Smart Options for Dumb Times

Growing up in Los Angeles, you kind of take car culture for granted. As a child, I remember frequently piling into the Chevy to literally drive around the corner to pick up a half-gallon of milk. Sure, we could have walked, but the prospect of feet to pavement was never presented as an option, so my sisters and I, as typical lazy children, never once brought it up. Mind you, this was in the 1970s during the oil crisis and gas rationing that required people to queue up at ungodly hours of the morning for gasoline.

I am remembering this time of naÔve excess because, now with a single gallon of gasoline costing upwards of $4.25 (depending on where you live) and climate change being undeniable, it seems high time we learn some hard lessons from 35 years ago.

Skipping the lengthy history refresher, the combined Oil Embargo of 1973 along with a looming energy crisis and a waning economy created a general instability throughout the country. At the time, there was talk of cutting back on oil and energy consumption, along with gestures made towards finding renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. Then President Jimmy Carter (in)famously upset the nation by asking Americans to turn down their thermostat, and then had the audacity to slap a few solar panels on the roof of the White House, which incoming president Ronald Reagan quickly had removed. All said, Americans were granted the opportunity to rethink our oil/energy consumption, but somehow didnít take the bait.

So here we are, spitefully looking at our less-than-economical cars sitting in front of our houses with their insatiable appetite for the increasingly unaffordable gasoline. Is it time to junk the car and buy a motorcycle? Golf cart? Hybrid? Smart Car? Etc.?

The average motorcycle gets somewhere around 50 MPG, which is not too shabby, considering most cars get somewhere in the 20 MPG range. However, if you are a parent, fitting a car seat onto the back of your bike is just ill advised. Not to mention the mortal jeopardy you put yourself in each time you take to the road, leaving yourself open to driver negligence.

Golf carts seem to be having a practical renaissance off the green, and are almost as economical as motorcycles in fuel economy, but they are not quite street legal everywhere, they top out at 25 MPH, and there is that troublesome issue of weather.

Hybrids, including the Honda Civic and the ever-popular Toyota Prius, are seemingly the winning choice, but an expensive one at that. However, with the rising cost of fuel, the initial investment is quickly balanced out. Still, they are a relatively nascent technology and, in the long run, may not be the best possible answer to rising oil prices and looming climate change.

The Smart Car is a cute and appealing option for skinny times. Laughably diminutive, the Smart Car has a reasonably low sticker price (under $12,000) and averages about 45 MPG on the highway. Good news is that somehow the Smart Car is outfitted to safely transport children, and infants (with the addition of an infant car seat, of course).

Another option, one that I have been exploring recently, is walking or simply riding a bike. I have outfitted my bicycle with a bike seat for my young son, and we take to the streets almost daily. It is cheap, interactive, and oftentimes thrilling, in a good way. Indirectly I am imparting a sense of independence, liberation and resourcefulness that I trust he absorbs, as we snake through the idling cars and right past the gas station.

And donít forget public transportation, when you could find it–an endlessly fascinating array of people and experiences for you and your child (I say this sincerely).

Any other child-friendly transportation options I have overlooked?

For more information:
Clearing the Air About Hybrids
Car Sharing

Stretch a Tank of Gas

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appťtit among other publications.


Patti C.
Mary-Kay L9 years ago

Hey, thanks for the reminder. I'm going to take the train tomorrow with my son in his stroller. Not only will I save gas and not add to pollution, but my two-year-old will be exposed to a variety of people and sites that he might miss out on in the car.
I'm also thinking about biking more. Any advice on which bike seat to get?

Patrick Morgan
Stanley P Morgan9 years ago

These are great ways to reduce reliance on fossil fuel use for transportation. If at all possible, it is great to telecommute. In the technological age, this is feasible for a growing number of workers. Not only does it save gas and reduce emissions, it also saves valuable time. And you don't have to worry about what to wear to the office! Where I live in Portland, Oregon there are businesses that will deliver produce and other groceries (organics!) to your door. One company called Spud! ( is working to be carbon neutral. They deliver to as many addresses in the same area at one time. This means that instead of many cars running to the store at once, one vehicle delivers to one area all at once, using far less fuel!

Erika S.
Erika S9 years ago

Thanks for the invitation. I would say that first of all we need to start thinking of solutions that do not limit us, that is our freedom. We need to find ways to continue expanding in our life not contracting. We need to go foward not backward. So thinking that we need to save most of the time is not going to bring us the solution essential for our evolution. We could be so much more advanced in technology and everything else if we just thought about findind practical solutions without having to limit ourselves.