Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Life without a car

When Mike Berry’s weekly gasoline bill hit nearly $100 a week, he decided it was time for a change.

“I don’t like giving the gas companies $400 a month,” says the 56-year-old air traffic controller with the Federal Aviation Administration. “It was kind of a breaking point.”

So Berry – a Los Lunas resident who works in Albuquerque – parked his 22-miles-per-gallon truck and picked up a 56-miles-a-gallon Kawasaki 750 motorcycle.

“It’s my way of fighting back against the high price of oil,” he says. “I definitely will keep it.”

Berry isn’t the only one putting up a fight.

With prices at the pump having hit $3 a gallon or more, New Mexicans are finding ways to reduce how much gas they guzzle.

It’s a decision to change that can mean sacrifices. Those searching to save big bucks on their fuel bills say it’s worth it and, in some cases, a blessing.

Birthday on the bus

Barbara Thomas used to spend $50 or more a week on gasoline. It was, she says, “just ridiculous.”

“I have a grandson who goes to Sandia Prep,” she says. “We live in the Northeast Heights, and we were making this huge circle twice a day in addition to everything else. I just couldn’t afford it.”

It just so happens a bus stop sits a minute’s walk from Thomas’ house.

“All I have to do is go out the front door, walk around the corner, and there’s my bus,” she says. “I love it. I have a whole new outlook on life.”

But it wasn’t easy.

Thomas hadn’t ridden a city bus since she was a little girl accompanying her mother Downtown. She had expectations about riding one. It would be dirty, she feared. Possibly unsafe.

Not so, she says after a month and a half of taking the Candelaria commuter to and from work in Downtown.

“I have a whole new group of friends,” she says. “There’s a whole little bus subculture.”

On Wednesday, there was a mini-birthday party on the bus for one of the riders, she says. When the morning bus driver got married, riders had a small celebration with doughnuts. One regular rider, she says, occasionally buys food from Church’s Chicken for everyone.

Any worries about being immobilized at work because she lacked a car were swept aside as she realized “how many errands you don’t really have to run until Saturday or after work.” If necessary, she says she can always hop back in her Isuzu SUV and drive to work.

Then there’s the freedom of being a passenger.

“You don’t have to deal with the traffic,” she says. “You don’t have to get angry at people. I get to work, and I feel so much better than when I was driving.”

She’d like to see more riders and says the city could bring them aboard if more busses went down more streets.

Such additions don’t come easily.

“We get that a lot,” says Bill Slauson, manager of planning and marketing for the city of Albuquerque’s ABQ Ride. “`Just throw another bus out there.’ But it’s a significant financial investment that we need to consider carefully.”

Depending on the route, it can cost $100,000 to $2 million a year to get another bus on the road, Slauson says.

A five-year transportation plan – being put together at a time when ridership on the bus system has soared – will consider expansion of the city’s transit service even after the recent addition of the high-speed Rapid Ride bus service.

This September saw a 17.5 percent increase compared with the number of people who boarded a bus a year ago, says Jay Faught, spokesman for ABQ Ride.

In June, July and August, the average number of riders per month was 648,315, he says. September’s ridership number was about 13 percent higher – almost 733,000.

“Part of that can be attributed to the Rapid Ride,” he says. “Part of that is definitely due to the high gas prices.”

Even as more people get onto the bus, getting by without a car in some parts of Albuquerque poses potent obstacles to daily living.

The problem is not with providing buses, says Stephen Wheeler, assistant professor of community and regional planning at the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning.

It is, he says, in how you design a city.

Striking a balance

“Suburban Albuquerque, particularly the West Side, is much more difficult to live without a car because you don’t have connecting street networks,” Wheeler says.

“It’s very difficult to run bus service through it because there are very few streets that connect all the way through, and the people can’t easily walk 10 minutes to get to a bus stop.”

Even in older Albuquerque neighborhoods with an interconnecting grid pattern of streets that make car-free travel easier, he says, there’s often something else missing as consumers flock to big-box retailers, shopping centers and local businesses.

It’s the neighborhood grocery store. It’s the small shops. It’s the theater down the street. The drugstores. Restaurants.

Not only do local businesses provide needed goods and services within distances doable without a car, but they provide nearby jobs, Wheeler says.

“We have to have balanced whole communities rather than this pattern of separated, poorly connected subdivisions like we are seeing on the West Side, where your office park is miles away from your mall, which is miles away from the subdivision where people live,” he says.

“People are just beginning to realize the difficulty we have in walking anywhere in this country and all the health impacts among other things that result from that.”

Yet along Albuquerque’s winding miles of black asphalt serving gas-powered, human transportation boxes on wheels, there are still people using that technology known as their legs – with a little help from the bus – to get around.

Suzen Light is one of them.

Elegant pair of tires

“I always refer to my shoes as my tires,” Light says as her elegant, heeled “tires” take her on the 10-minute walk from work to the Route 2 city bus stop along Eubank Boulevard.

“I actually love taking the bus,” says Light, who works as a center director for Jenny Craig Inc. “People don’t realize how relaxing it is.”

Light has lived without a car for about a year and a half. The problem was with her eyes: no depth perception. It meant she often used the bus, even as a car owner.

The minor fender benders piled up, and she took herself off the road. There were inconveniences, but the benefits outweighed them, she says.

She saves money on insurance, car repairs and, of course, gas – especially appreciated, she says, with the fuel’s ascent in cost.

Then there’s the birds.

As she walks from her office – through a Target parking lot and along little-used sidewalks – she smiles and motions toward a gray sky filled with popping chirps.

“Here, you can hear the birds,” she says. “You can’t hear that in a car.”

And see the leaves?

“I noticed on Friday the leaves were starting to turn,” she says. “How many drivers noticed the leaves were starting to turn?”

Her life, she says, requires more planning without a car.

It began with the choice of where to live. She got an apartment close to a bus stop. Her “tires” take her to and from a grocery store a 10-minute walk away.

Errands get combined. She brings extra clothes to work for surprise shifts in weather. She packs her lunch. Her cats go to the vet the same time each year when her car-owning friends are on vacation and free to offer a ride.

She admits she’s an anomaly – a 39-year-old, professional woman who can afford a car but goes without one.

She comes across unfair stereotypes: People without cars are unemployed; people without cars have a drinking problem.

“People have made those kind of assumptions before,” she says. “The social norm is you’re supposed to have a car. . . . People just don’t get it.”

Light says living without a car comes with more positives than negatives.

“You just make do,” she says.

SIDEBAR: Gas crisis can rev sales or kill the magic

Here’s a look at Albuquerque area businesses dealing with average gasoline costs that have gone up almost 50 percent from a year ago:

Two wheels cheaper than four

“We’ve sold everything we can get a hold of,” says Monty Cowan, owner of New Mexico Motorcycle, a used-motorcycle seller and repair shop. He says an average motorcycle gets 30 miles to 50 miles per gallon. “This time of year usually slows down, but people are still riding.”

Immobilized

“During the balloon fiesta, we usually get quite a few people. This year, we only got two RVs,” says Steve Gifford, manager of Mountain View Campground & RV Park.

He estimates the drop in visitors to be around 80 percent. Upping the rent for permanent mobile home lots on the property is “one of the options we’ve been talking about,” he says.

Hoofing it

“So far what we’ve seen is in the fuel charge,” says Martin Norlin, manager of Dan’s Boots and Saddles, a store selling goods for horses and riders. The charge typically comes to 5 percent when the store places a wholesale order. “We haven’t had to pass it along to the consumer yet. Here in another 30 days, you’ll probably see it.”

Rose on the rise

“We had to raise delivery prices (by $1),” says Tina Lambert, co-owner of Haley’s Flowers & Gift Baskets.

She’s also trying to cut down the number of wholesale orders she makes per week because each delivery now comes with an additional energy fee of up to $3. “The shipping charges are killing us.”

The end of the illusion

“It definitely has become a factor for me,” says the Amazing Bodinni, also known as Benny Bodo, an Albuquerque performer of magic and clown shows in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Texas.

His bigger illusion shows are at an end because the props – normally stored in a gas-guzzling SUV he has stopped driving because of fuel costs – won’t fit in his more fuel-efficient Toyota Corolla.

“As far as taking shows that I normally would do, like in Amarillo. . . . Some of these gigs I may start passing on. I may just have to increase my price.”

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