This is the month when the US celebrates its independence from its former colonial masters in old England in 1776. While we are no longer in thrall to Mad King George, our addiction to cars and sprawl keeps us straitjacketed in a tangle of pollution, congestion, loneliness, and an endless round of payouts to the Big Three, Big Oil, and the Road Lobby. Here are ten ways you can break the habit and begin to declare Independence from Oil and the relentless taxes it imposes on our bodies, souls, and pocketbooks. Compiled by the editors.
- Get a Real “Sport Utility Vehicle” Around 50% of the drives Americans make are to destinations within five miles, while 40% are to places less than two miles off. Five miles is less than half an hour of bicycling on flattish ground for anyone who is in good enough shape to walk a couple of blocks at a time, while two miles can be pedaled in just twelve minutes. Nearly every American home has at least one bicycle, often sitting unused in the garage. A little work, and the addition of fenders, a basket, and panniers, can turn your weekend toy into a true sport utility vehicle, one that you can use to go to work, dinner, the bar, or shopping. You can easily carry two bags of groceries on a bike, and since riding is fun, it may be a hidden benefit to have to ride to the store twice a week! Your heart and bones will love you for it too.
- Or simply walk to the store. Try it just once. Stop making trips to big box stores in the suburbs and find a smaller one nearby. Instead of buying food for one or two weeks, buy food for just a couple of days. The meals will be fresher, you won’t waste much, and the food you buy will be healthier since it’s of the perishable variety instead of manufactured and packaged food designed to keep for ages in a warehouse.
- Whether by foot, bike, bus, or car, shop at farmers’ markets. The closer products are produced to our home, the less fuel they use to get from there to our table. Farmers markets’ produce isnâ€™t shipped thousands of miles to get to you, and it tastes better too, besides usually being cheaper than megastore greens. When that’s not practical, begin to pay attention to where the products you are buying originate. Or try organics, made without petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides.
- Avoid buying goods in plastic packaging. Hard to do, oftentimes, but more and more manufacturers are eschewing plastic bubbles for plain, renewable, biodegradable, recyclable cardboard. Give your money to the good guys, not the slobs who imprison your purchase in nearly-impenetrable blister packs that will end up floating around in the ocean for twenty thousand years.
- Never accept plastic bags. More and more cities, and even entire counties, are banning them, while the plastic bag industry whines that its profits must be subsidized by the health of future generations. Let’s face it: grown-ups don’t need plastic baggies; bring your own carry bags, preferably ones made of natural textiles. It’s just not that difficult. Added advantage: they never break and spill your apples and beer on the street.
- Try transit. Bus and train ridership has been increasing steadily in the US for years, and has always been high in other wealthy countries. Why be an unpaid chauffeur, a taxi driver with no passengers in your lonely commute? The subway, the bus, the streetcar, or the commuter train can be a place to read, work, doze, or find conversation, as you please. And if it lets you rid yourself of the burdens of a second (or even an only) car, it will save you far more money than the difference between the transit fare and your day’s gas and parking. With a folding bike you can even connect this option with option 1 above, giving yourself the ultimate in flexibility, fun, and health, as well as saving money and even time. Yes, time—for though a transit trip might (or might not!) take longer than driving, you will either be getting work done or be taking in pleasures while you travel—which won’t happen in a car.
- When you do have to drive, don’t run your vehicle while waiting. Mayor Bloomberg in New York recently received heat for this. His solution was a window unit that can be rolled up to his SUV. That’s not a practical compromise for most of us, but avoiding situations when we have to wait in the car is. Don’t run the car while waiting, get out of the car and go inside.
- Turn the air conditioning off when you leave home. Your house or apartment can cool down in minutes. There isn’t any good reason to leave the air conditioning on when no one’s home. One option is a programmable thermostat, but all that’s really necessary is remembering to turn it off when you go out the door. You’ll be rewarded when your electric bill arrives.
- Do you really need that lawn? Lawn mowers may not use that much gasoline, but they are big polluters—and the fertilizers lawns require are usually petroleum-based these days. If you insist on having a lawn, increase the period of time between mowings. Better yet, replace the lawn with plants that don’t require mowing or that much watering. Planting vegetables in the back yard can cut down on trips to the store, and make dinners a delight as well!
- Move to a mixed-use community. Suburbs are so last century! If you can walk to most of your shopping, dining, drinking, and entertainment within a few blocks of home, you’ll be getting paid to exercise by saving money you would have spent on gas and parking—and depreciation and insurance if you can get rid of one or all of your cars! You’ll make friends and maybe even find a job nearby—no more sitting on the freeway staring at the bumper in front of you!
It took us eleven years to chase the British out after the declaration of Independence. It may take us longer to shake loose the chains of oil addiction. But it will be worth it!
Start today. If it’s already the Fourth, try riding your bikes to the fireworks show—the whole family together! Show your neighbors how it’s done….