Greyhound steps up

“The Dog” has a bad reputation of being the intercity tranportation mode of last resort. That’s a shame. Many countries enjoy inexpensive, efficient (if not fancy) bus transportation. And that’s an efficient use of depleting petroleum.

And oil jumped above $120 a barrel on Friday.

But Greyhound’s service stinks. Hubby was shocked that you didn’t get a reserved seat, as I discovered when I took a bus — no, was prevented from taking a bus — on a three-leg, 15-hour bus ride to my paternal grandmother’s funeral last year.

But I got an email yesterday inviting me to join Greyhound’s “road rewards” program, and I did. (But it makes more sense to register just before taking a bus trip, as rewards expire.) That, $5 reserved seats from some markets (including Washington) and a much more usable website makes me think someone is paying attention.

Life at $4 a gallon

Within a three day period, I have spoken with two persons in completely unrelated situation (and different locales) who have made statements starting “when gas hits $4 a gallon we’ll have to . . . .” with something not-nice following.

You, dear readers, know how much I like dense urban development and reliable, efficient public transportation and options to single-occupant driving. I also like full-fat ice cream but I’m on a diet and we don’t always get what we like. For many, many people, there’s nothing but hardship in expensive gasoline, so I suppose the first thing to do is mourn. I’m not expecting a rebound in cheap oil like the two we had in the 1970s, and if something approximating one happens, we’ll just be that much more worse-off then the boom lands again.

So first mourn, then organize. More about some constructive actions later.

Until then, an tale of the scope of the problem.

About three weeks ago, an Associated Press article ran widely under the title “Residents of Alabama’s Black Belt hit hardest by high gas prices” (at Birmingham News) .

Residents of the Black Belt — a reference originally to the rich soil that supported the former cotton plantation economy, but now includes the majority-African-American population — are hit by a double-whammy of endemic poverty and higher than average fuel prices.

According to the latest Pain at the Pump Index by the Oil Price Information Service, residents of Wilcox County spend more of their money on fuel than their counterparts in any other county in the nation.

The median monthly income in Wilcox is $1,460.50, according to the index. Each month, Wilcox residents spend more than 13 percent of that monthly income on gasoline. And the price they pay at the pump is 12 cents higher than the national median of $3.17.

A Google search shows that transit options are especially limited — largely medical shuttles for the elderly and workplace vanpools — though greater access to work (as many of the Black Belt residents have to cross county lines to work) means that even business are beginning to back transit. But I imagine life is going to get very life there, even if gas doesn’t make it to $4 a gallon.

Spare a prayer.

My apartment's real cost

Hubby and I live in a mid-grade rental apartment in a newly-nice neighborhood very close to downtown D.C. We both walk to work. (Washington, D.C. has one of the highest rates of pedestrian commuters in the country.) We don’t own a car. Most people who don’t live in New York or Los Angeles think we pay a lot for our little space.

But we don’t.

I’ve said it before: it’s worth a premium to live where a car’s more a hindrance than a help. And Treehugger again today “How Affordable is that Subdivision, Really?” makes the point that the cost of housing shouldn’t be divorced from transportation.

The chilling factoid was a bit from a 2003 Brookings study that says that the median household spends 19.1% of its income on transportation and, guessing by the gaspump agita of late, I would easily believe it’s higher today.

Using the Housing+Transportation Affordability Index, you can see what parts of many US metropolitan areas are afforable, as defined by housing and transportation costs being less than 45% of average household income. An advanced option gives a more granular visualization of the data.

Because Hubby and I both work, opted against splashy digs, walk most places and use bus for weekend outings, I estimate I only put out 17% of my income on housing and transportation.

More Americans deserve this option. Remember this the next time you talk up how nice it would be to have more space (if you do this) for storage, or talk down (if you do this) commuter buses or an extension of a transit system.

P.s. I think a good distributed task for Unitarian Universalists is to collect information about which congregations are transit-accessible and how.

Atlanta people! Freedom from the car!

Few friends come as good as K. (for Katharine, who’s identified herself with her blog, so I’m glad to do the same) who writes at pointedview. So I think she’ll forgive me for cribbing her whole post, addressed to metro Atlanta residents. But leave her the comments; it’s how you show the love.

Metro Atlanta residents: If you’re interested in providing input on proposed rail and bus improvements, visit http://www.tpb.ga.gov/. They are also conducting public meetings. By the way, the questionnaire could stand some improvement in the design department, but I suppose it’s at least a means of getting feedback.

God knows the Big Peach needs better alternatives to private automobiles. I was thinking about car alternatives for the South today, but more about coaches and trains between cities than within a particular city. I saw a map (via Andrew Sullivan’s blog, via Wired) about carbon dioxide emissions keyed to United States locations. The data comes from the Department of Energy and NASA-funded Vulcan Project.

You can look at the high-CO2 big red dots on the Vulcan Project map, shown at Wired. Indeed, do so. No wonders, because the red dots match population centers. Now look at the service maps at Megabus. It’s practically a plan for new service corridors: Seattle-Portland, Tulsa-OKC-DFW (perhaps Little Rock), Houston-New Orleans, Jacksonville-Miami/Tampa-Orlando. But there’s lots of opportunity in the Southeast.

Huntsville-Birmingham-Atlanta. Atlanta-Greenville/Spartanburg. GSP-Columbia-Charleston. GSP-Charlotte-Greensboro (Triad)-Raleigh (Triangle).

Rail would be better but given the poor level of service by intercity bus, I’d start there — if I was the King of Transportation — and build ridership. Connections to larger en route towns, colleges and airports would be ideal.

Of course, you can leave a comment about that here.

Shared bike comes to DC

Self-service shared bicycle stations, featured in European cities, comes to the United States first in Washington, D.C. (Or perhaps not; there seems to have been programs elsewhere. So it must be the automated, self-service piece.) A good idea, I think given our strong transit use and relatively flat terrain.

The stations locations, plainly, couldn’t be better for me for home, work and shopping. (I can see one being built from my apartment window.) Even though I’m not much of a bike person, I think I might sign up.

      Megabus enters northeastern corridor

      Back in 2006, I first wrote about the UK-based Megabus entering the US market, and giving riders an option between the hard-worn Greyhound and the under-regulated (“is that antifreeze?”) “Chinatown” buses. (Link, to give you an idea of schedules and fares.) They’ve since moved to locations in California and Nevada, and have now announced a New York hub with service as far a-field as Washington, Boston and Toronto. Could the bus be getting sexy? Or at least a viable option for those with choices? Intercity bus ridership is up, even on “the Dog”, and a fuel crisis and recession will probably encourage this trend.

      To show it isn’t a fluke, Bolt Bus, a cousin of Greyhound (both are owned by UK-based FirstGroup; does that make them “Scotstown buses”?) has begun selling tickets between Washington and New York, and plans service between New York and Boston. Not to be forgotten, I’ve known people to ride and like the “post-Chinatown” carriers like DC2NY.

      Wifi, refreshments and reserved seats are some of the amenities you might get in this new generation of intercity bus, rather than sketchy ticketing and questions about what’s being carried in that first luggage bay. But this advance seems to bring variable pricing, too (not on DC2NY) meaning those $1 come-on fares really mean the worst of airline pricing has come to ground transport.

      Lastly, what about the South? Surely there’s an opportunity in the Triangle-Charlotte-Atlanta corridor?

      Ethical consumption update

      The pressure on world grain production — crop failures, diversion of biofuel production — has created huge price increases and I have a hard time imagining how millions of the world’s poorest people will manage to eat when they get priced out of the cheapest food available.

      Point one: Cyclone and storm damage leaves Bangladesh’s 150 million people with a rice deficit. Sea water intrusion threatens coastal cropland.

      Point two: Saudi Arabia, a net wheat exporter, is phasing out all wheat production under water pressures. HT: Financial Times via Celsias via Nouslife.

      Point three: From Lester Brown via the Earth Policy Institute:

      In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain it takes to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people.

      But this is the future? Seems like there’s more pressure than ever to reduce grain demand by avoiding most meat, dairy products and farmed fish — ironically, actually eating the grain itself — and using less transportation fuel. I think affordable and available food for human beings (wherever they may be) is irreducibly more important than food for livestock or automobiles.

      Yet I rather doubt United States public policy and the market will follow.

      Oil touches $100

      Well, after a few week of sliding prices, the forecast of a cold winter and crisis-threatened supply briefly pushed the New York price for crude oil to $100 a barrel. Ouch. Here’s a place for you to comment about your feelings: hope, worry, anger, what have you.

      For what it’s worth, Hubby and I try to minimize our use of oil, in part because we have better options and it surely will cost so much more. An example. Except for a short bus ride and a cold-weather-prompted three-mile cab ride, all of our travel in our Baltimore trip was either electrically powered — Amtrak, tram and two subway systems — or foot powered. I am modestly warm towards nuclear power, for what it’s worth.

      Car sharing services merge: will it matter?

      The news today (link, link, link) among the car-free sort is Zipcar is buying out Flexcar. There’s some rumor that Flexcar has been troubled financially, but I read it as a loss of choice, value and quality for those in Washington, D.C. moving away from car ownership. Especially if you’re under 25, and without a good option to rent a car from a traditional agency.

      But I doubt the change will mean much to Hubby and me. We started out both as Flexcar subscribers a couple of years ago when we sent our car to live on a farm with other old cars. Each adult needs a membership but Jonathan is a better driver than I am, so he drove us here and there and to IKEA as needed. Then after a year of never renting a car, I canceled my subscription, and I’m not sure how many times he’s gotten a car since. Twice?

      Living so far downtown, within walking distance to both jobs, has moved us from car owners to car borrowers to occasional transit users. We pay more in rent than we might, but we pay much less in transportation costs. Combined — and that’s not a bad way to account for the cost of housing — we’re getting a bargain. I can’t imagine doing otherwise. It isn’t perfect, but the living arrangement we have is not unlike the life one adopts (if only in part) when visiting foreign cities, and that’s so often the highlight of going abroad.

      The question is this: how can this be a better option for more Americans? That is, life without obligatory car use.

      Watch "History of Oil"

      I think you can be deeply concerned about peak oil — and make a good case for it having passed — without sounding like a lunatic.

      Peak oil or Hubbert’s peak is that moment in history when half of all the world’s oil supply has been consumed, presumably the half that’s easier to extract and refine. If you combine that with increasing demand — which we have, not only in the U.S. but globally — then the price of oil will increase, its supply will become erratic and there’s a dire risk of greater conflict over what remains. And as I said, this moment — which will only be identified in retrospect — may already have passed.

      In short, to survive, we’ll have to change. The presented options — ethanol, hydrogen, coal cracking, even biodiesel — are too limited and environmentally costly to leave our oil-consuming ways intact. We’ll have to change. One of the reasons I’m gung-ho about Car Free Day, or really, carfree living.

      Ms. Theologian at Surviving the Workday just learning about peak oil and recommends one film; I have a second.

      Robert Newman has a one-man show called The History of Oil that has been played on Britain’s Channel 4 and may be seen on Google Video. I’ve not vetted his take on history, but how he links twentieth and twenty-first century warfare with petroleum is chilling.

      So seriously, try to go carfree and watch the film.

      The History of Oil, 46 minutes