Monday, December 31, 2007

Zipping to Baltimore

On Saturday, my brother in Baltimore called early and said today would be a good day to get together. He had just driven back from Indiana, and I'm sure he didn't feel like getting in the car and driving more, so I offered to get a Zipcar and come up to see him and my sister.

So I went online and saw there was a Zipcar available in Old Town, for the time I wanted it. I had a few things to take care of before leaving, so I made the start time at 11 a.m. I got my biking things together and the Christmas gifts into my panniers, and biked the 7 miles into Old Town.

The directions told me that the Zipcar was located in a Central Parking Garage located in an alley behind a certain address. The last time I had gotten a Zipcar, it was parked right on the street, so it was easy to find. Finding this garage was a little more of a "treasure hunt", but finally I spied the Central Parking Garage sign on the street leading to the alley. The Zipcar was just inside the entrance of the garage, so that was helpful. :) I unlocked the doors and folded up my Bike Friday to put it in the trunk. The back seats could fold down, so to give me a little more room for the bike, I folded one side down.

The car was nice - it was a Mazda 3. It had 20,000 miles on it. One thing about getting a different kind of Zipcar each time, is that you have to learn where the instruments are every time. You don't just automatically know where certain instruments are - like in your old car where you could do it automatically. You now have to take your eyes off the road and find the button you need (to change the radio station, adjust the heat, etc.). But that's no different from getting a rental car - getting in models you've never been in. This particular Mazda was different in that it had a "triptronic transmission" - you could put it into "Manual" and manually shift the gears without a clutch! Interesting - not that I would, but I guess that would be nice for some.

I got up to my brother's by about 12:30, and we had a nice visit together. I showed him and my sister how the Zipcar worked with the card and getting into it, and where the key and the gas card are located. They thought it was kind of neat.

Near the end of the day, it was time for me to pack up my bike (I had taken my bike out to get my picture taken with the Zipcar). My return time was to be 7 p.m. I knew it would take at least an hour to get back - but I wanted to add a little more time to that, just in case I ran into traffic. But you know how it is, you get to talking and hanging out a little longer than you should.... I should have left about 5:30 - but instead it was about 5:50 when I got on the road. NORMALLY, there isn't a back-up at the Inner Harbor Tunnel. NORMALLY, the traffic zooms along on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway at 70 and faster. Well, of course, since I needed to be back by 7 p.m., there WAS a back-up at the tunnel, and then traffic ONLY moved at 55 on the Parkway. :/ I think there was probably a cop driving on the Parkway, keeping people in check. No way around that, but when I got to the Beltway, I took off. Not that I wanted to really speed, but at the same time, I didn't want to be late returning the Zipcar. Flying along at about 75-80, and praying a cop wouldn't catch me, I made it back to Old Town by 6:58...! I knew that I couldn't get to the garage and get my bike unloaded and lock the car in 2 minutes. So I called the Zipcar 800-number to quickly extend my reservation. Since I haven't called them before, I didn't know what to expect. Evidently, you can ask for a representative (for a small fee) or use the automated prompts. I opted for the automated response. It told me my Zipcard member number and asked me to verify it. I looked at my Zipcard and saw that number on the lower lefthand side. I pushed "1" to verify it. It told me that my reservation was to end at 7 p.m., and if I wanted to extend it by a half hour. I didn't know that you could extend it by a half hour - I thought it had to be another hour, so I was glad to hear it could be shorter, if need be. So I pushed "1" to extend it a half hour. That was all that was needed to be done - so in about 30 seconds or less, I was given more breathing room. Ahh.... Although I wondered how it automatically identified me when I called??

I got to the garage and got my bike and things out of the car. The car had had about a half tank of gas when I started, and now it was at about one-fourth - which is when they would prefer you to put gas in it. I suppose I should have, since I had the extra half hour...but I was kinda tired and not feeling great, and still needed to bike back home a half I didn't fill it up. Today I read the penalty clauses on the Zipcar website. It says they can charge you $20 if you return the car with LESS than one-fourth tank of gas. Well, I guess I'm slightly okay since it wasn't BELOW one-fourth tank. But still, I should have filled it up, since I had the time.....I'm a bad Zipster.... Well, I'll try to do better next time. Speaking of next time, I'm gonna make sure I leave enough rental time to get back so that I don't have to speed back. That wasn't fun and no one needs that stress. Well, live and learn...and I'm still learning since it's only my second time getting a Zipcar. And I BETTER learn, because I read in the provisions that if they have the right to CANCEL my membership if I violate the membership rules. I definitely DON'T want that to happen!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Gas prices to rise in 2008

I was just reading the news online that gas prices are expected to rise to at least an average of $3.75 in 2008. In California, it will be over $4.00 a gallon! Glad I don't live in CA anymore!

When I had my pick-up truck, I knew a few places that had cheaper gas, and would try to aim for those locations to fill up. I tried to line up my errands to include the stop at the gas station, and try not to go out of my way unnecessarily.

Now that I'm car-free, I think about what errands I can run on my way to and from work...and am seeking and choosing places that are along my route. When it comes time to find a new dentist and doctor next year, I'll look for ones near home or work, that I can walk or bike to. It's like when you move to a new home, you find businesses nearby to replace the ones you had in your old location, so that you don't have to drive all the way back to your old area. Most of the time, there are businesses that can be found nearby. One business I go to often is a stained glass store, for supplies. Unfortunately, the nearest one is about 40 miles away. Although, I could always order supplies online when possible, to save time and money. So, it's a matter of changing your way of thinking about how to obtain items that are needed - there are multiple ways to get the task done, and doesn't always have to include having a car. Fortunately, I live in an area that has a lot of stores nearby, so you don't have to travel too far.

This morning on my way to work, I was in search of a fine white marker, to use in a stained glass project. So I stopped at CVS to see if they had anything. They didn't, so then I thought perhaps the Kinko's down the road might. They had a white-out pen that might work, so I got that. But then I remembered after I got to work, that there's an art store near my office that I could check with. I called and they did have what I needed, so I will drop by there on my bike ride home. I'll also stop by a strip shopping mall to get my hair cut. Since it's supposed to rain tomorrow night, tonight would be the better night. The hair place is located right off of the bike path, in Crystal City. Nice and handy! Couldn't ask for it to be easier! :)

Last Friday, I biked to work as usual, but then left my bike at work and took the Metro to National Airport to catch a flight out of town for the long Christmas weekend. Earlier in the week, I had brought in my traveling clothes in a couple of loads in my extra pannier. I could have borrowed my roommate's car and parked it at the airport, then biked in from there. But daily parking is about $10 a day...and it would add up to about $50 while I was away. Instead, after I got back into town, I took the subway back to my office (15 min. ride) and changed into my bike clothes that I had left there, and hopped on my bike to head home - stopping at the bank and 7-11 to get some things. I got home shortly before dark. Sure, it took me 2 hours to accomplish this, but I saved $50, and got some exercise to work off some of the Christmas holiday treats! :)

One thing I want to do in the New Year is to set up another savings account (at a bank that has a coin machine, so I can turn in the change I find along the way!). In the account, I want to put in the monthly amount I specifically save by not having a car - which is about $140 a month, minimum. It'll be nice to see how that adds up over the years - a tangible item that can show the fruits of my labor, you might say, from biking! :) In that book I read, "How to Live Car Free" - the author included many testimonies from people who had gone Car Free, and how they had saved up enough money to buy a house, to retire early, to take nice vacations, etc. It's nice to have a way to SHOW for your efforts, vs. just spending the extra money you save.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Errands by Bike :)

Here's a picture of my folding bike, the Bike Friday Pocket Pilot. :) Out of my 4 bikes, it's my favorite. Why? Because it's so versatile. First, it was built to my body specifications, so it fits me like a glove. Second, it's lightweight and has great low gears to get me up just about any incline. Third, it can fold up to fit inside a car trunk, or you can disassemble it further, and pack it into its own travel suitcase, and check it as luggage on a plane, and fly anywhere with it, and there's no charge. :) I bought it 3 years ago, and soon afterwards started the DC Bike Friday club.

So, this will be the bike I will use when I ride to use a Zipcar - to fold it up and put it in the trunk of the car. I don't need a full-size car, a small car will do just fine. In fact, on the Zipcar website, when you are checking out the various available cars, it will tell you if the car is "fully bike-compatible" (i.e., you can fit the whole bike in, without taking your front wheel off), or if it's partially bike compatible. Either way, my Bike Friday can handle it. I have a nylon bag that I can put the bike into, and then put it in the car, so that no grease gets on the car anywhere, which is nice. :)

However, I haven't had to rent a Zipcar since Dec. 8. We had yucky weather last weekend, so I was inside most of the weekend, except my roommate did let me use her car to run to the grocery store to get some lunch items. And this weekend, I will be away in Kansas for Christmas.

In the meantime though, I have run a number of errands on my way to and from work. I have always enjoyed running errands on my bike - it always gives you a feeling of accomplishment, to get there on your own power, park right near the door, get what you need, and get home. Nice and and out. It doesn't cost anything to ride there, no parking hassles or cost, no traffic to fight, and you get exercise along the way. Actually, I sometimes find money on the road along the way - so you might say that I'M being paid to ride my bike. :) In fact, one year a while back, I was finding money on the road it seemed, almost every day. I wondered if I kept track for a year, how much money would I find?? So, I wrote down on my calendar every time I found money. At the end of the year, I added it up, and it came to over $13.00! Not bad! Nothing to retire on :) but still, it's extra money you didn't have. :) People in cars never see this money on the road - so I might as well pick it up and enjoy it! :)

So, I have run errands to several places. To the bank, grocery store, gift store, theatre, post office, and to meet a friend for dinner, to name a few. And although these locations are not far off the bike path I commute on, it does add a bit of time onto my I get home even later. But I figure I might as well take care of an errand here and there while I'm out there and on the way, vs. making a special trip all the way there on my bike, you know? It saves time in the long run.

One purchase I was considering (and may get in the future) is yet another Bike Friday, but this one is called the Tikit. ( It folds even smaller than my Pocket Pilot, and has a bike cover attached in a pouch on the bike, so you can cover your bike and then roll it or pick it up and bring it WITH you, if you want to, like to a movie, theatre setting, museum, on a bus or commuter train. So it would come in handy if you didn't want to leave your bike locked up outside for long periods of time, and have it safe by your side or checked at a coat area. I am holding off to see how well I do with my other bikes before purchasing the Tikit. Even though I've admired the Tikit and what it can do, similar to the folding Brompton bike. There are some good advantages to owning one. But time will tell if I really need one.

Using Zipcar!

After my truck was donated, I went on-line to sign up with Zipcar. I was directed to a certain page for those who had donated their cars. I filled out the pertinent information needed and submitted my application. A few days later, my Zipcar membership card arrived in the mail. (I did have the option of going to pick up my card in person at the Zipcar office in D.C., but their office closes before I get off work). Besides, being that it was the middle of the week, I didn't really need a car yet.

Saturday morning came, and I was looking forward to going online to reserve and use a Zipcar! You can also reserve one by phone, but it was just as easy to do it online. You log on, state your location, and it finds the nearest Zipcars available. The closest possible Zipcars are located about 7 miles from my house. Not great, but not bad. Ideally, it'd be nice if one was located a mile or two from my house... Zipcar is merging with Flexcar in January, and it will add about 300-400 cars to their maybe they will have some cars closer to my house.

They have a lot of Zipcars located at the various Metro subway stations, which is very handy. Still, you need to GET to the Zipcar in the first place. My thought was that since I have bicycles, including a folding bicycle, I would bike to the nearest Zipcar, put my bike in the car, and take off. It adds some time to bike to the Zipcar, but, that's one of those things that would be planned ahead of time. If I get a Zipcar in D.C., they are within walking distance and easily accessible.

So, this first time that I went online to reserve a car, the closer cars were already reserved for the timeframe I was looking at (12-3 p.m.). I decided to reserve a car that was in Shirlington, that was parked on a street. My friend Melinda was going to come with me, driving us to Shirlington, where she would park her car in the garage, and we would walk across the street to the Zipcar. We had an errand to run to the stained glass store located in Kensington, Maryland, about 45 min. away. She was a bit curious to see how this whole Zipcar thing worked, as I was. I offered to treat her to lunch afterwards, for the ride to Shirlington. :)

The car shown was a Scion. The Zipcar website tells you exactly where it is parked, how far that is from your house, and how to get there. It doesn't tell you the color of the car, but it does show a picture of the car, so you know what you're looking for.

We arrived, and saw the Scion parked where it was supposed to be. The car has the green Zipcar logo on the side of the car, like pictured above. There's a parking sign next to the Zipcar, saying for Zipcar parking only - all others would be towed. So it's like a reserved parking spot, just for you. :) To get into the car, you hold your Zipcar card over a transponder that is on the inside of the windshield on the driver's side. Momentarily, it unlocks the car doors. :) Once inside, the car key, unbelievably, is hanging from a zip chain mounted next to the ignition. Right there in full view. What would stop a thief from smashing a window and taking the car?? Well, maybe the car has a security system, or requires the membership card to activate it to start the car, I don't know. I don't need to know that because I'm a "Zipster" - as I'm called on the Zipcar website. :)

The Scion was practically new. It had 3400 miles on it. It was clean and smoke-free. You're not allowed to smoke in the cars, which is nice, so you don't have to put up with that smell. The Scion had a CD player and even an iPod hook-up. :) Not that I have an iPod, but it's nice if you do. I could always bring CDs to listen to. Most of the time, the radio does just fine for me.

With Zipcar, you're given 180 free driving miles. After that, there is a mileage fee. But for my purposes, 180 miles is a good amount to cover what I need to get least for now. The Zipcar gas card is located in the driver's visor. There was a half tank of gas, and they only require you to put gas in the car if it gets to one-fourth. You can use the gas card at any gas station - after inserting your ID number, it authorizes you to pump gas. If the gas station doesn't accept the card, you just go ahead and put gas in and pay cash or credit, and then Zipcar will reimburse you after you fax in a receipt. So, either way, it's covered.

So, we ran our errand to Kensington. The Scion rode nicely - it reminded me of a VW Jetta inside. We could have had lunch near the store we went to, but I decided to head back to return the car -- I wasn't sure if I would run into a traffic jam on the way (which can happen at any time), and there were plenty places to eat in Shirlington. Though I had reserved the car for 3 hours, I knew at least 2 hours would be taken up with running the errand. So I had an hour to spare, if need be. I could have run some other errands along the way, but didn't really need anything else, and we needed to get back home sooner than later, to take care of things at home. So we went ahead and returned the Zipcar, parking it in its parking spot, and when you get out, you hold your card over the transponder, and it locks the car doors. You're done.

If it turns out that you need the car for a longer period of time, you can call Zipcar and they can extend your reservation time. However, you can't shorten a reservation time once you're on the clock, so you don't get credit for unused time. So, it's good if you can have a clear estimate of how long you'll need the car. So, I got charged for 3 hrs., even though I only used it 2. Not a problem, since I have the $500 in my account to cover usage. :) The next day, you can check your Zipcar online account, and it tells you what you've used so far.

So, my first Zipcar experience was a good one, and I can see that it will work out good for me. :)

Going Car Free - The Process!

A couple months ago, I had bought and read the book,
"How to Live Well Without A Car: Save Money, Breathe Easier and Get More Mileage Out of Life" by Chris Balish. I was curious to read what the author had to say about living car free...what practical ways you could go about it. I was curious to see if it was, indeed, possible to live without a car, even to live WELL without a car. :) That seemed like an oxymoron - everything in America SHOUTS at you to own or lease a car, drive a car, isn't life luxurious with a car, impressing everyone with your car, the freedoms that you have with a car, how happy you are if you have a car, etc., etc. There are ENDLESS and obnoxiously loud commercials on TV and radio to get you to buy a new or used car.
I owned a 1995 Ford Ranger - similar to the one shown above. When I had bought it when my Ford Mustang died back in Dec. 1999. I entertained the thought that I could probably live without a car. When I mentioned it to my brother, he loudly protested and said that I couldn't do that - that I really needed a car. He took me around in the freezing weather to look at car lots and check out various vehicles. I decided to get the Ford Ranger because at the time, I had a kayak, camping equipment, bicycles, etc. and it would be handy to have a pick-up truck to tote it all around. Plus, everytime I've had to move, I've always had to find someone who had a pick-up truck or van to help me. Now I would be able to have my own. And, contrary to some people who own pick-up trucks or off-road vehicles, and never use them for the purpose, I DID use mine in many ways.
The past number of years though, I was using my pick-up truck mainly on the weekend...never hardly on a weekday. I ride my bicycle to work (32 miles roundtrip a day). (See my bicycling blog, On my bike commute, I pass through various towns and city areas that offer just about anything I would need. I sometimes would stop along the commute to pick up things I needed or to run errands. By the time I get home (7 p.m.), I was tired from the commute and had no need or desire to go out. I saved most of my errands for the weekend.
My pick-up truck was handy, and for the most part, reliable. I hadn't had too many repair incidents. But now it was 12 years old, with 107,000 miles on it. Even though I didn't use it much, I wondered and hoped if it could last another 5-10 years. One never knows with cars....though I had heard that pick-up trucks were built to last longer than cars.
When I read this book, it makes you look at all the many, many ways that your car depletes your bank account, and also your free time. Usually, people don't think about those things...they just think about how handy, helpful or reliable the car is. When it becomes unreliable, they look to get another vehicle and start the process all over again.
I took a hard look at my yearly expenses with my truck. Even though I had been lucky to not have car repairs, I did still have to fill up the tank (and these days, gas was going for about $3.11 a gallon) - my truck did not get good gas mileage -- maybe 10-12-15 mpg. It was costing me about $40 to fill the tank. Add in the cost of monthly insurance ($60), oil changes, state inspection, vehicle registration, state tax, and it adds up - and for me to just have a car to run errands or see friends/family on the weekend.
All this had been percolating in the back of my mind...and then on Nov. 28, a night before I was heading out for a trip to Las Vegas, I got an e-mail from the Washington Area Bicycle Association, inviting people to donate their cars for auction, and in turn, they would be given a FREE, LIFETIME membership with Zipcar! (car-sharing program - (Normally, for a new account, you had to pay $25 for the application fee, and then either a $50/month or $50/year membership fee, plus an hourly/daily fee for car use). If I donated my truck before the end of November (just TWO days later), they would also credit $500 to your new Zipcar account (to be used within a year) for the use of Zipcar. If you donated by Dec. 15, they would just give you $100 on your Zipcar account, still not bad. With Zipcar, they pay for any gas that you use and also insurance. You just have the hourly fee (between $9-$11). The thought of NEVER having to pay for gas or insurance again sure was appealing!! Zipcar has cars located all over the metro D.C. area (and other cities in the U.S.), parking them on streets, in parking lots, and in garages. The Zipcars available to share are various makes & models - anything from small cars, pick-ups, SUVs, hybrids, and sports cars.
Well, the free $500 was definitely a bigger incentive to do it before the end of November...but it wasn't a lot of time to really seriously THINK about doing this! I spoke to a representative at Zipcar, and they said really, all I needed to do before the end of November, was to give them the car information (title number, make, model, mileage, etc.). When I got back from my trip, I could arrange for the truck to be picked up. So that gave me a little "buffer" to think about it further, and I could even back away from doing it if I wanted to.
It's a different thing if you're thinking about doing something like this, when you have an old jalopy in the driveway, that doesn't run and looks like crap. But that wasn't the case with my truck. Sure, there were some scratches and dents, and the paint job was starting to fade. And the truck was starting to do funny little electronic things where bells rang for no reason, various lights came on for no reason, the transmission was feeling like it was starting to long did I have before things did seriously fail?
Well, I figured if this "experiment" didn't work, I could always just buy another used car, as I have in the past...and at least it could be one with better gas mileage than my truck. :) I had a mixed reaction from my friends and family - some thought I was crazy and it was a mistake; others said I was a perfect candidate and that if anyone could pull it off, I could! :)
So, I took the car-free plunge. It was scary - it was daring! I was almost shaking while I made the call to donate my truck....but I tried to remain calm and keep my wits, not allowing myself to back down. I knew in my heart that I could probably pull this off. I would figure out the other logistics later, of how to get around, take care of errands, and see family & friends. As the book pointed out, it just required a little more planning - not just last-minute, spontaneous car trips...which we're all used to. :) Fortunately also, I live about a mile from a bus line that goes into D.C., and also another bus that can bring me to the subway. I also have a couple of neighbors I could ask for a ride from, as a last resort, or even call for a cab! :)
The day was scheduled for the tow truck to pick my truck up. I was told to leave the title and the keys in the glove box that morning and it would be picked up by 3 p.m. It was a weird feeling at work that day, knowing this would happen. Someone would be coming with a tow truck to haul away my perfectly good vehicle, my faithful friend for the past 7 years, my buddy, my good 'ole pal.
When I biked home and turned the corner to my street, I looked up and, of course, my pick-up was gone. It was still a little bit of a shock to the system, because you're ALWAYS used to seeing it there! Like having your mom being there when you got off school. Like your cat or dog greeting you at the door when you came home. Like the sun rising and setting. It was a normal routine in life.
But now, my main "wheels" and transportation would be my bike & my legs. Well, actually, I have FOUR bikes at home - a small FLEET. :) If one fails, another one is standing nearby to come to the rescue. :) I had even taken an in-depth bicycle repair class this past Spring, so I could try and learn how to fix the more common repairs on my bike, that occur with my daily commute. I bought a bike stand and some tools, and have a good repair manual. I've replaced a few things on my bike so far, and hopefully it'll continue to go well...learning as I go. :)
And, of course, I now had Zipcar available, and other transportation options, so it's not like I was destitute. :)
I wanted to start this blog to capture my feelings and thoughts and experiences as I go through life car-free. Hopefully it will inspire someone else to take the plunge also. To better themselves and their life, and the world around them. :)