(This post was originally posted on my blog, Riding in Riverside, where I rail against auto-centric suburban development, to some modest effect. This is also my first diary, because I felt it necessary to get beyond rage and towards constructive progress in the wake of this disaster.)
Readers of Daily Kos need not be reminded of the direct connection between our nation's automobile obsession and the oil that is currently gushing into said nation's ocean, washing up on her beaches, killing her fragile marine ecosystems and poisoning her citizens- and in Louisiana, a state that really didn't need any more disasters. Of course, it's now affecting Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, too. However, residents of the IE especially may be curious what to do about it. Many in suburbia have lived shackled to our cars for so long that they cannot imagine life without them. So, for those of you who want to do something about America's addiction to oil, but don't know quite where to start, here's a helpful guide.
Step 1: The Commute
Chris Balish, author of "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car", says that if you can "get from your home to your place of employment and back safely and on time without a car, you probably don't need to own one." He makes this point well- the most important trip to most people on most days of the week is their trip to work. So your first challenge is to figure out how to get to work car-free, and it's probably possible.
Your first recourse, especially here in Southern California, is to Google Transit. Every operator in San Bernardino County (except MBTA in Twentynine Palms), and RTA in Riverside County (with Sunline coming soon), is available on Google Transit, as are all of the major agencies in neighbouring Orange and Los Angeles Counties and Metrolink. Just go to maps.google.com just as you would if you were getting driving directions, and when the directions pop up, click the little train icon at the top left of the page. Be sure to set the appropriate date and time- Google defaults to the next available trip, while there may be rush hour service that is much more appropriate. Don't get freaked out by the commute times they give you- remember, when you're driving to work, you can't do anything but drive. If you commute via transit, you can sleep, eat breakfast, get some work done, or do the aimless blog surfing that you're probably doing right now, if you have mobile 'net access (which is cheap these days, and free on many RTA and Foothill commuter buses).
If you live within 5 or so miles of your workplace, consider walking or cycling. Google can help you here, too- next to that train icon are bike and pedestrian icons, and they work the same way. Nearly anyone can cycle 5 miles after only a touch of practise. Don't go out and buy an expensive bicycle, at least at first- used bikes are plentiful and cheap. Check out this guide to buying a used bike.
Take note of the alternatives that you've mapped out, because you'll need them in the next step.
Step 2: Fill Your Toolbox
Now that you know how to get to work and back, fill up your toolbox. Determine what sort of transit pass(es) you'll need, and buy them. If you're only going to commit to taking alternative transport every once in a while, go buy pre-paid day/week/10-Trip passes. The sunken cost of the passes will encourage you to use the system more than if you simply pay cash.
I also highly recommend a decent bicycle. For transportation purposes, look for a road bike with a cargo rack on the back, or better yet, a "hybrid"/commuter bike. The skinny tires will make a difference- I know it seems unlikely, but trust me. The cargo rack and a good set of panniers (bags that attach to the rack) will expand the errand-running and work-stuff-carrying capacity of the bicycle, which can make a big difference. All RTA and Omnitrans buses, Metrolink trains, and most other transit agencies permit bicycles, though a frequent bus user might want to invest in a small folding bike instead. Bus bike racks DO fill up, especially during peak times.
Step 3: Shop Local
There is probably more going on in your neighbourhood than you realize. Find your local grocery store, rather than driving to Costco all the time. Sure, you'll spend more on food, but you'll spend less on gas! Shop several times a week, carrying home just enough for the next few days. It helps if your store is on your route home- I do this all the time. Patronize local restaurants, instead of driving across town for Chinese food. I bet there's somewhere within a reasonable cycling distance that will take care of most of your needs.
Also, if you want to shop in bulk, remember that many stores offer grocery delivery. Currently Albertson's and Vons offer grocery delivery services to Riversiders. Delivery usually costs around $6-$12 depending on when and how you schedule it, and they deliver your online order straight to your door.
Step 4: Learn the System
Now that you've learned your route to work and back, take some time to familiarize yourself with the routes that serve your area. Learn how to get from your house to the mall, to specialty stores, to civic services, to health care, etc. Learn the schedules if you can- most RTA routes are scheduled regularly (though less frequently than I'd like). For example, the 16 north passes the bus stop near my house around 20 and 50 past the hour on weekdays, and the 16 south around 27 and 57, from 5am to 9pm. I don't need to look at the schedule if I'm going anywhere along the 16, and that's anywhere from school to the University Village to the mall to downtown.
For more spontaneous or unfamiliar trips, Google Transit is still an excellent ally, especially if you carry an iPhone, Blackberry or Android smartphone. (All of these support Google Maps, with built-in transit directions.) If you don't, your ordinary cell phone can get text directions from Dadnab in most areas in the LA Basin. Text (323) 863-6221 with your origin and destination.
Step 5: Sell Your Car
Well, you may not get to this point. Hell, even Dani and I haven't been able to, though I rarely drive it. (We may accomplish it after she gets her teaching credential next year, but transit home from CSUSB at 10pm is just non-existent.) However, if you do all of those steps above, you may find that the amount of time you need your car just doesn't justify the expense. Remember that, if there are a few trips every once in a while that force automobility upon you, you can always rent a car- and if you live near UCR, you can join Zipcar (using the link on the right of this page) for even more flexibility. Even if you don't sell your car, though, reducing your usage will help keep our nation's appetite for oil down, and it won't hurt your wallet either.
For those who are just starting to experiment with transit, remember a few things. First, residents of Riverside get substantial discounts off RTA 7- and 30-day passes, but only for local buses. After a brief registration visit to City Hall (near downtown terminal, served by routes 1, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 22, 25, 29, 49, 149, 204, 208, 210, 212, and the 50 Jury Trolley), you can order passes online for mail delivery. Second, if your employer provides free parking, there's a strong possibility that they may be required to pay you the value of your parking space if you don't use it. It's called parking cash-out, and it's required by California state law. Also, you and your employer could save on taxes by buying your transit passes with pre-tax Commuter Checks. If your employer does not offer Commuter Checks, tell them to start, and direct them here.
I also strongly recommend the book I referenced at the beginning of this article, Chris Balish's "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car". You can get it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or via Link+ through the Riverside Public Library. Mr. Balish shows how every part of your life can be accomplished without owning your own auto.
If you want to reduce your car dependence, but you're not sure how to do it, feel free to contact me at RidingInRiverside@gmail.com.