August 3, 2008

Who Needs a Car?

By John Stark, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

Aug. 3--While most of us moan about the price of gasoline, a few Whatcom County residents only shrug and try not to smirk. Gas isn't something they buy much.

"I think the last time I filled up was three years ago," says Jim Le Galley, 49.

Le Galley is part of a small population of local people who are fanatic about saving energy, at home and on the road, and they got that way long before this year's scary spike in gasoline prices. If gas prices stay at current levels, they may prove to be role models for lots of people. A lifestyle that once looked eccentric is beginning to seem downright sensible.

Le Galley goes everywhere on one of about 30 bicycles he owns. "Everywhere" includes cross-country trips. As this is being written, he is en route to Flagstaff, Ariz., on a five-week sightseeing jaunt.

Le Galley grew up in Flint, Mich., in America's automotive heartland, where his dad worked for Buick for 44 years. As a youngster, he pumped gas at a service station, and remembers the long lines and the frayed tempers during the Arab oil embargo. He was anything but immune to the love of automobiles.

"I was a motorhead at one point," he says. "I had as many as seven engines in the garage."

Long before this year's surge in fuel prices, Le Galley was a thrifty guy who believed in saving money on transportation. That meant bikes or really cheap cars.

"No matter where I've lived, I've always lived central to where I bike, shop and work," he says. "The most I've ever paid for a car is $1,500. That's one reason I've been able to pay off my house."

But biking is a passion for Le Galley, not just a financial strategy. He loves the exercise.

"I love moving around and getting somewhere, rather than going from the car to my house."

He hasn't driven the 1.5 miles to his job at the Washington Department of Labor and Industries since 2002, although he admits that after checking into the office, he uses a state car to make his rounds as an industrial hygienist. While his homeward bike commute involves a steep uphill grade to his 44th Street Bellingham home, it doesn't amount to much for a guy who has pedaled over the Cascades and Rockies and back. Several times.

Le Galley also houses two 1971 Datsun pickup trucks in his garage, and keeps both of them in working condition just in case. But he avoids using them even when he has a heavy load to move, preferring to use his bike trailer.

"I've hauled an engine block to Parberry's before," he says, referring to the Bellingham metal recycling company.

Jeff Westcott, 42, has had no car for more than a year. He does own a 1975 BMW motorcycle but hardly ever uses it. He too prefers pedal power, and he's not shy about it.

"Anybody who's not riding a bike, and is complaining about the price of gas, I can't feel sorry for them," Westcott said.

When he wants to take a trip to Vancouver, B.C., or Seattle, he walks five blocks from his Franklin Street home in Bellingham to a rental car office, if bus or train schedules are not convenient.

As a self-employed consultant who does much of his work for Whole Energy biodiesel, he has a home office, and uses the bus for occasional business trips to Mount Vernon.

He sees his lifestyle partly as a matter of self-preservation. Westcott is convinced that the future will be bleak for anyone who needs cheap fossil fuel to survive.

"I'm just protecting myself," he says. "I really think we're going to have a problem."

Westcott is also passionate about gardening, and he is actively involved in encouraging people to replace lawns with vegetable plots. He sees that as another way people can save energy. They can grow their own food with muscle power instead of buying food produced with fossil fuels and petrochemicals and using gas-powered equipment to care for their lawns.

"Our largest agricultural product in the nation is grass clippings," he says.

Westcott also expects traffic on city streets to get progressively worse in the years ahead as population increases. He plans to avoid the aggravation.

"I just don't want to be part of that whole driving thing," he says.

He wasn't always that way. He describes himself as a former Volkswagen buff who has enjoyed his share of cross-country car trips. But now he thinks that the cost of car ownership exceeds the benefits.

"When you're working for yourself, you're thinking, 'I could take two or three more weeks off each year just by not owning an automobile,'" he says.

He acknowledges that some people may have trouble imitating his example, if they invested in homes in more remote locations when people assumed that cheap fuel would always be available.

Aaron Sanger and his family never made that assumption, but they did choose a home on the Lummi Nation when they moved here from Corvallis, Ore. less than two years ago. They liked the price and the rural setting. They also chose the Waldorf School in the Geneva area for their seven-year-old daughter. Those two choices, and Sanger's downtown job with environmental advocacy group International Rivers, add up to a 50-mile daily commute.

That's nothing by Seattle or Los Angeles standards, but it's a bit much for the Sanger family car: a Miles ZX40s all-electric vehicle. It needs to be plugged in for a recharge after about 40 miles.

So Sanger has arranged to pay 60 cents a day to a local downtown property management firm that allows him to recharge his car from a company outlet while he's at work. He figures the company is making a profit on the deal, since his own electric bill has risen no more than about $10 a month since he got the car last January, before gas shot past $4.

Since then, he's put 6,000 miles on the vehicle, which gets a top speed of 35 miles an hour. And he has no regrets.

"We had no idea that gas prices were going to go through the roof," he says. "We bought it to sever our link with the system that produces fossil fuel as much as possible. ... It's performing at the level that we thought it would. It's meant some adjustment in our lifestyle, but we expected that."

Sanger is another guy who managed to break off his personal love affair with cars. One of his proudest possessions was once a 1960 Thunderbird.

"I'm a red-blooded American man who was raised on the romance with the automobile," he says. "At some point I became a green-blooded environmental warrior."

Besides the personal satisfaction and the gas savings, Sanger says the little electric car has proven to be a terrific way to meet people. He says it attracts as much attention as his classic T-bird did in its day.

"Everywhere we stop, two or three or four people stop to ask us about it," Sanger says.

That might seem a drawback to some, but Sanger relishes both the opportunity to evangelize and the chance to meet more people in his newly-adopted hometown.

He's also considering moving the family closer to town, to simplify things.

Out in Ferndale, semi-retired building contractor Tony Ickes enthuses about the potential of all-electric cars. In the future world he envisions, the batteries on millions of electric cars would provide rolling power storage, charging up on solar-generated energy during daylight hours when their owners are at their desks, then feeding some of that power back into the system in the early evening when solar production drops and power usage peaks. In the wee hours, when power demand plummets, the cars recharge, enabling an all-electric transportation system to function with little or no demand for costly new power sources.

Until that happy day arrives, Ickes has made his own contribution to fuel savings by downsizing the vehicles that he and wife Susan Holland use. He unloaded a 12-mile-a-gallon Chevrolet Suburban and replaced it with a VW Rabbit. Holland drives a hybrid Toyota Prius. He figures they have reduced gas consumption 75 percent without changing their lifestyles.

Ickes also urges people to consider all the ways they can save energy and cash around their homes. Like Westcott and Sanger, he urges people to make changes before they are forced to do so.

"The energy crisis of the early 1970s was a wakeup call that we failed to heed," he says.

Ickes' own approach goes far beyond the obvious -- adding insulation, switching to compact fluorescent bulbs. Among other things, he has an on-demand hot water heater, which he says quickly paid for itself by cutting water-heating fuel costs 50 percent.

Perhaps his most unusual innovation is a homemade rooftop solar water heater that provides already-warm water to the gas-fired heater. His system uses an old 52-gallon electric water heater that provides storage.

He's been trying to fit the solar heater with a thermostat that will automatically shut it down and drain it when the temperature nears freezing. He's had the thing freeze up and burst a time or two when he forgot to shut it down himself in a cold snap.

"Homes don't need to be exotic to be efficient," Ickes said. "They don't have to be expensive to be efficient. They just need to be a little smarter."


To see more of The Bellingham Herald or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

Copyright (c) 2008, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.