5:22 PM, Jul. 26, 2011
The downside to a long-distance relationship is the distance. While juggling my final semester of college, freelance journalism work and a part-time job, 947 interstate miles lay between my North Carolina home and my fiancee in Des Moines.
That's why I drove more than 10,000 miles during the first six months of 2011. The upside: learning a few tricks to combat rising gas prices.
At best, the last few years have proven prices are inconsistent and unpredictable. For example, the average price of a gallon of gas jumped 24 cents in just 10 days (from $3.41 to $3.65) earlier this month. In June 2010, the national average of a gallon of gas was $2.75. A year later, it was 90 cents higher.
This spring, experts were predicting gas prices higher than $4 a gallon, possibly $5, by the end of the summer. While that hasn’t happened, people are still catching on and making adjustments.
“The price will continue to rise,” said Steve Falck, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law Policy Center. “And I think people start to look around for alternatives when the price goes up.”
Whether you’re a daily commuter, a cross-country mover or a vacation-planning mother, here’s a local (and not-so-local) guide to ensuring gas prices don’t hold you hostage.
Go the distance with ride sharing
Ride sharing may not be a new concept on the scene of thrifty travel, but social media and other outlets are making it easier to find fellow travelers to collaborate with, even when traversing the country.
Thanks to a free Craigslist ad, I made $100 in June driving a musician to Fairfield, Ia., from Atlanta, where my car awaited me after an international flight.
David Pettit, a 21-year-old Ankeny native, found a travel partner for his recent move to California. After initial contact on Craigslist, Pettit used Facebook to screen those who responded (weeding out a few “shady” inquiries), then settled on a woman named Anna to join him on his cross-country plan. The two met up to discuss the trip before making the drive west.
Pettit said he always has a ride-sharing mindset when traveling, packing as many people as possible into a van or car for music festivals. Considering current gas prices and the approximate 2,000-mile drive to California (including stops at a few national parks), finding a travel companion was crucial, he said.
“It's right at over 100 gallons of gas. So splitting that with another person is quite the chunk of gas that I am saving, about $365 divided in half,” Pettit said. “Also, just having a navigator and what not helps out tremendously.”
Since Craigslist ads always seem to attract a few “shady” characters, other sites, like couchsurfing.org (which is also an international traveler network) and ridester.net, include reference and feedback/ rating systems. Other long-distance ride-sharing websites include pickuppal.com, erideshare.com and carpoolworld.com.
Use GasBuddy to save on each tank
While on the road, with or without a companion, make GasBuddy your new co-pilot (or co-co-pilot) and save a few bucks on each tank of gas.
GasBuddy is a free website, also offered as a smartphone app, that lists the cheapest gas prices by region. Users may view the “Heat Map” or search by zip code, town or address to locate the cheapest gas stations along a particular route, within seconds. And these seconds save dollars.
During my multiple trips between Des Moines and Asheville, N.C., I was surprised to find gas prices often vary as much as 20 to 30 cents per gallon between cities less than 50 miles apart. This is especially common when crossing state lines.
For example: On July 16, a gallon of regular gas cost $3.47 in Davenport, compared to $3.68 in Iowa City, 50 miles west on Interstate Highway 80. This same day, just 20 miles south of Davenport, one gallon of regular gas cost $3.77 in Orion, Ill. This means a traveler pumping 15 gallons of gas can save $4.50 by filling up in Davenport before heading south and crossing the Mississippi River toward Orion.
It may sound like penny pinching, but over the course of a road trip, using GasBuddy could pay for a few meals or a night out on the town.
Turn your SUV into a UPS with uShip.com
Think of uShip as the eBay of the shipping industry. The website is a meeting place for people who need items shipped and shippers who can help them. And if you are traveling, that shipper could be you.
In less than an hour, anyone with a vehicle (ideally an SUV or truck) can create a profile and become a carrier on uShip and start bidding on listed items at households across the country. For me, the perfect opportunity presented itself after I moved all my belongings from North Carolina to Des Moines with an SUV and a 12-by-6 foot trailer. After the move, I had to return the trailer and vehicle to North Carolina.
Within a few weeks, I won a bid and secured a shipment: helping a student move from his studio apartment in West Des Moines to Naperville, Ill., just outside Chicago. His home was less than an hour off of the route I usually travel on my long drive home, and the payment easily covered my round-trip gas cost.
Unfortunately, I recently learned all “carriers-for-hire” (which I became when I accepted the shipment) that cross state lines must possess a U.S. Department of Transportation number from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Admission. But there are other ways to use the service. Listings on uShip include small pets, antiques, electronic equipment, motorcycles and entire houses of boxed items needing to be moved that do not cross state borders. (And although nothing happened on my trip, it’s probably best to stay within the fine lines of our federal rules and not go state-to-state with commerce.)
This option requires a little more preparation, but know that it carries the potential to not only cover your fuel costs, but create some income on your next road trip.
Options for the daily commuter
Organizations such as Drive Time Des Moines — which promotes greener, more efficient commuting through various programs and information — and Des Moines Area Regional Transit are providing substantial outlets for local students and employees who seek alternative transportation.
“People often don't see the alternatives until they need them,” DART RideShare manager Rebecca Lovig said. “Our phone starts to ring more and we get more inquiries about the program when fuel prices go up.”
This has been the theme at the DART RideShare headquarters since March, when gas prices took the first big leap, Lovig said. In March, 41 new commuters joined the vanpool program, DART's biggest RideShare service, and another 144 have joined since then — not counting eight more contracts that were waiting approval.
As of July 15, 96 vanpools were on the road in central Iowa. “And we have new inventory here now, for anyone who would like to form a vanpool,” Lovig said.
The 16-year-old program follows a simple model built on consumer demand and initiative. Using a DART van, a volunteer driver picks up and drops off 4 to 14 passengers (depending on the specific vanpool) who live and work in the same vicinity. A fixed monthly rate is determined by round-trip miles and number of passengers sharing the route. The price spans between $74 and $98 for routes 50 miles or fewer, and may cost a little more for routes more than 50 miles, or with fewer passengers. The volunteer drivers ride for free and get the van for up to 200 miles of personal use each month, and DART is the orchestrating entity that matches the right people with the right vans.
“Our average commuter travels about 84 miles per day,” said Lovig, who carpools about 130 miles daily. “With the free trial ride, once you try it, it's pretty easy to get hooked to the program.”
Several major employers in Des Moines, such as Principal Financial Group, Allied Insurance and Mercy Medical Center, even help share the cost of RideShare with employees.
If saving gas and the environment is not enough incentive, Drive Time Des Moines is motivating locals with its Rest Your Car program. The program offers monthly drawings — plus three $500 Visa gift cards per quarter — to commuters who use alternative transportation at least four times a month. This includes riding a bike, walking and taking a bus or carpool. (Those who do not own a bike can rent a bike from the B Cycle bike-sharing program, which has four docking stations — Grand Avenue and 13th Street, Grand and Seventh, beside City Hall on the east side of the river, and on the north side of Prospect Park —with more to come in the future.)
Gunnar Olson, spokesman for DART, said he recently tracked more than 33,000 instances of people using the bike racks on DART buses in a one-month period. Olson, who bikes to his bus stop in Windsor Heights, catches the No. 3 bus downtown, then rides his bike to his office, said people in Des Moines are being creative about transportation, and are catching on to the system.
“You have to think more about your trip sometimes, but you end up finding your time is better spent,” Olson, 32, said.
A look to the future
Once you get your head around the basics of alternative transportation, some would ask you to take a step further.
“People get used to taking their cars to work and just think that's how you have to get to work,” Steve Falck, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law Policy Center, said. “But we are not going to be able to rely on petroleum-based products for very long.”
Truly beating the gas prices and taking a step toward alternative transportation requires a paradigm shift from how Americans view transportation, said Des Moines urban developer Ryan Galloway. One way to make a change is to “make a conscious effort to live, work and play in the same neighborhood,” Galloway said.
Galloway, who works with Hatch Development building affordable housing units downtown, referred to Europe's more societal approach to transportation, which works directly against vehicle owners.
“I would argue that gas prices are not half as high as they should be,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to meet a new friend or to run into an old acquaintance when you’re both trapped in your Prius doing 70 on I-235.”
While the popularity of terms like New Ubanism (see newurbanism.org) and pedestrianization are growing, no one is predicting America will abandon the automobile anytime soon. But in the meantime, one could at least think about sharing his or her Prius with a co-worker or two.
8 resources for saving your gas money
What it is: A free website and smartphone app that lists the cheapest places to find gas in your area, or along your driving route. Go to gasbuddy.com.
What it is: A cheap way (as little as a buck per way, depending on how far out you book a ticket) to get to Chicago or Iowa City (or beyond, if you take additional buses). Go to megabus.com.
What it is: A site that matches people who need items shipped with people who can help ship them. If you’re traveling, you might be able to score a few bucks by dropping off items along the way for someone in need. Go to uship.com.
What it is: Calculates the walkability of any address or neighborhood. Find more info at walkscore.com.
Drive Time Des Moines
What it is: Your local outlet for constant traffic updates, transportation solutions and alternative programs. Go to drivetimedesmoines.org.
What it is: Insured neighbor-to-neighbor vehicle sharing with your neighbors. Find more info at relayrides.com.
What it is: A simple concept: You’re driving somewhere, so why not save on gas and bring a buddy?
Ways to connect with people: Craigslist, social media, couchsurfing.org, ridester.net (which includes a feedback and rating system), pickuppal.com, erideshare.com, carpoolworld.com, and many more.
Des Moines Area Regional Transit
What it is: Central Iowa’s public transportation agency. DART offers van- and carpool services. Go to ridedart.com.