How high gas prices helped me live without my car

The gas pump shuts off automatically when you hit $100, or so my sister-in-law tells me. I'm pleased to report I haven't experienced that problem. However, I hit $66 when I partially filled my Honda Odyssey, and last month our family's gasoline expenses were well over $400. My husband's 2006 Ford Explorer gets 13 miles per gallon; my minivan runs at about 16 miles per gallon around town.

As transportation expenses rose, I cut back in other ways: fewer indulgences at the grocery store, not as many trips to Starbucks. We decided not to take a family vacation to Disneyland, although explaining this to our two school-age kids was less than pleasant. We're opting instead for an in-state trip to visit relatives, assuming gas prices continue to (finally) decrease.

In spite of all this, however, I've got to say: I love the high cost of gas. It's forced our family to rethink our spending habits and our carbon footprint, and we're finding we can do much more on much less than we thought.

As a working mom with a half-time job, two kids and a busy social life, I spend a lot of time in the car. The minivan is truly our "home away from home." In the car we eat meals, do homework, make phone calls, watch movies and even change clothes. Last year I read about a prototype "car of the future" equipped with a microwave and laundry facilities, and wondered how soon I could acquire one. Last month, however, I asked myself a different question: how could we reduce our dependence on the minivan we already own?

I challenged the kids to join me in a quest to see how long we could go between tanks of gas. They were surprisingly enthusiastic. Right away we realized that while we've always carpooled on the way to school, we've never done so on the way home. When I asked my friend if she'd like to carpool in both directions from now on, she eagerly said yes. One small step.

Next up: I told the kids I was no longer providing car rides to swim practice. Yes, I'd still take them, but from now on it would be on foot or bike. I calculated that each round trip to the pool was costing 50 cents, and we often make two to three trips per day. Although their bikes were handy and ready for use, mine was dusty, and I had lost my helmet years ago. So I borrowed an extra helmet from my husband, and off we went. Added benefits: quality time with the kids, plus a decent workout.

Once we started the challenge, there was no stopping us. Why drive downtown for dinner when we have several great restaurants less than a mile from home? When I needed a book to read last week, I almost drove to the bookstore—until I remembered that my neighbor would probably lend me some books. The dog and I took a pleasant walk down the street and came home with a splendid stack of novels.

The more success we had, the more we wanted. This was getting fun. Why drive to the gym and get on the treadmill when I could go for a run in my own neighborhood? Why drive to meet my friend for coffee on Monday when I would be near her house on Tuesday and could easily stop in to see her? Why take two cars to church when we could all ride together if we coordinated departure times a bit better?

We're only beginning the adventure, but already the payoff has been huge. Gasoline usage for the minivan is down by 50 percent. I've lost nearly five pounds. The dog is happier and getting more exercise. I'm having great conversations with the kids as we walk and bike together. Perhaps best of all, life feels simpler. All along I thought my car was an essential tool for navigating my busy life; it turns out that hopping in the car every time I wanted something was making my schedule more complicated. Eliminating a few trips around town, and replacing them with a walk or run, has reduced my stress immeasurably.

Do I still need my minivan? Of course. I want to visit my grandmother 10 miles away, and I can't carry a week's worth of groceries on my bike. When the rainy season begins in earnest I'm sure I'll find the car more pleasant than the bike. Still, we're making permanent changes in our transportation habits. The high cost of gas has been nothing but good for our family.