Self-Inflicted Pain at the Pump

I had a 170-mile commute by car this morning — from the southern ‘burbs of Phoenix all the way to Flagstaff, Arizona. I was about 35 miles along when I realized I needed to fill up the car with gas. And while filling up I also realized that I probably haven’t personally purchased gasoline in about two months.

As I’m writing this, I’m hoping this will be one of those posts that you can forward to your gas-addicted friends, but I’m not sure that’s where this is going.

Punctured: My Blissful Insolation from High Gas Prices
Hello, Stranger.

Yes, I do follow the news. I know there’s a lot of grumbling about high gas prices right now — and over the weekend there was a political snipefest all about it.

I also understand that the politicians, their benefactors, and their strategists are calculating that the most political damage will occur to those whom Americans blame for the high gas prices.

But I was in need of a reminder of how this affects the vast majority of Americans, because to me, reading about gas price politics was a getting to be a little like reading about the San Elizario Salt War of 1877.

Salt? Really? That’s what the fuss was about? I don’t get it.

My wife and I hit Phoenix’ rush hour this morning. As soon as I could I merged over to the HOV lane. And within seconds we were whizzing past hundreds — thousands — of cars occupied by only one person. I looked at these drivers and remembered the likelihood that they were driving, on average, 17 miles to work.

These are the people who politicians are counting on to blame and/or punish other politicians for high gas prices.

As my gas-gauge needle nudged past empty, I decided to exit the highway, which happened to be in north Scottsdale, which happened to take me right into a hive of high-priced auto dealerships: Acura, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Bughatti, Cooper MINI, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Smart Car, and Volkswagen.

My Car
No hippie bumper stickers either, unless Campfire Cycling counts

Our car was probably the dirtiest, and least valuable car within ten miles. But I felt no longing for any of these “prestige” vehicles. And I realized that I really have left the reservation.

I found a gas station where I paid $3.899 per gallon. (Premium gas was more than $4.) I thought, This would suck if I had to do this every few days.

The thing is, even back when I thought I “had to” buy gas every few days, I didn’t really have to. I’ve bike commuted in varying degrees most of my working life. The low end might have been once or twice a month (my first job out of high school; ten miles). The high end is now; I bike commute almost every day (less than two miles; I catch a ride from my wife once or twice a month. And she’s the one who usually fills the tank now.)

Were you forwarded this article by some crazy cycling friend of yours? I’m talking to you now.

I’m a fortysomething, sorta-mainsteam dude with flabby arms and a daunting mortgage on a little McMansion. I spend most of my work day typing. Hardly a hippie.

But I’ve achieved a distance from the politics of gas prices to the point where I look upon it with the same kind of head-scratching bewilderment that you may feel toward CM Punk’s feud with Chris Brown.

(Note: The aforementioned feud was not referenced off the top if my head; I spent 10 minutes searching “ridiculous feuds.” I don’t know who either of those people are. So if that fued makes any sense to you at all, I’ve probably picked a bad comparison.)

My lifestyle is not that different from a typical suburbanite. I just commute by bike almost every day. I acknowledge that “pain at the pump” is largely self-inflicted, and I get to choose when to inflict it upon myself. The freedom to bike commute — and exercising that freedom — keeps me from feeling like a victim of political machinations beyond my control. (The same could be said of walking or taking public transportation to work, or working from home.)

I figured that out in 2004 when gas hit a record price of $1.74 per gallon — less than half the price I paid today.

I’ve made some pretty dumb decisions in my life, but the decision to reduce the amount of gas I consume was not one of them. All of the cascading consequences of that decision have had a net benefit in my quality of life. It helps that I enjoy bicycling.

I also understand that this freedom that I choose to exercise was made easier by my circumstances at the time: I lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, a small, bike-friendly suburb of Washington, DC, with excellent public transportation. But many of the decisions I’ve made since then have been filtered through my desire to continue to exercise this freedom. I now live in a different city. The first question I asked when I contemplated moving to Flagstaff was, Could I live there happily without having to drive every day?

So this political finger-pointing going on right now over the price of gas… Well, it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s an argument over how much Peter should be robbed to pay Paul. Shall we full-out mug Peter at gunpoint, or rob him subtly so that he doesn’t know he’s being robbed? Shall we pick his right pocket or his left? The price of gas is artificial to begin with. Gas is highly-subsidized. If it weren’t, we’d be paying more than $10 per gallon (as some people believe we inevitably will pay).

The political price to pay should be paid by the politicians who would deny you the freedom to bike (or walk) safely to work; the ones who can only think of transportation in terms of moving gas-powered automobiles, not in terms of moving people and goods. Those politicians are pretty easy to spot. They’re the ones who support a Transportation Bill without programs for biking and walking.

If you’re not into following the politics of transportation, fine. Just don’t follow the pointing fingers that place blame on one group or another for high gas prices. Instead, work on estranging yourself from the pump bit by bit. You too may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about.

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