Op-ed column: Changing the way you live

In the April 20 Sunday Gazette, I outlined the reasons that we desperately need to reduce our energy

In the April 20 Sunday Gazette (read piece here), I outlined the reasons that we desperately need to reduce our energy consumption in this country, and made a commitment to change my lifestyle accordingly — radically for one month, and substantially in the long term. I tried to reduce both my gasoline consumption and my National Grid bill. I had expected to cut all of it at least in half.

I had estimated that I routinely drove an average of 1,000 miles per month and used about 40 gallons of gasoline, not including special occasions like vacations, college drop-offs, etc. During the “strike month,” I walked and rode my bicycle, combined trips, and at times just stayed home.

This whole effort had its pros and cons. Walking at sunrise is great, in general, although I hadn’t realized how much litter there was on the roads. (I mean, who throws fast-food containers out the window? Is it that difficult to wait to get to a garbage can?)

I now feel quite validated about the difficulty that I’ve had squeezing through the railroad underpass on Glenridge Road: the pieces of broken side-view mirrors tell me that more than a dozen people have had a worse time than I did. And although I made some progress during the month, I had to face the facts on how out of shape I’d become. I can remember when a seven-mile walk didn’t wear me out this much.

There were other limits as to how far I could take this. I looked into a car-pool registry, but with the trend toward flex hours, alternate schedules, etc., I haven’t been able to find anyone with a compatible commute. Some “difficulties” were more welcome. After a couple of days of bicycle commuting, I’d be relieved that the weather was too nasty, or that I had some commitment, and so had to drive the car to work. But regardless of my enthusiasm, when friends need favors, or a family member is moving, it’s difficult to say that you just don’t want to burn the gasoline.

Bottom line: I drove a total of 534 miles in the month, burning about 22 gallons of gasoline. Not quite the 50 percent cut that I had expected. At home, a month of brief showers, unplugged appliances and a very low thermostat gave similar results, with a 50 percent reduction in natural gas consumption compared to last year, and a 45 percent reduction in electricity.

Sense of superiority

Mind you, the limits of my success did not stop me from developing a strong sense of superiority, especially to other motorists. Formerly, I had to save my scorn for the occasional Hummer or Escalade. But the people sitting at those long red lights coming off Rexford bridge look silly as you buzz by on a bicycle. And halfway through a seven-mile walk, as you smell the stink of exhaust, you can indulge in contempt for the average sedan, or even Prius if the driver is younger than you and ought to be exercising! And driving to a gym to work out: absurd.

Well, that’s how I felt until the month was up, and the seductive ease and comfort of jumping into the Buick drew me back toward my old self, and longer, steamier showers were easier to re-rationalize.

Seeking help

But before I fully revert, I’d like to take a little credit for having changed, and ask some others to help out:

– The National Grid billing is set up to take away any incentive to save: They charge a large fixed fee for using the system, and then very little for each unit of gas or electricity that you use. So my bill wasn’t cut nearly in half the way that my usage was. This is a terrible way to encourage people to save energy.

– I would ask the Department of Transportation to review traffic control in an effort to minimize idling in traffic. For example, Balltown Road is the only north-south thoroughfare for miles around, and you have to constantly stop for red lights at minor side streets. In particular, there is a full minute red light at Riverview Road at the peak of rush hour, with traffic crawling all the way back into Niskayuna — I’d estimate more than 200 cars. Is minimization of fuel usage a high priority in setting up traffic control?

– Can we establish some park-and-rides around the Capital Region? I expect that a bus across the Rexford Bridge would easily fill — and Dunkin’ Donuts on the north end of Balltown might be happy to have the parking lot there. Or some looser, day-to-day car pools and ride shares could be developed if there were places to park cars.

– Can the state Legislature pass some regulations to mandate some decent bike lanes? There are many places that I’ve traveled where there is minimal shoulder and absolutely deadly drainage ditches right next to the road. All new roads and significant renovations should include provisions for bicyclists.

– I would ask YOU: Use that income-tax rebate on a new bicycle, break in some good walking shoes, start gradually, and look for chances to burn calories instead of petroleum. You can eat more, lose weight, or maybe even both if you really commit to it. But whether it is for your health, your children’s or your country’s, you’ll feel good about cutting down. If there weren’t inconveniences, we would never have gotten this dependent to begin with. But it is always validating to stop rationalizing habits that we know are selfish and wrong.

Don’t delay

I hope that everyone will resist the feel-good relief schemes — tapping the strategic oil reserves, suspending gas taxes, etc.

The cost of energy is starting to change us, for the better, as a nation. More people have solar cells, auto companies are reducing production of 5,000-pound behemoth mobiles, wind energy is more lucrative. I even heard of a workout gym that runs generators from the exercise bikes to light and cool their facility.

These are needed changes and should not be delayed for short-term convenience.

Norman Perazzo lives in Glenville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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