Rolling with ever-changing gas prices: Lessons from my dumb luck

Scott Doyon, Better! Cities & Towns

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Op-Ed pages took on the subject of gas prices this week, devoting a good fifty column inches to a discussion that could otherwise be summarized like this:

The price of gas might increase by anywhere from a few pennies to a dollar this year. It might also go down, but then it will go up again. And, amidst the fluctuations, expect the ongoing trend of slowly increasing average costs to continue. So we’re right to be concerned.

Not exactly a news flash but nonetheless on par with the ever fatiguing state of our national conversation on energy. To that I’m resigned but then I got to this, from AAA spokesperson Jessica Brady, where the prospect of a solution is suggestively dangled but then never delivered:

[As it relates to price increases,] “the most honest answer is it’s too hard to say with 100 percent confidence at this time. It’s definitely a possibility. Knowledge is power. When the odds are strong, prepare. If it does happen, we won’t be standing at the pump with our mouths open, as if we never saw it coming.”

No, we’ll be standing at the pump with our mouths open even though we saw it coming.

Seriously, what does “prepare” mean? How are people who are fully invested in a consumptive lifestyle dependent on the availability of cheap gas supposed to “prepare” just because their latest check of GasBuddy told them to expect an uptick?

If you’re of means, I suppose you could get yourself a hybrid. Others could prepare by instituting a family ban on eating out. Or canceling the cable TV. Maybe amp up your use of coupons and other forms of calculated shopping. Or worse.

There’s all manner of Americans right now “preparing” for rising gas (and other energy) prices in ways exactly like this. But why does preparing have to be a reactive, punitive exercise?

It doesn’t. There are meaningful ways to prepare proactively. Enjoyable ways. In fact, I discovered a few of them myself, quite by accident.

In 1996 I was a young newlywed shopping for a place to put down roots. Our situation was simple: We wanted an old house and we were relatively broke. So, while we did end up finding what we wanted, it wasn’t exactly where we wanted, in that its surrounding neighborhood was something best described as “sketchy.”

That’s okay, we rationalized. Our block was still better than a couple blocks over. And the schools? We didn’t need to think about that. We didn’t even have a child, much less one of school age. A lot can change. We’d cross that bridge when the time came.

Time went by and things did indeed change. Other folks, as young and oblivious as we were, began moving into the neighborhood. They spent money, fixing up houses and launching local businesses. We had a daughter and pretty soon we started seeing kids all over.

Then, we both made job changes that allowed us to work from home. We weren’t making any sort of calculated career moves so much as we were following our passions and interests. It just worked out.

By the time school age rolled around for our daughter, parents in the neighborhood had achieved a loud enough voice to push for, and get, changes in the school system. As a result, everyone began enrolling their kids in the neighborhood school which, conveniently, was right down the street. We did the same.

As the neighborhood continued to improve, so did the quality of the amenities. We reclaimed our streets and parks and responded enthusiastically with each new pub, restaurant or convenience opening nearby. In time, people were walking all over the place for all kinds of reasons.

That’s when we realized that, between working at home, walking to school, friends’ houses, businesses and the park, having the subway a half mile away, and generally being part of a place where almost all needs can be satisfied within a mile or two of home, we had no use for a second car. And that’s why, in a decidedly Gen-X maneuver, we traded it in for a Vespa.

The end result of all this, these sixteen years of fortuitous stumbling, is that, while the average American household paid $4,155 for gasoline in 2011 (a 25 percent increase over 2010), we paid about $1,400. And it wasn’t because we made sacrifices. It was because we happened upon an immensely satisfying lifestyle that just happened to be less dependent on gasoline. At whatever price.Beyond that, what we initially sought for a very specific and limited set of reasons ended up delivering a lot more, in more ways. Not only do we save on gas, we spend less time in the car. We’re afforded more time with our daughter who, now a ‘tween, may not want it but certainly needs it. And when she’s had enough, she can always set out — via foot or bike — on her own.

We also live a more active, more localized existence now which, in practice, has led us to a lot of creative and interesting people with whom we’d have never crossed paths had our daily lives been operating at 45 miles per hour.

Long story short, we consider ourselves very fortunate, but I realize that a story predicated on dumb luck and serendipity is, by definition, not directly transferrable. So before anyone feels the need to respond with a snarky “How nice… for you,” let me be clear. The true lesson here is that, since birth, many of us have been indoctrinated into a program of American Dream-like desires that may, in practice, bear little resemblance to the things that actually bring us satisfaction and joy. So long as we continue to pursue them, making decisions as though the cost of energy doesn’t matter, we’ll increasingly find ourselves at the cruel mercy of fluctuating prices.

Instead, try this: The quest to use less gas will often lead you to compact, diverse, walkable mixed-use places offering a wholly unexpected quality of life. They may differ from what you’ve always pictured. They may offer fewer square feet per dollar. They may take a lot of work in partnership with others. But they will undoubtedly deliver on something often promised and rarely fulfilled: Newfound levels of personal freedom.

What’s that worth to ya?

Scott Doyon is principal, director of client marketing services with Placemakers, a planning, coding, marketing, and implementation firm. This article was also published on PlaceShakers and NewsMakers.