Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

What To Do About Rising Gas Prices

Oil prices have reached record levels for this country in recent weeks. It’s now not uncommon to see prices of over $4 for a gallon of gas at local stations. What is unusual is why the price of gasoline has risen to begin with. Oil prices are set on the open market globally, in much the same way as corporate stock prices are determined on the stock exchange. Part of the reason for the increase in oil prices is the value of the dollar which has been falling for the past several years. A cheaper dollar has made United States-based oil contracts appealing to foreign investors who are snatching oil contracts up placing these contracts out of American hands. Oil contracts are also more appealing to investors who are avoiding the turbulence in the current stock market. is sudden demand for oil from new sources has pushed up prices and taken the oil away from our country.

Supplies of natural gas are also being depleted as our country turns from coal as a source of heating fuel. is depletion of our natural gas supplies has lead to a further demand for oil, pushing the price of gasoline even higher. Natural disasters worldwide also impact local prices. The recent earthquake in China damaged their natural gas pipelines which economists feel will now lead to a temporary increased demand
for diesel in that country to fuel emergency generators. A drop in the energy supply in one country, results in an increased demand for the limited oil resources worldwide, causing prices to spike for everyone. So what is the average Westchester resident to do when facing $4 or more at the pump?

Westchester County Department of Consumer Affairs tracks the cost of gasoline at local gas stations each week. The County posts these prices on their website, every week. On May 14, the County reported that their “survey of 338 stations in the County found the average price for regular is $4.02, 16 cents higher than two weeks earlier”. Residents can search this website for the lowest gas prices in their town or check the County’s survey for lowest prices in our region overall. On their May 12 survey, the County reported that the lowest price for gasoline was $3.849 at the Getty station at 719 Bronx River Road in Yonkers, while the highest price was $4.019 at the Mobil station at 8 Marbledale Road in Tuckahoe.

Local residents do not have to travel far out of their way to find less expensive gas – the Getty station in Yonkers is a mere two miles down the road from the Mobil station in Tuckahoe. For those residents who are finding it too expensive to drive at all lately, alternatives to driving abound in our region. Many of our local residents have already turned to other modes of transportation. Marjorie Anders, a spokesperson
for the Metro-North railroad, informed The Guardian that they had already seen a spike in ridership in the first quarter of 2008. “Metro-North has had 1,000,000 additional riders in three months” Anders said. “We are monitoring this increase and, if needed, we will add trains and cars to trains”. Anders noted that “most of our trains are below capacity. Most riders do not use the middle seats. But as the trains get
full, those middle seats are now being used up”.

Anders noted that growing ridership has been a trend for Metro-North for the past 25 years and they have responded with additional frequency of trains, providing service for reverse commutes, and have targeted early/predawn departures, and more weekend and mid-day ridership. “We now serve over 80,000,000 passengers a year and our on-time performance rate is above 97%” Anders said. “We are addressing our current ridership by purchasing a new fleet of trains so their ride is comfortable. Metro-North is a dependable, safe, and predictable alternative to driving”.

Lawrence Sallie, of the Westchester County Department of Transportation (DoT) agreed that the County has seen an increase in ridership lately. “There is a very extensive bus system available in Westchester County” Sallie noted. “We have 66 routes and 374 buses that serve
our residents from Putnam Valley to New York City”. The Bee-Line bus service is a bargain compared to driving – a one-way fare, which can take you from Yonkers up to Putnam Valley, costs only $2.00, a fraction of the cost of driving the same route. All transfers
are free, and seniors get reduced prices.

Riders to New York City get even bigger breaks. “We are part of the regional fare system” Sallie noted. “So if you ride the Bee-Line into New York City you can transfer onto a city bus for the same one fare”. Local commuters do not need a “commuter car” either. “The Bee-Line system has railroad feeder routes that hook up to Metro-North stations and the train schedules,” Sallie said. “We also have an express bus that runs from the County Center to Wall Street in about an hour and 10 minutes”.

The County is negotiating to keep fares down on its bus system despite the rising costs of fuel. “Last year at this time we were paying $2.46 a gallon for our fuel,” Sallie noted. “We are now paying $3.77 under our current contract which expires in June 2008. This year we opted for a shorter contract since our fuel costs usually decrease in summer and we are anticipating lower costs then”. The reason for this seasonal decline is because the Bee-Line System competes with home heating oil, not local gas stations, for its fuel. Home heating oil costs traditionally decrease in the summer months due to lower demand for heating oil during those months. “Our most significant costs are labor,” Sallie pointed out. “But our current union contract doesn’t expire until next year. And we are also able to keep fares down with subsidies from New York State”. “We put great emphasis on passenger courtesy and customer service,” Sallie stressed. “These are not the typical
‘city’ buses. Our buses are air-conditioned and clean and our drivers are friendly”.

One of the alternatives to driving is the use of bicycles and scooters. Eileen Marcos of Bicycle World in Mt. Kisco has recently seen a few customers inquire about bicycles for around-town use. “We have seen an increase in the use of bicycles in recent years but that has been mostly for fitness,” Marcos said. “Our customers are inspired by Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France, or they are families buying bicycles for outings”. But lately some customers are expressing a desire to use bicycles for local use. For those customers, Marcos noted “We offer grocery panniers. These are carriers that expand to hold a full-sized grocery bag”. Marcos noted that bicycles are a good alternative for
local shopping trips and commuting to train stations since, in addition to saving gasoline, bicycles offer tremendous health benefits.

This past Friday, May 16, was “National Ride Your Bike to Work Day”. Cycle clubs across the nation hope this day will encourage the use of bikes as an alternative to driving. But many local residents turning to bicycles for commuting or around town use may not have ridden since their “banana bike” days in childhood. But riding a bicycle on local streets is a different riding experience from cycling up and down a
driveway or cul-de-sac. For residents wanting to get back on a bike for transportation purposes, the Westchester Cycle Club recommends
taking one of their courses or beginner rides. Michael Miller is the Safety and Education Chair for the Westchester Cycle Club. He spoke to The Guardian about bicycle safety. “Bicycles are vehicles and must obey all traffic laws” Miller noted. “Bicyclists must ride with the traffic, never against it. They must stop for traffic lights and stop signs. And bicyclists should wear helmets all the time”.

Miller offers an “Effective Cycling” course with the Westchester Bicycle Club and will provide a “Street Smarts” brochure for free to anyone requesting this from their website, . “The main safety issue for cyclists is not cars,” Miller pointed out. “As long as the cyclist does what the cars are doing, they should be fine. The number one cause for accidents for cyclists, especially for skinny-tire bikes, is seams in the road. A two-inch gap can cause a bicyclist to spill. Twigs, bumps, rocks, dead animals all pose a threat. These are hazards that drivers often do not notice but bicyclists must be aware of at all times”.

When cyclists swerve to avoid such hazards, drivers often become mad. “Drivers will yell at cyclists to ride on the sidewalk,” Miller noted. “But we cannot ride on sidewalks. Sidewalks have intersections at every driveway and intersections are especially hazard-ous for cyclists. It is much safer for a rider on a flat road, not a sidewalk”. As more commuters and shoppers turn to cycling as a way to reduce their transportation costs, Miller asked for local drivers to be understanding and to observe some safety rules and courtesy towards the riders. “Leaning on a horn can unnerve an inexperienced rider,” Miller pointed out. “It can make a dif-ficult situation potentially dangerous.

It’s far better for a driver to lightly tap their horn to warn a rider”. “Experienced riders rarely get into difficulty,” Miller noted. “They are far more aware of their surroundings than the drivers. It is the inexperienced riders that will have problems. But if they take some safety classes they’ll learn how to cope”.Miller also recommends that local residents join the club for a modest annual fee of $20, and take some group
rides with them. The club offers rides at all levels from easy, to competitive, to mountain trails. One upcoming offering, a “Two Bridges Classic” for Memorial Day, stresses the camaraderie of the club:

“In honor of the day, we will ride through this famous area of our region, rich with the efforts of our former patriots. The leader will point out interesting and significant sites along the way.” Scenic Hudson Valley including Garrison, Bear Mountain Bridge, Ft. Montgomery, Highland Falls, scenic overlook drive to Cornwall plus roads along the river, Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, rest stop in funky Beacon,
Breakneck Mtn. and Cold Spring. We will be detouring around West Point where there is one long hill and a short segment on Rt. 9W. True 13-14mph C+ pace, I promise! We’re grouping. Helmets required, no headphones. Rain or strong wind cancels the ride. Meet at 8:30 to depart promptly at 9am. A mix of exercise, touring + comaradarie, not a race. Tail Gate party at finish, bring your own refreshments. John might fire up the barby. Let’s have fun!

Miller noted that the club is now becoming a full non-profit. The club is now hosting events and fund-raisers in addition to their local rides. One such event, the “Ride Of Silence”, is being held on Wednesday, May 21st, in honor of those injured or killed while riding: Gather at Midway Shopping Center at 1001 Central Park Ave., the plaza with Linens ‘n Things & Starbucks, in Greenburgh at 6:15 p.m. for a prompt
6:45 p.m. start. The Ride of Silence is a worldwide slow-paced silent ride to honor all cyclists injured or killed on public roads. The ride’s goal is to increase awareness of the rights of cyclists and peacefully ask all to share the roads. This year the event will be filmed as part of a documentary, The Long Bike Back, about a bicyclist’s recovery after a severe hit-and-run accident and his quest to ride across America to raise awareness for road sharing.

The cyclist, Pearson Constantino, was hit on Central Ave in Greenburgh in June 2006 and he will be leading the ride. The route is 8 miles with a 12 mph pace and we will be starting promptly at 6:45 to ensure that we can finish before dark, so please arrive early. We will
ride up Central Ave to Battle Ave. (at the Pathmark) and return to the Midway Shopping Center. Please wear helmets and bring a black armband, red if you’ve been injured on the road. The cycle club is also hosting a “Pedals for Progress” fund-raiser on Saturday, May 24th to collect used bikes for Central America and Africa to foster low-cost transportation and support economic development. According to the club’s website, since 2006, they’ve sent more than 700 bikes and 40 sewing machines to the developing world while raising more than $8,000 to support the effort. The May 24th event will be at the First Presbyterian Church, 2880 Crompond Road, Yorktown Heights, from 9 a.m. to noon.

The club will also be collecting used portable sewing machines to distribute through Pedals for Progress’ companion program in the developing world. These machines are vital tools to provide a direct means of financial independence for people struggling to support their families. Bike owners should bring rust-free bikes with a $10 donation to cover part of the shipping costs. Both the monetary donation and
the gift of the bike are tax-deductible.

So while rising gasoline prices may be frustrating local residents, there are alternatives to driving. Local towns are already noting the trend. Mayor Michael Cindrich of Mt. Kisco noted that their town was “already pedestrian-friendly”. Bicycle racks are appearing on sidewalks
in New York City. The Guardian contacted Westchester County Government and the City of White Plains to ask what those governments will be doing to accommodate and encourage the use of bicycles and scooters. Neither government contacted The Guardian in response. But as our residents have already seen for themselves, the alternatives to driving are more affordable and better for our planet. And the supporters of some of those alternatives, like cycling, are taking their own steps to further community awareness and to help others in need. Our local
governments must take immediate action to support such community efforts and encourage and further these trends and alternatives in the face of ever-increasing gasoline prices.

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