When $5 in the tank doesn't cut it

Cars stranded on the side of the highway are starting to make waves in the media.   People who are already trying hard to make ends meet by doing simple things like carpooling or stupid things like aggressive hypermiling (including intentional tailgating and failure to slow down adequately through cornering maneuvers) are still running out of fuel on the road.   Today, I encountered one of them.

Out of gas

Squarely stopped in the middle of one of the few bike-friendly roads between the urban core of Kansas City and my little slice of suburbia was a Ford minivan with the driver digging a 1-gallon fuel jug out of the back and preparing to make the hike to the nearest gas station.

I have my own theory on this phenomenon, and it has to do with people who never really fill up their fuel tanks — and at $4 per gallon around here, you might not blame them.   These folks are used to putting $5 or $10 in their tanks, and they know how long it usually lasts.   The problem is that over a relatively short period of time, the amount of fuel $5 buys has fallen 25%, and so has the distance that these motorists can travel for that same $5.

People are still making the wrong sacrifices in order to sustain their driving habits. Many are giving up their summer vacations. Some are eschewing the food that they enjoy.   As fuel prices continue to rise, the logical solution is to simply use less fuel.   Despite all the hypermiling hype and hybrid car hooplah, the easiest way to cut back on fuel costs is to drive less.   For those who find yourself here because of fuel costs and making ends meet, here are some tips for driving less and saving more by using your bicycle:

If non-motorized transportation is out of the question, here are a few other quick tips:

  • Plan an efficient route and run multiple errands at a time.
  • Buy non-perishables in bulk and go shopping as infrequently as possible
  • Car pool or use mass transit if it’s available in your area. Some companies subsidize transit costs.
  • Ask about periodical telecommuting or working four ten-hour shifts per week

Are you seeing more cars stranded because of the fuel crunch.   Do you have any other tips for saving a few bucks by driving less.   Let’s hear them!

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0 thoughts on “When $5 in the tank doesn't cut it”

  1. Paul in Minneapoils says:

    Too bad people here don’t have a choice for a practial car, like a human-electric hybird. A car that is part bicycle, with pedals that will power the car with or without the electric power.
    They are sold out till 09 here in the US. : (

  2. Sarah says:

    I know a lot of people will leave work and drive to lunch either at home or at a restaurant. Pack a lunch or walk/bike to a nearby cafe instead — packing a lunch will save you money as well! I bring a lunch at least 4 days a week, although I love to go out on Fridays as a special treat.

  3. Noah says:

    Good lord… $31,000ish?

    That’d buy a Honda fit and enough fuel to drive 50,000 miles assuming gas was a whopping $10 per gallon average over the life of the car.

    No offense meant, but I fail to see how plug-in hybrid human/electric vehicles are the answer (or even part of it) at this pricepoint. It’s essentially more bright-green consumer fodder for the well-to-do gadget freak that wants to look eco-friendly.

    Figure in how few emissions are given off by some of these small, inexpensive gas-only cars and how a good chunk of the US power grid is still powered by fossil fuels… The Twike is admittedly cool but just doesn’t add up.

  4. Ghost Rider says:

    That whole “hypermiling” thing absolutely terrifies me — it seems to require the car-handling skills of a Formula One driver to pull off successfully, and frankly there are VERY FEW “great drivers” on America’s roads. Get it right and you save a few bucks…whoo hoo. Get it wrong and you’re bugsplatter on the back of a semi.

    Why do these people think that saving a few dollars in gas makes more sense than putting themselves at risk of expensive emergency life support?

  5. Ghost Rider says:

    Oh, I should have added that the above tips are great and easy-to-implement tricks that will help save time, money and environmental resources…good stuff, guys!

  6. anakcu says:

    The sad irony of all these $5 dollar in the tank stories is that these people are loosing more of their hard earned money to evaporation than someone who can afford to top off frequently. Gasoline is highly volatile which is why it works so well in internal combustion engines. The poor soul who has to fill a fuel can and then pour it in the tank is loosing even more.

  7. Johnny says:

    This makes me sad for some people who just don’t know any better. I’ve talked to drivers about gas prices, and they’re like, “Well, what am I gonna do?” Take the bus or train, ride a bike, walk, lots of things. I think sites like this and some other sites about bike commuting will help people really know there are other options out there. I’m surprised at how few people think there are realistic alternatives to driving.

  8. Juan says:

    I think the extreme hypermilers are a bit off as well, but you can take the basic concepts and leave the dangerous stuff to them. I don’t draft or run stop signs, but when I do drive, I am very easy on the gas pedal, and never go over 55. Every road in my area is 55 or lower anyway, so I also avoid tickets. I have seen an increase in mileage by about 4-5 miles per gallon, over my old driving habits. Doesn’t sound like much, but every bit helps. Usually I ride my bike though, so I hope to see gas hit $10 per gallon. I think that’s going to be the price point that finally gets people to stop consuming our planet out from under us.

  9. rick says:

    What I find particularly odd is that people think fuel is the biggest expense when operating a car when really it is not. The monthly loan payment on a car is generally more than most people’s fuel costs. I don’t hear people complain about the amount of interest $’s the bank is screwing them out of. Depreciation of a new vehicle can actually be more than monthly fuel costs also. Do you hear people complain about how quickly their car is depreciating?

    Our society unfortunately revolves around the automobile and we’ve been brainwashed into thinking owning one is a good idea.

  10. Noah says:

    Rick: Many people own their cars and as such depreciation doesn’t mean much. Also, they “signed up for it” if you will, and knew it would happen. Those who have car loans have budgeted for their car payments. The problem isn’t that fuel is the biggest expense. It’s that it’s a growing expense that they didn’t think about when they bought their car.

  11. Joe says:

    Juan – I dont think that we really want to see $10 a gallon gas any time soon. By that point the consumer cost of the products delivered by means that use gasoline or diesel for transport will be outrageous, if the products are delivered at all. When the owner / operators can no longer haul profitably, the will not do so. This will have a massive impact on even those individuals who do not use gasoline for personal transportation. $10 a gallon would have far more shocking effects than an explosion in the bike commuting population.

  12. Fritz says:

    Like Juan writes, there are some reasonable things people can do to increase gas mileage noticeably. The “Mr Roadshow” column in the San Jose Mercury News yesterday featured people who drive slower on the freeways and get much better gas mileage.

  13. Murali says:

    You know what’s ironic? Most people think they own their car, when in fact their car owns them.

    As others above pointed out, look at what expenses your car forces you into: fuel, insurance, registration, parking, even loan interest. Who is the master and who is the slave?

  14. Ron Georg says:


    I’m a hypermiler. I treat stop signs as yields, I carry speed through corners, and I glom onto the dead air space behind semis and RVs to pull me across town. Of course, that’s all on my bicycle.

    It’s funny that drivers are now just waking up to what cyclists have known all along–momentum is energy, and energy is precious.

    I hope that all this will lead to more rational traffic policy and engineering. Roundabouts are safer and more efficient than stoplights, for instance. I would also love to see the whole country adopt the “Idaho Stop” at intersections for cyclists. In that enlightened state, riders can treat stops as yields, an allowance which recognizes it’s unreasonable to ask a cyclist to give up energy when there’s no reason to stop–and that cyclists are bright enough to know they are at a serious disadvantage should they fail to yield to autos.

    On another point, and it may take a call to Car Talk to clarify this, but I don’t believe a nearly empty fuel tank is subject to greater evaporation. As I understand it, automobile gas tanks are sealed to prevent all that out-gassing, which would have a detrimental, if mildly pleasant, effect on our collective brain power. Then again, gas huffing would provide a good explanation for much of the behavior of the American collective.
    Happy Trails,
    Ron Georg

  15. Juan says:

    Joe- I do realize that there is more to high gas prices than pain at the pump…..we feel it in everything we do from grocery shopping to a night on the town. I was just trying to make a point that the only way this world is going to change, is if people are hit in the pocket books. The world is competing for a finite energy source, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s gone. I remember the last energy crisis when I was a kid. Suddenly fuel efficiency was priority #1, but did we learn? No….as soon as gas was plentiful and cheap again, out came larger and larger vehcicles. The only way people will conserve, is if they are forced to, and the only way this planet has a chance is if we stop our selfish, wasteful ways. That being said, you are right…..$10 a gallon is harsh, but I really don’t want to see prices go back down. It’s painful for me to say that, but I think there is more at stake these days.

  16. Sarah says:

    I just think we shouldn’t be so hasty as to cheer for high energy prices — right now the supply chain just isn’t sustainable for food and goods to your local supermarket. Unless you have totally established a “local” diet, you would be totally screwed if we had a situation like is going on in Spain right now where truck drivers and fishermen are striking and they are running out of fresh meat, veggies, and fish at the supermarkets. Furthermore, if that were to happen on our country it would put additional strain on the local food sources that are so hip right now — you may be competing with hundreds of others for those few precious tomatoes at the farmer’s market. Add to it that half the midwest (and its corn and soybean crops) is underwater right now — well it’s not a pretty picture.

    I grow veggies on my porch but it is going to be a while before they are ready and they surely won’t get me through the winter. I could sure use to lose a few pounds, but I’d prefer not to go the starvation route. No thanks.

  17. cyclonecross says:

    Ron Georg,

    “I’m a hypermiler. I treat stop signs as yields, I carry speed through corners, and I glom onto the dead air space behind semis and RVs to pull me across town. Of course, that’s all on my bicycle.”

    Agressive hypermiling by motorized vehicle or bicycle can be very dangerous as well as illegal. I am entirely in favor of this:

    “the “Idaho Stop” at intersections for cyclists. In that enlightened state, riders can treat stops as yields, an allowance which recognizes it’s unreasonable to ask a cyclist to give up energy when there’s no reason to stop-and that cyclists are bright enough to know they are at a serious disadvantage should they fail to yield to autos.”

    However, until such laws are in place nation wide, cyclists who disobey traffic laws will continue to serve as an example to motorists and authorities who continue to question or deny our rights on the road.

    On a different note, I heard on the news this week that repeatedly letting the gas in your tank go below 1/8th full is hard on the fuel pump on vehicles with tank mounted pumps. The fuel in your tank draws excess heat away from the pump and cools it. I’m not sure about the evaporation worry, but it might also have to do with the vapor recovery systems at gas stations sucking the evaporated gas out of the tank during refueling.

  18. Dan says:

    Long term, think about making your home, work places, and shopping opportunities closer together. This way, any form of travel is easier, shorter, and cheaper. My place isn’t too bad, with most things I need within 5 miles.

    I have a co-worker who bought a home some 20 miles from town because she got more house for the buck, but now she spends $60 as week on gas. Plus, in our current real estate slump, no one wants to buy that place in the sticks.

  19. john t says:

    Evidently $5 a gallon gas is still cheap for some. Just today, I saw a Dodge Ram idling in a driveway with nobody around. When gas gets expensive enough, people will have to stop wasting it. I think maybe gas should be rationed. People with gas guzzlers are why I am paying so much for gas. They wasted my portion.

    We buy very little gas, though, now that both me and my wife are biking almost everywhere. We are having fun.

  20. rick says:

    No pain no gain. Things will not change unless drastic change is forced on people. If you own a gas guzzler you are a no 1 a-hole in my books that has no respect for me, my children and future generations or the environment for that matter. It should not take $4-5 a gallon for people to behave like a responsible member of our modern society. I have no sympathy at all for people that are starting to feel the pain from high fuel costs. Even if gasoline was $1.00 a gallon people should have enough sense to not own a gas guzzling vehicle. People live their life like this is a practise run.

  21. rick says:

    Companies like GM (Hummer), Dodge (Ram) etc that supply the market with gas hogs should be boycotted and the people that buy into their nonsense should be slapped up the side of their head until they see the fault in their ways IMO. Why should I have to suffer the consequences of other peoples actions? We are in this together, too bad we live in a self centered world.

  22. Noah says:

    “If you own a gas guzzler you are a no 1 a-hole in my books that has no respect for me, my children and future generations or the environment for that matter.”

    Rick, you do realize that I, the author of this article, own a gas guzzler, right? I have a 2003 Ford Explorer, which works very, very well when I actually need to haul a lot of stuff at once. As little as my wife and I drive it (or my fuel-sipping compact car for that matter), you’d be ignorant so say that stuff about me directly.

    While I agree that seeing thousands of single-occupant SUVs on the highway making the daily migration from suburbia to downtown KC is detestable, you should try, yourself, to be a little less closed-minded. Simply owning an SUV, sports car, or other vehicle that gets crappy gas mileage does not transform someone into a malevolent, earth-killing a-hole.

  23. rick says:

    We are all 100% responsible for our own actions, unfortunately we are not always accountable.

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