The story of how I fell out of love with driving

When I got my current car, a 2005 Honda Civic, my Dad bought me a gas mileage book and told me to record each and every time I filled up. I have been diligently recording the date, odometer reading, number of litres, gas price per litre, and total cost of each fillup ever since. I also record notes on some fillups, such as out-of-town trips. A couple of weeks ago, inspired by Nora Young’s trip to Edmonton to discuss self-tracking, I finally decided to digitize the records. It occurred to me that this was the first bit of self-tracking I ever did. I know that I drive far less today than I did when I got the car, and I wanted to be able to visualize that. You can see the charts below, but to really understand them, I need to share a bit of history with you first.

The moment I turned 14, I was ready to get my learner’s permit. Like most guys my age I desperately wanted to drive, even if I needed to have an adult with me. I got the study guide, but didn’t spend too much time with it. As a result, when I went to write the test, I failed by one question (it was something to do with uncontrolled railway crossings if I remember correctly). I made sure to not let that happen again, and the second time I passed with no problems. I was living with my Grandma at the time, and she was great about letting me drive. Whenever we went to the grocery store or if she was dropping me off somewhere, she’d happily take the passenger seat.

I took lessons from AMA to learn how to drive a manual transmission, and took the driver’s test soon after I turned 16. With only a few minor hiccups I passed, and was free to drive on my own (fortunately I got in just before the GDL program took effect, so I had no limitations). When I was in high school, I drove a lot. I thought nothing of crossing the city to get somewhere or to drive a friend home. Gas prices were quite a bit lower at the time than they are today, but looking back it still seems incredibly wasteful how much I would drive.

When I started attending the University of Alberta, I would frequently drive. Sometimes I’d park at campus, other times I would get a ride with a friend, but most times I would park at the Stadium LRT Station and take the train the rest of the way (also handy because my office was downtown). I would sometimes take the bus, but I never made that a habit.

Shortly after I graduated in the spring of 2007, I started working at Questionmark. Our office was located near The Brick warehouse in the northwest part of the city, and I was still living with my Grandma in the southeast. That meant driving about 60 kilometers every day, and it meant driving the very busy Whitemud. I looked at taking the bus, but it would have taken about 45 minutes and required a transfer.

In May 2008, I moved into an apartment in Oliver with my sister. That cut the distance to work significantly, though I still drove every day. Roughly a year later, with our local team growing at Questionmark, we decided to move the office downtown to the Empire Building. I started taking the bus to and from work every day, because it was just a short trip (about a 15 minute ride) and I didn’t want to pay for parking.

In the summer of 2010, Sharon and I moved into our current place on 104 Street. I’m now just a short walk away from the office (Google estimates 9 minutes), which means I walk to and from work every day. As we have written before, I absolutely love it.

To recap quickly:

  • June 2005 to July 2007: I drove pretty much everywhere.
  • July 2007 to May 2008: I drove across the city to get to work every day. I regularly drove other places.
  • May 2008 to May 2009: I still drove to work every day, but the distance is much shorter.
  • May 2009 to July 2010: I took the bus to work, and drove only on evenings and weekends.
  • July 2010 to present: I walk to work, and avoid driving whenever possible.

Here’s what that behavior looks like on a graph:

distance by year

I think the four big shifts are pretty evident in that graph. Slowly but surely, I have been reducing any dependence on my car to get around.

Out of interest, here’s what that behavior cost me at the pump:

spend by year

I wish I had kept records prior to 2005, because I know the price of gas was quite a bit less when I first started driving.

What’s not captured in this data is how my attitude toward driving has changed over the years. It sounds counterintuitive, but the less time I spent behind the wheel the less I enjoyed it. I remember arguing with Sharon back in my university days about how terrible our public transit system was (she has always been a regular user). I loved driving and wanted nothing to do with the bus. Today we use the car maybe once a week, for trips to Superstore, to visit family, or to get out of town, and I regularly complain if I need to drive for pretty much any other reason. I would much rather walk or take the bus. I now find driving quite stressful! I’m sure that the shift from driving to walking has positively impacted my health. It has no doubt lowered my carbon footprint by quite a bit as well.

Also missing from the above charts are the other changes that have made my move away from the car possible. Without question, being able to use Google Maps to lookup bus routes has been hugely beneficial. Text messaging at bus stops has also made the experience of using the bus much more positive. My experience traveling in other cities has no doubt had a big impact on me as well. The are lots of things to consider.

As much as I would like to go car-free, it’s just not a very realistic option in Edmonton at the moment. I’m hopeful that will change however, and that our next car will be our last (though I recognize that other life changes may significantly affect that plan).

In an effort to better understand my behavior and potentially change it, I have been tracking my travel habits every day this year. In January, I’ll be able to show you a full year of data, including how often and how far I traveled by foot, bicycle, automobile, bus, train, plane, etc. Stay tuned!

That's How Refineries Roll

Gas prices here in Edmonton are about $1.05 right now, and they were $1.18 in Vancouver on the weekend. Most people generally expect the prices to keep going up, perhaps quite dramatically in the near future. What would you do if you were an extremely profitable oil company faced with that reality?

Petro-Canada Refinery

If you guessed “burn excess gas and pollute the environment”, you’d be right!

That bright orange spot is from the flames atop one of the “flares” as they are called (I think) at a refinery near Edmonton. I believe most refineries will tell you that burning off excess gas is a common practice, though the flames I saw tonight were unusually large. They were burning at 6:30 PM when I drove by heading north, and they were still going at around 9:45 PM when I took these.

These photos are from the Petro-Canada refinery on the southeast side of the city. According to the company’s website, the site processes 135,000 barrels of crude oil per day (switching this year to 135,000 barrels of oil sands feedstock per day).

Petro-Canada Refinery Petro-Canada Refinery Petro-Canada Refinery Petro-Canada Refinery Petro-Canada Refinery

H2N-Gen

Post ImageHow would you like to make your car more efficient? I know I would, given the current cost of oil. We’ve seen prices drop a little in the last week or two, but nothing significant. That’s why the H2N-Gen looks incredibly cool:

Basically, the H2N-Gen contains a small reservoir of distilled water and other chemicals such as potassium hydroxide. A current is run from the car battery through the liquid. This process of electrolysis creates hydrogen and oxygen gases which are then fed into the engine’s intake manifold where they mix with the gasoline vapours.

It’s a scientific fact that adding hydrogen to a combustion chamber will cause a cleaner burn. The challenge has always been to find a way to get the hydrogen gas into the combustion chamber in a safe, reliable and cost-effective way.

Just how much better does this device make your fuel consumption?

Most internal combustion engines operate at about 35 per cent efficiency. This means that only 35 per cent of the fuel is fully burned. The rest either turns to carbon corroding the engine or goes out the exhaust pipe as greenhouse gases.

The H2N-Gen increases burn efficiency to at least 97 per cent, Williams said. This saves fuel and greatly reduces emissions.

That would be some pretty significant savings! Savings that would make you go, “sign me up!” And the really great thing about it is that no hydrogen is stored on board – it is “just in time” manufactured.

Some other information on the device: it’s a Canadian invention, it is supposed to last ten years, can be attached to any internal combustion engine (diesel, gasoline, propane), and should cost around $7500. If this thing is for real, it could really change up the way things work – both the oil and vehicle industries would be greatly affected.

Read: Montreal Gazette

Locking gas caps!

Post ImageHow can you tell that gas prices are far too high? Well, you might spit coffee all over the dash when you drive up to the pump and see the price, or you might be checking prices on one of those converters that makes your car burn restaurant grease as fuel. Or, you might even be ordering a locking gas cap:

The word from Pittsburgh is that auto parts suppliers are rapidly selling out of locking gas caps, which were originally invented in the 30s because of gas thefts during the Great Depression. Buyers are reporting their gas tanks have been siphoned, or that they want to head off potential siphoning due to ever-rising gas prices. Some stores are having difficulty getting more units in stock from manufacturers.

There was a similar little article in today’s Dose too. Are people really siphoning gas, or is this a little bit of Pimp My Ride? I mean gas prices are so high, what’s another few dollars on a locking gas cap right?

Read: Engadget

Edmonton man addicted to updating gas prices

Post ImageWhen I posted about the price of oil on Tuesday, I linked to EdmontonGasPrices.com as a resource for checking out where the cheapest gas is in the city. Then today, reading the Journal, I came across an article talking about Scott Widney:

It’s only noon, but already Scott Widney has earned 450 points as a tipster for GasBuddy.com, a gas-price tracking service that posts good deals on fuel for more than 170 North American cities.

Using the screen name oilmaster, the 46-year-old logs into local gas-price tracking site edmontongasprices.com and reports the price changes at six south-side gas stations about three times a week.

“It’s pretty addictive,” he said Tuesday, the day gas prices at most Edmonton stations shot up to 102.9 cents per litre.

Whatever floats your boat, I suppose! Granted, he does get entries into contests for free gas for every 150 points he earns, so it’s not like he gets only satisfaction out of the deal.

Though I have always thought GasBuddy and EdmontonGasPrices.com were kind of a funny concept. If you found cheap gas, wouldn’t you instinctively want to keep it a secret? To keep it all for yourself? Maybe I’m just selfish. The other reason I thought it was a funny concept is that it allows gas stations to see how their competitors are pricing gas around the city without having to make some phone calls or (gasp!) drive around. Seems to me it would be easier to raise your prices just because someone else did.

Read: Edmonton Journal

Oil prices will go higher

Post ImageDriving to work earlier today, I noticed that some gas stations have raised prices again, this time to 102.9. I have never seen gas prices so high, and I never thought I would. I remember a few years ago when a litre of gas cost less than half what it does today. And the worst news of all? Oil prices are going to keep rising.

If you think I’m joking, read this Economist.com article. It does an excellent job of explaining things:

So far, however, the effect of higher prices has been surprisingly muted. Gas-guzzling America has seen GDP grow at a brisk clip, far outstripping many of its daintier peers in the rich world. Though high oil prices are contributing to America’s surging (and unsustainable) current-account deficit, they do not seem to be worrying consumers, who have kept on spending.

In part, this is because the oil-price records are an illusion, brought about by inflation. While nominal prices are at record levels, in real (inflation-adjusted) terms they are still well below those seen in the wake of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, when the cost of a barrel of oil hovered around $90 in today’s dollars (see chart). Consumers are better-off now—in 1980, the median personal income in America was $16,800 (in 2003 prices), versus $22,700 in 2003—and economies are more fuel-efficient. Both of these things should cushion the shock of higher prices.

There are other factors to consider too. During the hostage crisis, OPEC deliberately kept prices higher than the market could bear – but it backfired. We became more fuel efficient as a result, something OPEC would not want to do again. There’s a theory though, that they have lost the control required to keep prices artificially high anyway:

With the exception of Saudi Arabia, its producers are pumping as much as they can—and Saudi excess capacity is in heavy crude that is harder to refine into the cleaner fuels demanded by rich countries. OPEC made a great show of raising its members’ combined quotas to 28m barrels per day (bpd) in June. But thanks to rampant cheating, they were already pumping at least that much, and possibly as much as 30m bpd, making OPEC’s promises little more than a carefully staged bit of public relations.

There is an excellent Wikipedia article covering the current increase in oil prices, complete with breakdowns of demand and supply, and some excellent charts. It too, says the worst is yet to come:

While oil prices are considerably higher than a year ago, they are still far from exceeding the inflation-adjusted peak set in 1980.

There are lots of people talking about the gas prices, obviously. The number eight search on Technorati right now is gas prices. And over on Flickr, you can check out some of the prices around the world as people take pictures and post them.

Here in Edmonton, you can keep an eye on gas prices at EdmontonGasPrices.com. And if you think it’s time to park the car, the ETS website is http://www.takeets.com.

Read: Economist.com