By Sam Little, PIRG Transportation Advocate
High gas prices are not going anywhere soon, thanks to the supply shocks from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Some Americans might be able to switch to bikes or public transportation to avoid the worst of this crisis. But even for those in rural areas who cannot practically or safely make that switch, there are still alternatives.
Rural America has a proud history of resourcefulness, independence, and ingenuity. However, our reliance on oil leaves us all over a barrel. A lot must change to free ourselves from global oil price spikes and the health impacts of burning fossil fuels, but in the meantime, here are things that rural governments and drivers can do to save money while reducing pollution.
State and Local Governments
State and local governments should have two goals when addressing high gas prices: providing alternative options to driving and decreasing demand for gas. These two goals often go hand in hand. Here are a few ways they can do it.
E-bikes are a great alternative for short, medium and long car trips, giving people greater range and ease of travel than traditional bikes. Two studies found that 10% of e-bike trips replace a trip that would have been made by a car compared to virtually none from non-assisted bikeshare trips.
Learn more about e-bikes here. In short: they are fast, accessible, and effective in reducing the number of cars consuming gas. Denver is already rolling out e-bike funds and has found it wildly successful.
Carpooling reduces the number of car trips per person. It has been shown to reduce vehicle miles traveled, emissions, congestion, and fuel consumption. HOV lanes, reduced tolls, and reduced parking fees all incentivize carpooling. The stick (gas prices) probably convinces people to carpool more than any carrot, but local and state governments should help people try carpooling right now.
Reduce Speed Limits
The DOE finds gas mileage usually decreases rapidly at speeds above 50 mph. Their rule of thumb states that each five mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.34 per gallon for gas (at today’s peak, $5.02 per gallon).
Reducing speed limits can help encourage slower driving, but 2008 gas price spikes tell us that it can be unpopular and largely ignored. It’s worth noting that gradual braking and accelerating do more to save gas, so a public service announcement on good driving practices is also worthwhile.
Car holidays have a history rooted in the 1970s oil crisis and could be replicated for today's crisis. One study suggests that the most successful car holidays are large enough that they don’t simply reroute traffic and are enforced by local officials.
Large-scale, enforced car holidays would be difficult in some states, but even rural communities often have historic main streets, areas with parks and schools and other places where a car-free day could be effective, especially in combination with a community event, like a county fair.
A car-free town center signals to the community that everyone is chipping in to reduce fuel consumption, and the town is actively supporting it.
Increase broadband coverage
24 million Americans do not have consistent access to high-speed internet, and 80% of them live in rural and tribal areas. Rolling out broadband coverage to these communities can cut car trips by allowing for telecommuting, telehealth, e-commerce purchases, and other internet-enabled services.
The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $65 billion in funding for broadband implementation and investment.
Bus Rapid Transit Lanes
I grew up in a rural town, and I know how difficult it would be to convince someone to leave their car keys at home and grab a bus pass. However, some cities and towns, including suburbs, have found bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes to be incentive enough for some folks.
For most people, taking their car is simply faster than the bus. But, if the bus can skip traffic in a BRT lane, it becomes more competitive. BRT lanes also often beat rail in terms of cost-effectiveness and can be rolled out relatively quickly.
Transit fare holidays are another great option for areas with transit service, but the most lasting way to get people on public transportation is by providing reliable routes with service at least every 15 minutes.
Electric cars can help reduce our dependence on oil. Not everyone will switch to electric cars in the short term, but states and cities can encourage this decision and make it easy for consumers by investing in charging stations and providing purchase incentives, toll relief, HOV passes, and priority parking for electric vehicles.
Fix it first / Fix it right
The choices states make on their highway projects will have short and long-term impacts on their dependence on oil. States that choose to invest in highway expansion will increase their vehicle miles traveled – something we document in our Highway Boondoggles report.
States that choose to “fix it first,” by repairing existing roads and highways will not induce any additional demand, will improve the experience for drivers and may even find their refurbished roads cut emissions. Rural roads had over $211 billion in road repair backlogs in 2019. Let’s tackle that first.
States should also “fix it right” by taking the opportunity presented by road maintenance projects to add sidewalks and bike lanes, install broadband or electric vehicle charging infrastructure or improve transit facilities. These improvements make the roads better for all users and are more cost-effective when crews are already digging up the road.
What you can do to save on gas
Here are some tips you can try to extend your car’s mileage:
The car with the best gas mileage is the one not driven. So whether it is a carpool, a bike trip, or just the decision to forego a trip to the store a few days until you can make one larger purchase, every time you choose not to drive is dollars and fuel saved.
Imagine the egg on the gas pedal.
Acceleration has the most significant impact on fuel economy. Smooth starts and stops will save you a ton at the pump.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory found, “aggressive behavior behind the wheel can lower gas mileage in light-duty vehicles by about 10 to 40 percent in stop-and-go traffic and roughly 15 to 30 percent at highway speeds. This can equate to losing about $0.25 to $1 per gallon.
Easy on the A/C
The tips from here on out will be marginal but could save you some money.
Especially in the summer, your A/C unit uses a lot of fuel, reducing fuel economy by as much as 25%. Park your car in the shade. Keep your windows open when driving around town. Use the vents when driving fast on highways.
Shed some weight
I have a bad habit of driving with a trunk full of random stuff for no reason. I can make my gas go further by leaving my golf clubs at home.
Check tire pressure
GM says that underinflated tires can increase fuel consumption by 3%. That can add up over time. Here’s how to find the correct pressure for your car’s tires.
Photo by Alexandra Dubinina on Unsplash.