Thursday, 14 Feb 2002

UPPER PENINSULA, Mich.

I suppose Valentine’s Day is an appropriate time to share a ride into town with my spouse. With today’s trip we’ll attend two appointments and run half a dozen errands.

When we share rides to town, we often park in one central place, then walk to our various destinations. Today, for instance, while my spouse strikes off in one direction, I’ll stroll to the post office to priority mail some information to Wildlands CPR (Center for Preventing Roads), a group I helped start that works to restore ecosystems by getting roads closed in wildlands. Then I’ll walk 10 minutes from “downtown” to a local university library to drop off some books. Sometimes on errands I use an in-town bus service, although its town-only route and once-hourly, 9-to-5 schedule limit this particular bus’s utility.

Besides sharing rides with my spouse, I occasionally use the car for carpooling. I follow three car-use guidelines: I avoid single-occupant trips; I avoid single-purpose trips; and when I share rides, I try not to cause extra driving — I often just go where my ride is going, then walk to my own destination from there. Frequently, if a trip doesn’t meet my guidelines, I don’t take it.

The car belongs to my spouse, but we have a car-sharing agreement: I pay him time and mileage if I use it. We got the idea from the car-sharing services that started in Europe and have begun to take off in this country.

With car-sharing, a business or co-op owns a fleet of vehicles, and you join as a member. Then you just sign up to use a car when you need one. Most car-sharing services collect modest (often refundable) membership fees to start, charge members for the time and distance they drive, then bill monthly, like a utility or phone service. Members don’t pay for anything else; the service picks up the tab for gas as well as maintenance.

Car-sharing services usually leave their cars parked in neighborhoods convenient to members. Then members, once they’ve reserved a car, can walk or bike to its parking place at the appointed time, take the key out of a lockbox, and drive away. Members seem to love these services, and save money by using them. Car-sharing is a way for some families to avoid buying a second vehicle, and has helped others go completely car-free. One guy gleefully destroyed the last car he owned after joining a car-sharing service in British Columbia.

I mentioned earlier this week that my spouse’s car is a hybrid Toyota Prius. The Prius has both an electric motor and a small (four cylinder) internal combustion engine. A computer controls when the car uses the electric motor and when it uses the engine. At low speeds and stop lights, the internal combustion often turns off completely and the car is silent. A screen on the dash shows which power system is feeding the drive train at any given moment; it updates every two seconds with arrows that shoot across the screen in the direction of power flow. It’s mesmerizing to watch, which makes me wonder how many crashes it might cause. Fortunately, you can switch that screen to a less active one showing miles per gallon. My spouse currently gets around 50 mpg, and in the summer he might get up to 60.

The Prius is high-mileage, low-emissions, and pretty quiet, so in those ways it’s an improvement over a standard car. But it’s still a car; it still contributes to problems like sprawl, habitat loss, congestion, crash injuries and death, road kill, mobility-related social inequities, illness due to sedentary lifestyles, and pollution from manufacture and disposal — so in our household, it’s still used sparingly. Mostly, it helps us avoid the occasional situation where we might end up stranded because the Upper Peninsula is snowy, rural, spread out, and lacking in the kind of public transportation services available in more populated places. Otherwise, we can rely primarily on the options for car-free travel that are available even in a place like this.

This morning I have a little more writing to do — I need to finish a short article on the role of oil in the Afghan war — then I’ll get ready for the various appointments and errands I’ll be doing in town this afternoon. As we travel in, I’ll be the passenger in the hybrid, so maybe I’ll watch that ever-changing screen on the dash that shows where the energy is coming from to propel the car. But I’ll make sure the driver keeps his eyes on the road.