Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Car Talk

The Conscious Shopper thinks too much about fuel efficiency.

My sister always told me when we were kids that I "think too much." This time, she's right.

On Monday as I was doing my weekly bread baking, one side of my brain was thinking, "1/2 c. oil, 1/2 c. honey, 6 cups flour..." while the other side of my brain was doing mental math. In fact, for the past few weeks, every time it can get a spare minute, my brain starts calculating ways to solve a problem that's been really bugging me.

Here is my problem:

Yes, folks, we are a minivan family.

We are also a one-car family, and in the past, I might have argued that the fact that we only drive one vehicle balances out the fact that it is a minivan. But that argument was based on the assumption that our minivan was achieving its optimum gas mileage. It's not.

A 2004 Honda Odyssey should be getting 16 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway, 18 or 19 mpg on average. Last month, our lovely vehicle got 14 mpg.

If I'm so concerned about my car's gas mileage, shouldn't I trade it in for a hybrid or at least a more fuel efficient car? Shouldn't I be using more public transportation? Shouldn't I get a bike or walk more? My brain has been feverishly working out answers to those questions, and here's what I've come up with:

:: Should we trade it in? If I had realized my car was getting such poor gas mileage, I might have taken a closer look at Cash for Clunkers. As it is, considering gas prices and the amount we owe on our loan, it just doesn't make financial sense to trade it in.

:: Should we use public transportation? Raleigh's transit consists of a very meager bus system. The fare is only $1 per person per trip, which sounds reasonable. But even with as poor gas mileage as my car is getting, I can't think of any destinations where it would make more financial sense to load my family onto the bus rather than into the car. Even if I only had to pay for myself, it would only be cost effective to ride the bus if I had to pay for parking, was traveling a very long distance, or didn't have a car at all. That really stinks!

:: Should I get a bike? Should I walk more? I've looked at every option, and I keep coming up with the same conclusions. If it's less than a mile, we're already walking there. If it's more than a mile but less than five miles, my four-year-old's legs can't handle it. I could get a double stroller or a bike with a trailer, but the number of miles and amount of money we'd save is so negligible, that it doesn't balance out the loss of time. Where we're really racking up the miles and losing money is on the longer trips, and I have to have a car for those.

Maybe you have a better solution (I'd love to have one of those "Why didn't I think of that?" moments), but for now, here's the conclusion I've come to...

Because of the size of my family and our financial situation, we're stuck with the minivan, but that doesn't mean we're stuck with the gas mileage. I don't know why our mpg is so far below what it should be, but for now here's what I can try:
  • Keep the tires inflated.
  • Periodically clean the air filter.
  • Never, ever idle.
  • Use cruise control whenever possible.
  • Plan trips better so we make fewer out-of-the-way trips to stores.
Short of becoming social recluses, this is the best we can do right now. But if gas prices shoot up to $4 again, you may see me revisiting the question. Or maybe by then we'll have had a financial windfall and I'll be driving my Tesla. A girl can dream, right?


JAM said...

GB, I'm in the same boat (gee, maybe a boat would get better mileage!) as you. I have a Passat, which you would think would get great mileage by it's small size and sporty exterior. However, it gets about 15 with me tooting about town. I just figure with the very small amount of driving I do, whether I'm getting 15 or 20 is not making that much difference. It would just cost too much to get rid of a perfectly serviceable 8 year old car and replace it with something else, not to mention someone else would be driving my car, probably a lot more miles than I drive it. Imperfect solution, I know. What I really wish we had was some sort of neighborhood car sharing deal. I only use my car a few times per week, and there are some others who do the same. If we could share 2 cars instead of 4 or 5, and maybe have some sort of schedule for planned trips to reserve them, maybe that would work. Probably not, as Americans are so used to getting what we want the instant we want it. My mom and I live in the same town, but a bit too far of a walk to share a car (especially since she's 75) but otherwise we could definitely share a car as our schedules are opposite - she runs errands early, while I exercise and do "home" jobs, and then she is usually home for the day when I might need to go out, either before the kids get home or when they're home if they need a ride somewhere. It would be a lot easier to make them walk where they need to go if we had to walk to Grammy's to get the car for something! All this stuff is still in the pondering stage, but maybe someday...

CC said...

I find it incredibly depressing that even HERE- where "eco-heroes" gather- the cost *to the planet* of your vehicle's terrible gas mileage doesn't factor into your decision. AT ALL.

This is why I have no hope we're getting out of this mess.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Cc - Obviously the cost to the planet played a part in my thought process or I wouldn't be writing about it here or thinking about it so much. But I also have to take into account the realities of my life. If we traded in our car for a Prius, we would lose $20,000 over the next five years even with savings on gas. The Raleigh bus system is just not good enough to go without a car completely, so the few times we could ride the bus would only save about 20 to 30 of the miles we drive each month. Same with riding a bike.

I'm not happy about it either, but this is the reality of my life and where we live. I'm involved in the effort to improve public transportation around here, but until that happens, I'm doing the best I can.

DramaMama said...

It's ironic that you posted this today! We are a one minivan family too. We have survived 2 years w/o one. Mostly b/c I was able to go w/o a vehicle during the day. Now we have a foster daughter who has frequent appts at the hospital an hour away. I cannot bike there!!! So, hubby has been going w/o the vehicle and it hasn't been working. We've been contemplating a 2nd vehicle and he's actually been researching electric cars, hybrids, etc...which was a HUGE shock for me! We're both frustrated and not looking fwd to having 2 car insurance payments and such. However, these are the choices we make. If we continue to take foster children and esp those w/medical needs, we are going to need another vehicle. We did talk, however, how even when we have 2 we should try to live like we have one. Small consolation, but our priorities are different than some. Thanks for your honesty about your situation! Talking and sharing our stories helps people work things out and generate ideas. I'm looking fwd to hearing updates...

JAM said...

Sorry I called you GB - brain freeze!

Aaron said...

decrease in gas milage typically means it's time for a tune up.
Clean air filter, fresh oil and oil filter. Perhaps even new plugs and wires if it has been 36k since the last set.

I do find it odd that people don't factor in the resources wasted when good vehicles are scrapped. It's not just about milage.

Billie said...

They just revamped the bus schedules where I live and now a bus goes by my office. I have been going to work by bus every day. Cost-wise, the bus is a bit more expensive but I figure I make it up in lack of wear and tear on my vehicle and peace of mind during my commute. Cost to the planet comes into play when you figure that I spend 1hr each way rather than 25 minutes.

I think you really need to look at what works for your family. When the bus was going to take me 1 1/2hrs, it just wasn't worth it - not even for the cost of the planet. There are other things I can do to ameliorate my carbon footprint without tripling my commute.

It will become cheaper when/if I can reduce my insurance. That won't happen quite yet... maybe next year.

Green Bean said...

Ahhh, I see that driving is your kryptonite as well as mine. You'll be hard pressed to find someone who does a better job - planet-wise - eating or waste-wise than me. But look at my transportation and my status as an eco-hero is definitely questionable.

We too own a minivan and my husband has a sedan. See, we're not even a 1 car family. We've thought about trade ins, buying a different car, going down to one and, for now, it's not feasible for the family or the bank account. That said, we do what you suggest. We also carpool like crazy. Most school days and school events, I've got a load of 5 kids in my car. We group errands so that we're more efficient, even if our cars are not, and we've looked more and more at finding what we need in our own city - whether it be a health car provider, retail, food and so on. That way, we can either walk or bike (though I'm not as good at this as I should be) or, at least if we're driving, its not a long drive. Added bonus is that we support independent business persons in our own community.

Chris in England said...

I'm very suprised at the low mileage you are getting from your minivan. Here in the UK those cars are called people carriers and are regularly reported to do about 50 MPG with diesel fuel. Manufacturers in Europe have gone a long way down the frugal car route because of the high price of 'gas' here. The problem of cheap fuel has resulted in rubbish MPG in the US and all the associated ills of pollution and lack of public transport and even, in some cases, no sidewalks. You reap what you sow I'm afriad.

JAM said...

My husband is British, and he says that our gas and their gas (petrol) are two completely different things - it is not the same formula at all (which is one reason why it costs a lot more) and cars over there are engineered to run on their gas which is, indeed, much better pollution-wise. The cars are so different that you couldn't just bring one over on a boat and use it with the other type of gas (wouldn't work trying it in either direction). So yes, because we haven't had decades of working towards better mpg, and ensuring that we have the "better" gas, we have cars that have terrible mileage, and our cars with "great" gas mileage still pale in comparison to European mpg.

Kellie said...

I found that I got a lot better gas mileage when I started employing some of the hypermiling techniques. NOT the dangerous or crazy ones like drafting semis! But things like slowing down and only driving 55 or 60 mph, not speeding up to a stop light or sign, coasting, and being very careful to drive "smoothly" w/out punching the gas, only to step on the breaks a few seconds later.

I was getting 31 mpg where my husband only gets about 28 mpg now (driving the same car).

utahlawyer said...

I think most of us are in the same situation. Unfortunately this situation emphasizes one of the biggest roadblocks to environmentalism; without the full support of government, businesses, and the entire community, we can not solve the environmental issues we face. Not to discount the personal decisions we make; they do matter. But, these choices can not be enough without stricter federal regulation and business support.

I think the answer is to spread the word, write Congress, and local government, and support green business efforts as much as possible.

Green Me Alison said...

I'd revisit the bike & bike trailer option for trips in the 1 to 5 mile range. Maybe you can get a cheap one on CL or trade up for one. For example, I first got a super cheap trailer for $50 -- it got us where we needed to go and surprisingly, on those several mile trips (2 or 3 miles) it is not really any slower.

However, my son was not very comfy in our cheap trailer, so I sold the old trailer (I'd put on new tires and got $80) and our super fancy jog stroller ($250). We do periodically make use of the jog stroller, so I bought a less fancy, but good used one ($40). I then upgraded our trailer to a used Chariot for $325. The net cost to me was less than $100.

I've been running errands by bike and trailer now for over a year and just recently upgraded to add a panier to my bike to carrier more. I feel great, it saves gas and once you do it a few times it is really easier than you'd think!

I am dreaming of a bakfiets cargo bike though, for when my son gets bigger!

P.s. I'd agree that it does not make financial or economic sense to trade in a perfectly functioning Honda for a Prius. Many other scarce resources go into the creation of vehicles. What we really need is a way to retrofit our perfectly good cars to be more fuel efficient!

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Kellie said about the "hypermiling techniques". I was able to raise my mileage by 7% even though I was already beating the EPA estimates for my car. I have a manual transmission so it mostly was driving in the highest gear possible, keeping it at the speed limit, and coasting into red lights (after tapping my brakes). I also cleaned out my car...extra weight means lower mileage.

Laura in So Cal

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Jam - Alline at Ecovillage Musings recently wrote about a carsharing system they have in their community. Very interesting. And no prob about calling me GB - it's a great compliment.

@DramaMama - Definitely check out the hybrid options. If you're in the market for a new vehicle (as opposed to still paying off the vehicle you have like we are) a hybrid is definitely a smart financial decision. Or electric. If you get a Tesla, I'll be so jealous! :)

@Aaron - Thanks for the tips. We do follow our recommended maintenance schedule - I'll have to check if we're close to tune up time. We also have over 100,000 miles on this car, which I'm sure is contributing to the poor gas mileage.

@Billie - So great that they improved the bus system where you live. Hopefully that will be happening here soon too!

@Green Bean - No, money is definitely my kryptonite. If money were no option, I would be many many shades darker green than I am.

@Chris in England - Very true. It's embarrassing really.

@Kellie - Yes, I've been trying to do more of that, though I've never been an aggressive driver. If only I could convince my husband to do it...

@utahlawyer - Amen! I'm planning on writing more about that in my next post.

@Green Me Alison - I haven't given up on the trailer idea. Maybe you have suggestions? My problem is that I have three kids and the oldest is nearly six, so too many kids to fit in a bike trailer, but the oldest isn't old enough to ride solo yet. In fact, bikes freak him out. What I really really want is a pedicab like No Impact Man has.

@Laura in So Cal - Yes, I should work on that.

daharja said...

I'm going to put a spanner in the works, and talk about mileage per person per year.

For a moment, forget it's a minivan.

What you really want to calculate is how many miles per week each person in your family is travelling in the car, before you work out the economy of the vehicle.

For example, a bus with only 3 people in it is really inefficient. The worst SUV you can think of is probably better.

So, try keeping a log book in the car.

Note each trip for a month (that should do it). Note how many people are in the car for each trip.

If it turns out that half your trips have six people in the car, but the other half have only one, you're better off buying a second vehicle like a motor scooter, motobike, bicycle or a very compact car, and using that when it's just one person.

If most of your trips have lots of people in the car, your van is probably outperforming most of the cars on the road per person, when you work it out.

So yes, the devil is in the details.

I drive a medium sized car (a Mazda Capella), and we're a one-car family of four. We're actually planning on downsizing our car over the next 2-3 months to a smallish hatchback, as our kids are now out of prams and we no longer need the boot space.

Almost all of our trips have 3 people in the car, because we have two preschoolers.

The remaining quarter of the trips have either 4 people (my husband as well) or just one adult (when I go to Church on Sundays and Thursdays, or my husband has rehearsals on Mondays).

(We average 22.5 miles per person per week in car travel (I keep logs); that's 90 miles we drive per week altogether. We're trying to get it down, as that's quite high and we're not happy with our petrol usage.)

So we're getting an average of 3x times the use out of each gallon of petrol that a person in a similar car but with only one person in it is getting.

I hope I've explained this well enough, without hammering the details home enough to be boring.

But sometimes when you have a large family it is worthwhile to get a second vehicle, and keep the large one, so you have two options - for the times you need to haul the whole family (or a sizeable part of it), and for the times you've only got an adult, or maybe one passenger.

I hope this has been useful.

Cheers :-)

Daharja at Cluttercut

Robyn said...

I know several people in the Air Force who have shipped cars over to Europe (Germany specifically) and have used them over there and then shipped them back......

knittingwoman said...

We just sold our 2000 Honda Odyssey. We bought it when we were a 7 person family. A year ago we really wanted to trade it in for a smaller more energy efficient car etc. as we were down to only 2 kids at home. Discovered that we couldn't afford to trade it in:( We couldn't take on car payments in the place of a perfectly functioning older mini van just so we could have a smaller more energy efficient car.
There is a car share in our town but it relatively expensive and our 17 year old son wouldn't be able to drive a car share car. Right now we use my son's (big gas guzzling used car) or my parents' (new and small) car when we need a car which is not very often. At some point in the future we may buy a small used car.
My 12 year old and I bike or walk most of the time and take the bus when the weather is very bad.

I have used a twin stroller and also a wagon in the past for getting around with small children. What about getting one of those stroller that has the step on the back for your 4 year old when he gets tired? That kind of a stroller would be fine for your 1 year old on an ongoing basis unlike a twin stroller which you probably won't need for that much longer as your middle kid will be able to walk longer distances soon.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Daharja - That's a very interesting way to look at it. I'm going to have to think about that...

@knittingwoman - If I get a new stroller, it will definitely be the Sit N Stand kind. I've already been scoping them out on Craigslist.


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