Beat High Gas Prices and Save Your Heart

From cheap bus passes to vanpool programs, cities across the country are finding ways to beat high gas prices. Which could improve your health as well as save you money.

March 20, 2011
RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—In need of some gas saving strategies? You might start by moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, or Bremerton, Washington, or Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, or any of the dozens of other cities across this country with innovative, extensive public transit systems. A new report from nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC's) Smarter Cities program, which studies environmentally friendly city planning, found that urban areas, both large and small, are finding ways to get people out of their cars as a means to better air quality, healthier citizens, and, in an era of $4 per gallon gas prices, more value from transportation dollars by spending them on something other than gasoline.

"Transportation is an integral part of cities," says Paul McRandle, senior editor of the Smarter Cities program. "If transportation systems are working well, it makes the city more walkable, more pleasant, and more liveable in every way. If transport is functioning poorly, cities become a mess to live in, and health impacts on residents are pretty large," he adds, citing problems caused by heavy traffic, such as poor air quality that exacerbates allergies, asthma, and cardiovascular disease.

THE DETAILS: In partnership with another nonprofit called the Center for Neighborhood Technology, NRDC's researchers analyzed transportation in 337 metropolitan regions across the U.S. Dividing the regions into large (populations of more than 1 million), medium (between 250,000 and 1 million residents), and small (populations of fewer than 250,000), they looked at each area's transit systems in terms of access, use (how many people utilized the systems), and affordability. They ultimately identified 15 cities considered top-performing regions, all of which not only offered a variety of public transit options, but also implemented programs that combined both transportation alternatives and walking and biking, offered discount transit passes, and had other things, like tolls or expensive parking meters, that discourage automobile use.

In the large city category, some predictable names reached the top of the list: Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Washington, DC, all cities that have efficient, low-cost subway and bus systems. But in the small- and medium-size city category, there were a few surprises, including Lincoln, NE, and the suburban town of Bremerton, WA. Others include Boulder, CO; Honolulu, HI; Jersey City, NJ; and New Haven, CT.

WHAT IT MEANS: "Many of the regions we looked at are facing similar issues in terms of dealing with budget cuts and the present economy," says Alice Henly, lead researcher for the Smartest Regions for Transportation Study. But she adds that all the regions that topped their lists prioritized smart city planning and public transportation in their budgets. There also was a lot of creativity in the ways the individual transportation authorities tried to encourage ridership.

For instance, in Lincoln, a city that houses 90 percent of the region's population as well as a major university, city planners and transit developers have worked hard to reign in urban sprawl. The urban density that has been created affords residents access to public transit, and the city has cut the cost of a monthly unlimited bus pass to a paltry $7.50, which means that almost everyone can benefit.

Henly and McRandle also point to Bremerton as a model that nearly every city, rural, suburban or otherwise, can mimic. The city is a small suburban hamlet across the Puget Sound from Seattle. Because of its sprawling and almost rural nature, creating a regionwide public transit system that serves everyone would have been difficult, so the city created a vanpool program, wherein anyone can sign up to be either a rider or a driver through an online program called RideShare. The city provides vans (and any related maintenance and insurance) and fuel, and the people who ride in the van share the monthly cost, which the Bremerton transportation authority dictates based on the length of the commute. The more people participate in each vanpool, the lower the cost for the individual riders, which encourages people who do participate to get their neighbors and friends involved. "City officials were working in a malleable way within the existing community and across the region to make a system that works, based on who needs it and where they need it most," Henly says.

To see how your city did, check out the NRDC's Smarter Cities list.

And here are a few ways you can beat high gas prices, regardless of what your city's transit system is like:

• Find a vanpool. Vanpools are one of the easiest immediate fixes to high gas prices because you can get one up and running as soon as you can find five to 15 people all heading in approximately the same direction. As it is, many cities already operate vanpool systems as part of the local transit authority; type "vanpools in [your city]" into a search engine to find out what exists already.

• Call your coworkers. In some cities, the local transit authority will lease vans to employers so that employees can form and operate their own vanpools, independent of the government. Or, you could call your company's HR department or green committee and set up a rideshare program via the corporate intranet. Here at Rodale, we have an online database of employees interested in carpooling. Anyone who needs or wants to share a ride can contact individuals on the list to form a carpool.

Rethink your driving habits. Small adjustments, like idling less often and using cruise-control properly can have an impact on your fuel costs. See our story on improving car mileage for suggestions.

• Head to your next city council meeting. You don't have to prepare a speech, but it never hurts to find out where your city leaders stand on public transportation. You may find out about options and low-cost alternatives that your city hasn't publicized.