the UK and USA cultures from things as diverse as eating out and shopping to travel and environmental issues.
Now, before I go any further I feel duty-bound to put a mini-disclaimer here. I know the USA is a gargantuan country, encompassing many different communities and lifestyles. But I feel that the generalization I’m about to make holds good enough for most of the country that I won’t feel bad making it. Not only that, but the generalisation I’m about to make holds true for my home country and most of Europe just as much as it is true for North America.

The car is king.

America, like most of the western world, is in love with gas.
America, like most of the western world, is in love with gas.

Photo by Nikki Bloomfield
More after the jump
Seriously, there are wide roads everywhere. Even if you live in a sleepy suburb of a major city like my in-laws, who as it happens live in Fairfax, VA – only about 40 minutes from the nation’s capitol – most things are a drive away.
The store is a drive away. The bookshop is a drive away. Even the local take-away places are a drive away. In the course of a week in a busy American household (as is true in the UK) tens and sometimes hundreds of miles are covered making short trips well within a twenty-mile radius of the house. The car has become the enabler of frequent errand making. As I’ve pointed out before, short trips are the most inefficient trips you can make in a car. Gasoline and Diesel powered engines don’t even have a chance to warm up to the optimum operating temperature when making a short sub 5 mile trip. The consequence of all these short trips, as my father in law commented this morning when he drove my partner and I to a local restaurant:

“Well all this running around sure as heck hammers the mileage”

Of course, my father in law normally uses his prius to drive to and from work, and very little else. It doesn’t get used for all these little errands that so many cars do as my mother in law tends to do all the short errands. But after a week of being on vacation while we visit, his car had been given a huge dose of short-trips, taking the fuel efficiency from a respectable 55 mpg down to just above 50. He was right. Lots of small, short trips don’t give you good fuel economy – prius driver or not.
As an owner of a Plug-In Prius I am used to doing over 800 miles on a single tank of fuel. I have a T-Shirt which reads “I Get 100 MPG (I forget when I last filled up)”. It would be better of course if I never filled up my car. Which brings me to the next point.
Think about your trips around town. In the course of your day how many miles do you travel? Of those miles, do you ever go more than 40 miles in a single trip? Do you return back to your house after each? If so, how about the following:
You drive a car which never needs filling up at a gas station. You refuel it every night on your way out of the garage into your house. It’s easy to fix and never requires an oil-change. It goes round town and, in some urban areas, gives you priority use of HOV lanes (even when you only have yourself in the car) and specialist, close-to-store parking. The fuel is cheaper to buy and doesn’t ever need queuing for.
Interested?

Cars like the Smart ED could revolutionise urban and surburban tranportation
Cars like the Smart ED could revolutionise urban and surburban tranportation

Photo by Thingermerjig.
If the above description sounds good then an EV can probably meet your needs. There aren’t all that many models to choose from right now, unless you convert your own, but for those urbanites who don’t need that big SUV there are vehicles which will save you money and time.
For those who need to make longer trips on a regular basis (and I don’t mean those who make the once-a-year trip upstate or cross-country to see relatives – they can hire a petrol car for the week and get a vehicle which meets their needs exactly) then a Plug in Hybrid is a sure-fire way of saving money and filling up less.
If you get frustrated about filling up than maybe you’re filling up with the wrong stuff. If like my father in law, filling up seems like only yesterday – then give sites like Pluginamerica or the PluginBritain
could help you achieve fuel filling nirvana.
Tomorrow is Easter Sunday. Regardless of belief (speaking here as a non-christian) Easter has for a long time symbolized the start of spring and a new start. Perhaps tomorrow should be yours.

12 Comments

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  1. The other answer is BICYCLES! I cycled 14 miles today – went to the farmer's market, went to school and saw a recital, went to the music store, Wild Oats, and CVS, and went home. It takes longer, but it's as free as free can be, and fantastic exercise. The real problem in the US is the lack of good mass transit in most places. Urban areas generally have usable bus or rail systems, but everywhere else is out of luck. It's not like Italy, where the train system goes *everywhere*.

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  2. I too ride a bicycle but I've put an electric motor on mine. It's become more of a electric moped now, but anyway I believe in bi-wheel transportation. The lack of mass transit is lamentable but this problem is not just one in which we can just build more train lines. Mass transit needs a certain population density to make them viable. In order to achieve this critical density, we'll need fewer of us living in mc mansions. People are going to need greater trust before living closer together. The richer still don't trust the poorer in this country.

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  3. Noah, you made some excellent points there. I'd love to see more bicycles on the road. They're cleaner, quicker and less expensive than the alternatives! Prior to passing my driver's test I did about 40-50 miles a day when I graduated. My legs were very fit and I felt great. I was also the smallest I've ever been! Oh to be that slim again! In the US I'd agree that the provisions of good mass transit is a problem. We suffer the same in the UK. Of course, before Dr Beeching was allowed to kill all the train branch lines in the UK in the 1960s we had excellent train service all over England. But now it's a shadow of it's former self. Train travel is just too expensive too – it costs me more to go by train to London (120 miles away) than it does to drive there in my PHEV, Park on a meter in the most expensive part of town and eat out before driving home. It's just plain wrong! And don't even get me started on busses… No, you're right. Lack of Mass transit provision is a major issue. Improved mass transit, combined with more cycleways, pathways and clean private vehicle incentives would help move our societies into the 21st century. Of course, I'm also a fan of the velomobile… And I'd have one (if it wasn't so expensive….)

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  4. As a Brit who lives in relative close proximity to lots of other people, I must agree that I don't understand why suburban areas tend to sprawl so much in the US. However, you have to also examine the way in which people move around, and the reasons for doing so. I'll give you an example: People move to go to the shops. If they live in very tight proximity (as in the UK, for example, where most new homes don't have gardens) then the opportunity for growing their own food is tough. Luckily for me, I live in a 1980s built home, which while it is very small and is part of a terrace, has a small garden big enough for a family-sized vegetable plot. But also, you have to exmaine the social structures surrounding work. I'm sitting here now typing this story 3,500 miles away from my home. But unless I had said anything I may have well been anywhere in the world. Telecommuting, and the benefits that that brings, can help reduce the minefield of commuting hell that many people face on a daily basis because they live more than 30 miles from their office. Working from home for at least part of the week, combined with improved mass transit, EV infrastructure and micro generation (wind, solar, geothermal) could really help change the way we lead our lives. I now look out onto the lives of people who do regular commutes. I just couldn't do it, and am glad I at least have some choice in how I work and when.

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  5. Nikki, in your alarm in the car and petrol usage on this trip, don't forget that you are on holiday and a certain extra amount of petrol will be required to go, see and do things– especially in the USA. You're in-law's typical routines don't require a lot of short trips. At least they have a prius!

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  6. Oh yes, absolutely. And I know if the trip were reversed we'd probably be doing the same thing (but in a plug in of course!) My real alarm though is that how we (or most of us) quite unwittingly fall into the trap of making small, unnecessary trips on a regular basis without really thinking about how or why we're making them. While I've been here I've seen people drive across a parking lot to get from one shop to the next, just like I've witnessed many times in the UK. I think those of us who drive can all stop and think about responsible car use and maybe make alternative arrangements (or buy an alternative form of transport) for those really short trips.

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  7. Suburbs here sprawl because there's space. The US is a very sparsely populated country, relatively speaking – 80 people per square mile, compared to the UK's 600+ or England's 1000 or so. There are *tons* of empty space here, just waiting to be filled with people. Combine that with a car culture, and you get suburban sprawl. Kansas City, where I live, only has about 1500 people per square mile, despite the fact that it's a fairly large city (almost 500,000 people). The one city in the US where public transit really works? New York. Density? Almost 30,000 per square mile, with Manhattan leaping to over 60,000. But New York City *can't* sprawl, because it's a series of islands (and also because there's no open land there). Twenty miles from where I live, I can be in rural Kansas where the streets are a mile apart. That's an environment just waiting for more expansion and more sprawl. I don't like it (actually, I hate sprawl), but that's why it happens here. Eventually, the rural areas of the US are going to disappear as the population expands, creating megacities like the Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington – it's basically one huge urbanized area at this point). That's when country-wide public transit is going to be viable in the US, and it's going to be a sad trade-off. Then again, Trenitalia in Italy covers the entire country quite well, even though a lot of areas it goes to are rural villages. So maybe it's just the scale of our country that causes issues.

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  8. Nikki we net to get the Nimh batteries away from Chevron.

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  9. Why does North American development sprawl like it does? I can't give answers myself, I don't want to play devil's advocate, but I can throw a whole bunch of numbers into the discussion. Recently, my first time owning and operating a car for one continuous year since 2000, it worked out that after I added up registration, insurance, fuel, maintenance and repairs, it's cost me $210 Canadian per month, or about $170 US. Had I stuck to public transit instead, that would have been $82 per month, but since I live way out in the suburbs, a round-trip that would take me 1.5 hours in the car would instead stretch out to 3 hours minimum, sometimes as much as 4 hours, half an hour of that sitting at a bus stop late late at night in one of the worst neighbourhoods in western Canada, waiting for my connection. And this is *with* light-rail rapid transit half of the way there! I stop to consider what my time, and more importantly my safety, is worth to me. So, you might say, move closer into town. That doesn't work so well either – the space that I'm paying $520 per month to rent out here in the sticks, were I on the other side of the Fraser River, would skyrocket to $1100 per month plus. While density equals convenience, you pay through the nose for said convenience. Along the same lines, Jenn and I were discussing public transportation this past week, and pondering the difference of incentives to use it between encouragement and punishment. Jenn's work commute involves driving *away* from work, then a Park & Ride and a bus. It would be the same distance and just as quick for her to drive directly to her work and not worry about being assaulted by bums while running 6 blocks up a 15% grade to catch the last bus of the night… except parking in downtown Seattle runs $15 to $20 during a business day, assuming one can find a spot. There's another Park & Ride just down the road from her house, but between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays it's 100% full.

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  10. Err, that should be "harassed by bums", not "assaulted". It hasn't come to that point yet, thank god.

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  11. I hear that… Although to be honest, we'll be just as good with LiFePo4 if we can find enough raw material to make it! The NiMH have their own problems too, but as I use them now I must admit I quite like them 🙂

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  12. Of course, this article makes sweeping generalizations, which is why I posted. It is nice to have the discussion though! It is a lot cheaper to live out of a town or city center. My answer to this (being someone who wouldn't want to live on main street, anywhere) is for people to shop more locally and think about living somewhere near to where they want to be (wherever possible, of course).

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