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THIS is Why: How a Multimodal Lifestyle Makes You Immune to Rising Gas Prices

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog

I didn’t start biking to work because gas was too expensive. I did it because I had this evolving sense of the world based around the central premise that the mode of transport I had spent my whole life worshiping was the very thing that was in conflict with everything I loved.

When I was 18, my friends and I made a stupid little club called “The Anti-Carpoolers Of America.” I made and printed badges on my computer, featuring a minivan with a slash through it, which we all taped to our dashboards. I purchased a brand new 2000 Honda Civic EX and after the Fast And The Furious series came out, I began modding out my ride with things like a cat-back exhaust, a cold-air intake, performance rims and tires and a bevy of visual additives that announced to the world that I was an immature kid who had no idea how to spend his money. I was born in Chicago and I loved public transit, but I hadn’t yet put together the whole “cars destroyed public transit” narrative that I know and tout today.

My buddy bought a Subaru Impreza WRX, maxing out his financial capacity just to have a car that made him the unquestioned alpha in our group of friends. A base model Impreza, a Dodge Neon with a cold air intake and a “grape fruit shooter” muffler, a lightly-modded out Nissan Maxima, my Honda Civic… they all became financed expressions of ego that propelled all of us forward as we tried to express ourselves in a “keeping up with the Jones’s” automotive mentality. I prided myself on the fact that I drove 100,000 miles in four years. To put that in perspective, I have driven approximately 100,000 miles in the last fifteen years. It’s March 8th of 2022, and I have driven a total of 600 miles this year. And that’s only because the snow has kept me from using other forms of transportation as much as I would like.

Mobility independence
One of my first bike rides to work in 2014

But now, there is more incentive than ever for me to flex my human and electric powered micro-mobility options. As someone who owns 4 bikes, 1 ebike, a Onewheel, an electric skateboard, 2 kick scooters, 2 electric scooters, and more skateboards than I would like to admit, I have been an advocate of micro-mobility for nearly a decade. When promoting alternative transportation to the general population (and not just urbanists), I have typically tried to appeal to the intangible “feeling” of independence, as well as the daily exercise. To this point, gas has remained cheap enough that it was impractical to include fuel cost savings in my advocacy argument.

Obviously, this has changed quickly and drastically. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused gas prices to skyrocket toward record highs in the US and even higher in Europe. There has never been a time more ripe for a louder dialogue around human powered transportation, electric micro-mobility and public transit. While much of the country is blaming government for the regulation of fossil fuel drilling and delivery, people like myself continue to advocate for an alternative to our dependence on a single form of energy that is also tremendously damaging to our planet. True energy and mobility security does not come from greater access to a finite supply of oil, but rather a diversification of power sources, including human power.

Steven Senne/AP

In short, THIS is what all of us crazy cyclists, scooter riders, and electric micro-mobility junkies have been saying for a long time. At some point, a day like this was going to come, where the price of gas would literally make people hesitate before using their car for this or that. People have made choices — like buying a large vehicle or a house that’s 30 miles from their job — on the assumption that driving a car was always going to be affordable, despite the truth that at some point, fossil fuels would become scarce, prices would rise or circumstances would change. One of the central tenets of urbanism is simply that embracing density means we are not at the mercy of any of these variables.

As I’ve stated in the past, my wife and I live in an apartment that is just a few miles from each of our workplaces. I went years without a functional car, just recently splurging for a used compact car. Still, most days you’ll see me using a bike, a scooter or any number of other micro-mobility options for my commute and for running errands. Living a couple miles from Downtown Rochester also means we are closer to stores, shops and entertainment options. Literally, everything we need is within a few minute’s drive, a walk, a bike ride, etc.

This was a conscious decision and one we made because, among other reasons, we did not want to deal with the temporal or economic costs of living far away from our jobs and resources.

Pumping gas

So gas prices went up. I am almost completely unaffected. Nor are my friends that share my desire for mobility independence. Even my wife, who drives every day, is impacted far less than most because of our close proximity to everything, including her job. Because really, we don’t necessarily need to be anti-car to limit the impact of variables like gas prices on our weekly budgets. Simply living a “denser” lifestyle ensures that we have everything we need with fewer miles in between.

I’m not a market economist, and I am certainly no international relations expert… who knows where this terrible conflict happening in Ukraine will end, and what will happen as a result. Back home, the fact that our worst fear lies in rising gas prices just shows how detached we are with what is happening elsewhere on our planet. And even more trivial is the notion that we continue to rely on a single form of energy for a huge percentage of our day-to-day mobility.

Living closer to cities, using public transit and micro-mobility means that market fluctuations have less of an impact on our wallets. It means that we can choose how to move about, rather than relying on the car alone. While the automobile has always been a symbol of American freedom, a simple market shift based on events elsewhere in the world means that freedom can quickly turn into a financial hurdle that many are struggling to afford. THIS is why we urbanists advocate for a life less dependent on cars, and thus, on fossil fuels.

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With Our Own Eyes and Lungs: The Benefits of Reduced Motor Traffic

Guest blog by Doug Kelley, Associate Professor, University of Rochester.

In my first few long bike rides this spring, I’ve been bowled over by the beautiful views. And it’s not like I’m visiting new places. I pedaled these same routes last summer, when I first came to Copenhagen for a yearlong sabbatical and was eager to explore. But never were the vistas like this! Now, the hills and buildings of Sweden, 10 miles across the waters of Øresund, are not just blurry shapes, but clear and distinct and colorful. Now, looking southwest from the gorgeous seaside bike path in Naturpark Amager, I can see the towns of Køge and Strøby across the bay, nearly 20 miles distant and never visible before. First noticing these fantastic vistas, I gave thanks for the end of the dark and rainy Danish winter. Then I remembered that visibility was never this good last August or September. Something else must be happening. That something is probably covid-19.

The coast of Sweden, bright and clearly visible across Øresund from a marina north of Copenhagen. Clearer air, improved respiratory health, and lower carbon emissions all come when motor traffic is reduced, as the pandemic is showing us. 

The pandemic is causing profound suffering worldwide, through death and sickness, through separation and hardship. I would not wish it upon anyone. The pandemic is also giving humankind a unique opportunity to see — firsthand — what our lives look like when motor traffic is significantly reduced. Few are driving, which means less air pollution, and we can see the improvement with our own eyes. It’s visible all over, not just on my weekend bike routes but in places like London, Delhi, Wuhan, and Los Angeles. My wife tells me her lungs feel better now as she strolls along formerly-busy roads. Back home, nitrogen dioxide emissions in Rochester are down 30%. NASA data shows similar trends all over the world. Social media is awash in before-and-after photos picturing how much better our views have gotten thanks to reduced motor traffic. Mount Kenya is spectacular. 

“The pandemic is giving humankind a unique opportunity to see — firsthand — what our lives look like when motor traffic is significantly reduced.

With those views come other important benefits. The micron-scale airborne particles that mar our vistas also wreak havoc on our health. They are the most harmful form of air pollution, penetrating deep into the lungs and blood to cause heart attacks and respiratory disease. One study found that for particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, every airborne concentration decrease of 10 micrograms per cubic meter comes with a 36% decrease in lung cancer. Another study estimated that reducing particle pollution by just 1 microgram per cubic meter would prevent 34,000 premature deaths per year in the United States. So ironically, reduced motor traffic due to the pandemic may actually save as many lives as are lost to covid-19. That’s a speculation, but given what we know, entirely plausible. 

Moreover, the health benefits of reduced traffic tend to be greatest for the very people who are suffering most in the covid-19 pandemic. Air pollution links to higher covid-19 death rates and almost certainly plays a role in black Americans dying of covid-19 at higher rates than white Americans. Even aside from the virus, low-income people suffer disproportionately from respiratory diseases, including asthma. Substantially reduced particle pollution is good for everybody — and especially good for those with the most urgent health needs. 

Substantially reduced particle pollution is good for everybody — and especially good for those with the most urgent health needs.

Reducing motor traffic also comes with the obvious benefits of reducing carbon emissions and slowing climate change. The International Energy Agency estimates that greenhouse gas emissions will be 8% lower worldwide in 2020 than in 2019, mainly due to reduced motor traffic and airline travel. Climate change is a long-established scientific fact, and its extreme weather and eerily warm winters are now nearly as evident in firsthand experience as the vistas on my bike rides. A one-year, 8% drop isn’t enough to solve the world’s climate change problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

A one-year, 8% drop [in greenhouse gas emissions] isn’t enough to solve the world’s climate change problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Clear views of the coast of Sweden, in the distance across Øresund, on a sunny May afternoon at the beach in Denmark. Holding onto our reduced-motor-traffic lifestyles would mean better health, lower carbon emissions, and more beautiful days like this.

Living through this historic moment, when we literally see the good of reduced motor traffic with our own eyes, I can’t help but wonder: What if we hold on to the good, and hold on tight? As social distancing eases and we venture out of our homes more often, what if we do it without so much motor traffic? What if we reboot our economy and jobs and schooling without ruining our own vistas and attacking our own lungs?

As social distancing eases and we venture out of our homes more often, what if we do it without so much motor traffic?”

The pandemic has taught us that for many jobs and in many cases, we can work from home just fine. The pandemic has taught us that some travel is more trouble than it’s worth. What if, instead of using the pandemic as an excuse for more pollution, we enact laws and regulations that clean our air? What if we go more places by walking and biking and public transportation? What if we build on our momentum? It would mean new thinking about topics like achieving social distancing on buses and trains. It would mean living in a new way. But the lifestyle adjustments involved are far smaller and simpler than the ones we have already achieved, surviving this unprecedented pandemic together. 

We can get started right now.

Here are a few ways to build on great work already happening in our region: 

The benefits would be huge. Cleaner-feeling lungs, fewer respiratory diseases, better quality of life, reduced chance of climate change causing harder times even than the covid-19 pandemic. And big, clear, beautiful vistas. I think we can do it.

There are many more ways to take action. Leave comments below with your own suggestions.

Read more about the Kelley family’s Danish experience in an earlier blog post: Copenhagen transportation: A day in one family’s life.