Musings on fuel economy, vehicles, and commuting

10 04 2008

This is a somewhat long post, and has been brewing in my head for a while. Grab a cup of coffee, make yourself comfortable.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about commuting, fuel economy, vehicle types, and general transportation habits. There are changes afoot in my life that will change my driving needs, and with the ever rising price of fuel, it makes sense to take a good long look at my driving habits, and possibly make some changes.

Some Background

Between Cat and myself, we own 3 vehicles. Well, two and a half. My 2005 Saturn Relay van, Cat’s Toyota Prius, and my 25 year old Suzuki GS850 motorcycle. I can’t really consider the bike too much, as I ride it perhaps once a summer, due to it’s age and general condition, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it.

Why do we have a van? Well, there’s a couple reasons. When I bought it, I was doing regular conventions, which require hauling a series of crates and hardware to the event. In addition, we own a ski boat, a camping trailer, and a utility trailer, all of which need a tow vehicle. The van does these things just fine, but these are incidental uses. Primarily, I just drive the van around – picking up Zach from school, running errands, etc. That’s not to say it isn’t useful – having that much cargo space is VERY handy, and is regularly used for hauling furniture, garbage, kids, supplies, and, yes, the occasional convention gear.

The problem is, I’m getting increasingly worried about the cost of running the van as my primary transportation. It’s poor efficiency, plus the ever rising price of gas, requires me to take a close look at things.

Usage patterns

When evaluating this sort of thing, it’s important to take into account how you use your vehicle(s). Cat drives her Prius to work and to Zach’s school every day, around 30 miles a day. That is every day, pretty much without fail. There are additional trips to Burlington, Berlin, and other points, but the daily commute is the one that is important.

On the other hand, I have no daily commute. I work at home. When I go out to lunch, three out of four times I walk or ride my bicycle to wherever I’m going. However, I still do drive to pick up Zach at school each day, around 9 miles each way. This I have to do in the van.

Now, realistically, there’s pattern changes in the wind. The school year ends in 8 weeks or so. After that, the driving patterns change, and won’t resume, since by the time fall rolls around, our move to Mosaic will be imminent. After we move, we’ll be able to carpool with other Sudbury Valley parents in Mosaic, and we haven’t worked out what that will look like yet, but there’s a reasonable chance I won’t need to drive to SudVal every day (Around 15 miles each way).

Also, post-move, there’s a reasonable change I’ll be moving to an office nearby – within 2-3 miles, easy bikeriding range, but I’ll also spend a lot of time at Mosaic, since my job doesn’t require me to be in the office constantly.

Costs of usage

Looking at usage is only part of the story. The next step is figuring out cost of operation. I’m going to go with pure fuel costs here, not taking into account cost of vehicle, maintenance, etc. Those are really not in flux right now.

When I filled up the Prius last night, the fuel pump showed $3.20 a gallon. Per-barrel costs of crude topped $110 yesterday as well, and there’s no indication this situation will reverse – many analysts are easily calling $4/gallon prices this summer. So for the sake of comparison, lets assume a $3.50 a gallon price point for gas. I know the mileage we’re getting out of both vehicles, so here’s how it breaks down, as it compares with other vehicles I’m considering:

Vehicle Observed MPG Fuel type Fuel Price Cost per mile

Prius 45 Gas $3.50 7 cents/mile
Relay 19 Gas $3.50 18 cents/mile
Golf 42 Diesel $4.25 10 cents/mile
BMW R1200RT 65 Gas $3.50 5 cents/mile
VW Jetta Wagon 30 Gas $3.50 11cents/mile

I include the Diesel Golf in there because most folks know I had a Diesel Golf for several years, and really enjoyed it. But at that time, prices for diesel fuel were lower than gasoline. The current ridiculous diesel prices have to be considered when thinking about what vehicle makes sense.

So the question comes to mind. What makes sense for my usage patterns? I’m distinctly uncomfortable toodling around in the van to go to lunch, run to the store for something simple, go to a meeting, not to mention my regular drives down to NJ and back (500 miles total, $90 in gasoline right there).

The Cycle Option…

p5080205I included the BMW in there because I do love motorcycles, and have been wondering about having something to have fun with. The old GS850 really isn’t going to cut it as a dependable ride – if I need to drive 500 miles to NJ and back, I want something I can really depend on. I’d have to outfit it for road travel as well (waterproof bags, etc), and putting that sort of money into the Beast just doesn’t make sense.

If I’m also just commuting to the office nearby, keeping the van for “work” and driving the bike (or riding the bicycle) seems like it makes a lot of sense.

Now, natch, there’s drawbacks. I can’t take Zach with me on a motorcycle (not for a while at least), and a lot of my shuttling around is driving Z from place to place. The bike can’t haul cargo other than a couple small items, and realistically, it’s a toy for me that can be used for ‘real’ transportation, not the other way around.


Having said that, I do feel our lifestyle needs some sort of work vehicle for hauling, towing, and general moving stuff around. We use the van at least twice a month for something ‘heavy’ – in the summer even more so, whether it’s moving trailers, hauling big stuff, whatever. And in the coming 2-3 years, we’re going to be doing a LOT of home construction, as our houses at Mosaic are quite skeletal. We’ll be installing floors, trim, painting – not to mention all the outside work (such as installing walkways and doing general landscaping). Having a vehicle that can pick up two dozen bags of mulch quickly will be invaluable.

So, I guess this all comes down to what options do I have. The way I see it, here’s the possibilities…

  • We keep things as they are, and suck it up and deal. Make decisions in a year, when we know what life at Mosaic will be like, and what our requirements are, not to mention our financial situation.
  • I buy a motorcycle this summer (used). I’ll be happier because I’ll have something I enjoy driving, and I’ll save some money on fuel usage.
  • We sell the van, and I get something smaller, such as VW Jetta wagon, for my regular vehicle. The top end GLS wagon gets about 30mpg (giving me a 11cents/mile operational cost), which is better than the van, but not as good as I could get. It would be a decent compromise.
  • We sell the van, and I go for something super-efficient, such as a Prius or the like. This would virtually eliminate the ‘work’ capacity, and I’d be beholden to other people for doing any sort of hauling. We’re considering a ‘work’ vehicle for shared use at Mosaic, and we have friends with trucks and the like. I like this option the least, as I think we need the ‘work’ capacity fairly often, and not having it at hand would be a real problem.
  • We sell the van, I get something super-efficient, and also pick up some ‘beater’ work vehicle. Some pickup truck or the like that would be used for hauling and moving and towing, but would be restricted to just that, not for general ‘run to the store’ sort of things. I like this option a lot, of course it means “another vehicle”, which is distinctly odd, but may be the most efficient way of operating.


I don’t have any! I really wanted to get that chart together, to sort of understand what the actual cost of owning and operating a vehicle is like given todays fuel prices. It makes me think pretty hard everytime I drive from place to place “yep, that drive to the store cost me two bucks in gas.” And while the cost is foremost on my mind, I have to make sure I remember that I’m also burning fuel with every dollar spent, and there’s other reasons to consider fuel economy other than just the cost of fuel.




10 responses

10 04 2008

I have no idea how your motorcycle got 65mpg. I get 40, on a much smaller and theoretically more efficient engine (sv650). Modern cruisers like the one you list seem to get 30-35.
Fuel costs are larger now, but still the least part of vehicle ownership costs. Maintenance for bikes is proportionately more expensive, as is the potential cost for medical expenses, etc. Not to talk you out of one, but gas…really only a tiny piece of the picture unless you go something like 40k a year.
Also note that I have seen reports that gas prices will go *down* this summer; we are at the peak now.

10 04 2008

I based my MPG numbers on the highway listing from this site:

10 04 2008

There is also a Jetta diesel wagon out now and you can get it in MA within the next month or so. It is high on my list if I end up having to replace the Audi wagon. We thought about waiting on it when we replaced our pickup last fall but ended up going with a VW GTI.
We have 3 vehicles, the Miata is more than the half a vehicle that your bike is, if I stay out of leadfoot mode, I can get 35mpg out of it. Miata is not for you though, I think you would be looking over the windshield to see 🙂

10 04 2008

Not that it matters for your post, but 45 is the worst i ever get – 45 at the bottom with snow tires, letting the car warm up, and driving highways, 53 at the top with regular tires and a back roads commute.
I’ll be interested to see what it is with regular tires and the Rt 9 commute…

10 04 2008

If I had to bet, I’d put my money ($.02, of course) on your keeping what you have for 1-3 years then reevaluating. Why? Because the way you’ve laid out your current & future needs and preferences, the answers that best fit your situation seem pretty straightfoward: either the first or the last option. Or both in sequence.
You identified a strong, medium-term need for a haulage vehicle: finishing your new house and grounds. After that your requirements for a haulage vehicle could change (how much of your current haulage is because you can easily do so?).
You identified a couple of major permanent changes whose real effects are hard to predict: moving to Mosaic and changes in Z’s school travel patterns.
There’s on use you didn’t address: how many haulage trips includes >2 persons? For example, when you haul the ski boat do you take the whole family with you? Do you regularly haul half a football team + gear around? These needs would argue against two efficient small sedans and a pickup.
Another factor you didn’t mention is that buying a new/new-to-you vehicle requires a lump of money, and when that would be available.
So that’s my prediction.

10 04 2008

I’m all about little trailers. You can haul much more in a trailer than you can in a truck/vehicle.
Buy or lease what you need when you need it.
Kind of along the same lines, what about a sidecar for Zach? Can’t get much more efficient than that! I have some totally cool “steampunk” goggles he can have!

10 04 2008

You’ve made a good case for needing a haulage vehicle. Until you move (and for the next 2-3 years, given what you said about the need for haulage afterwards), it doesn’t make sense to me to get rid of a vehicle you’re going to need quite a bit.
You’ve got 8 weeks of back & forth to Zach’s school which looks like the only unavoidable driving that a smaller vehicle would be good for – 8 weeks x 5 days/week x 18 miles x $.11/mile (price differential between Prius & Relay) = $79 in gas costs between now & the end of the school year. Assuming you drive that much in other trips, we’re still talking $160 in additional gas costs. Haul vehicles are expensive to rent. If you need to rent just once (rather than borrowing from friends), you’re probably going to spend as much renting as you saved in gas.
Also, after the move to Mosaic, you can evaluate the available options for haul vehicles that the community already owns, versus the need for haul vehicle/vehicles – it may turn out that the Relay fits the niche well.

10 04 2008

1 – if you’re looking to be green as well as save gas money, consider emissions as well. this site has a formula for that. (pay to get previous year data)
2 – third vehicles bring with them extra insurance and registration costs and general hassle
3 – why do you need a minivan if there is a mosaic work vehicle? is there a solution for the ski boat like a neighbor? but sounds like you need something a little bigger than a prius for towing other things too. a small wagon might be the thing someday.
i say wait and use any guilt/annoyance of driving the van to motivate you to ride your bike more.

11 04 2008
Sarah T

I’m not sure if what you’re concerned about here is money or your impact on the environment or some combination 🙂 And I concur with everyone that you should wait until the situation at Mosaic becomes clearer and your driving needs stabilize.
ButI think one other thing you should consider is rental, which can be a reasonable way to get access to different kind of vehicle than what you normally use, especially if you’re using it for short periods. It seems to me like it might be worth your while, for example, to consider renting a pickup or SUV for occasions when you need to haul a lot of stuff; it looks to me like this costs something like $80/day; if you only use a hauling vehicle a dozen times a year, it might well be worth $1000 to have it when you want it but never have to pay for maintenance or whatnot and to be able to drive a smaller, more efficient car the rest of the time.
And in reverse, you might consider renting a Prius for when you drive to NJ; Toyota dealers rent them out, although I don’t know for how much. You could also look at renting a smaller or larger car through Zipcar or something similar.
In summary, you don’t need to own every vehicle you ever use 🙂

22 04 2008

Hey, this week on Nova: Car Of The Future (PBS) they look into alternate energy vehicles, future car construction, etc. Thought you might be interested

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