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Be part of the solution: Travel lighter

 Posted by on April 23, 2010
Apr 232010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

After running our households, transportation is the second biggest way we humans degrade the environment. If we were traveling in droves, on say trains, it wouldn’t be so bad. But our penchant to scoot  around solo or in small groups in gas-fueled vehicles has left an impressive scar on the globe.

Vintage car (Photo: Stephen Mcsweeney/Dreamstime)

Vintage car (Photo: Stephen Mcsweeney/Dreamstime)

Starting with the paved roads that carve up wildlife habitat, and ending with those recently popular luxury SUVs that spurn air quality with their single and low double digit gas mileage, automobiles have created a huge carbon footprint.

The good news is that soon, very soon, cars will once again run on electricity. Their tailpipe emissions will be clean, and once their charging stations are powered by clean energy, we’ll be mopping up the mess made by our current fleet, which contributes millions of metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year.

To put that on an individual basis: If you drive a car getting 20 mpg around 12,000 miles a year, you’ll churn out some 12,253 pounds of CO2 in a year, according to the EPA’s calculator.

As a rule of thumb, every gallon of gas burned emits 20 pounds of carbon dioxide.

The contribution of cars and trucks to climate change may be better understood in the aggregate. Given that one-third of the U.S. carbon emissions are transportation related, if American cars and light trucks (excluding tractor trailers) were a nation, they’d be the world’s fifth-largest carbon emitter, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. (This factoid is two years old; things could be changing with the developing world getting motorized.)

Now if we can just move ahead with those electric cars…convince developing nations to skip echoing our long love affair with big fancy wheels and go directly to more thoughtful vehicles…and get our passenger rail system back in action…and stop sprawl before it ruins us… the world will be in a better position to curb this runaway carbon problem.

Here are a few things to consider if you’d like to lower your personal transportation eco-debt:

1 – Start small. In fact, don’t even start. Experts advise that we should simply drive less. That can mean grouping errands, car pooling to school – wait, walking to school! – and finagling a way to do some of our work form home. Not everyone can commute part-time, but those who can and aspire to, should ask about it. As employers take stock of their own footprint, they are realizing that helping their employees lighten their carbon load can be part of the bigger company equation. These are the quickest ways to reduce your gas consumption, and they represent a dollar for dollar savings, unlike buying a car. But we’ll get to that.

2. Carpool – Sharing a ride to work is the quickest way to cut in half, or more, the miles you commute. Try,which notes it has been in business since 1999. Its listing service is updated daily, so those seeking a ride can get current info on someone offering a ride, and vice-versa. The lists are sorted by city, and riders note the details of their ride needs, so you can check out departure points, etc., before making a contact.

The downside to carpooling: you might have to make a stop that’s not at your exact destination and your car partner might wear a funny cologne. The upside: less wear on the car, gas savings, pollution savings and a lower personal carbon footprint. And ride sharing’s not just for commuters. Taking a cross-country trip? You might find someone going the same way. Slice that gas bill in half.

Other carpool services include:

  • Carpool Connect — An unadorned site, but filled with message boards of riders and drivers. Just drill down to the city and zip code you need to find a commuting mate.
  • Carpool World — A smaller service, but it offers the moral support of tracking the saved carbon emissions of users, by geographic area.
  • GoLoco — This service also can help you find a driving pal. But the service is not free. Drivers and riders register and GoLoco helps protect the driver by setting up the fee structure, and taking a 10 percent cut.

3.  Car sharing — Moving deeper into the alternative transportation scene, there’s car sharing. The idea here is that you belong to a service and can access a car on a pay-and-go as needed basis. Zipcar is a pioneer in this new field, and is turning up in central cities and attached to LEED apartment buildings. For people who don’t want the burden of owning a car (or a second car), with all its attendant parking, licensing and insurance fees, car sharing can make a big financial impact, not to mention it keeps people, well, grounded the rest of the time.

Certain areas have their own services such as:

4.  Use public transportation. If you live in New York or Chicago, this is probably a part of daily life already. But those in Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles may have to get familiar with still-expanding systems.

Houston's Metro

Houston's Metro

Light rail has been the mantra for years in cities building their transit networks, because it is fast and efficient. But many transit authorities also are experimenting with vanpools, which can collect smaller groups of riders and deposit them in major business districts, and expanding their bus services.

Buses are getting better, less polluting and quieter, especially those running on hybrid engines or batteries.

The American Public Transportation Association estimated this month that riders can save about $9,200 in annual transportation costs by taking a bus to work. (The survey figured costs using $2.83 a gallon gasoline and factoring average costs for parking and other fees associated with solo car travel.)

5. Ride a bike. This is one great option for people in denser cities, with the legs and the ability. In suburbs where groceries can be two miles from the house and the tots need cereal right away, well, there are barriers to incorporating a bike. But when it is workable, it’s an appealing option with a long list of bonuses, from the health benefits to the low cost of maintenance and the incredible, immediate near net-zero carbon imprint.

6. Green your vacation travel. Take the train, or a bus. And once you get where you’re going…take  a train or a bus.

Amtrak, despite its step-child position in the U.S. transportation mix, has stayed on track for the past few decades and experienced a ridership boom before the recent economic downturn. While high speed rail revs up in several U.S. locales, Amtrak is an option for today, connecting major cities across the U.S. with an extensive and busy network in the Northeast and along the Great Lakes.

Greyhound also still makes city-to-city hops an inexpensive way to go.

Need to rent a car? Get a hybrid. Enterprise Rent-a-Car has made green vehicles a priority and boasts that its fuel-efficient fleet is most flush with hybrids. Enterprise also offers a short-term car sharing service for businesses called WeCar.

Other rental companies also offer hybrids and high-mileage cars.

7. Get a Hybrid or EV. When and if you’re ready to buy a new car, get a hybrid. Or at least get a high mileage gasoline or diesel engine vehicle. And don’t be seized with guilt that you don’t have one already. There’s a legitimate green aspect to driving an old car (no new car was manufactured on your behalf) though your tailpipe emissions are probably pretty thick compared to newer models .

Electric cars may be worth looking at within the year. It could work. Nissan’s new Leaf promises a range of 100 miles per charge, which can cover many people for the day. And cities are gearing up to help. San Francisco has a growing network of charging stations that will enable people to re-charge in the city. Several other metro areas, such as Tuscon and Nashville, are picking up the pace creating a charging network in partnership with the Leaf and its charging station provider, Ecotality.

There’s also the Project Get Ready network operated in part by the Rocky Mountain Institute to help nurture city plans for electric car infrastructure. If your city is on board, you can expect to see charging stations in public places to ease the transition to electric vehicles.

Meantime the menu of high mileage cars is exploding. Here are just a few that have caught our eye at recent auto shows and green fairs:

  • From Ford: The Fusion Hybrid, winner of Car of the Year at the 2010 North American International Auto Show, gets 36 mpg on the highway, 41 mpg in the city, and offers more room in the back seat and trunk than almost anything getting comparable mileage. A true family sedan hybrid. Looking for something small and sporty? The Fiesta, revamped and now being sold in the U.S. and not just the rest of the world, is all-fun. It gets good gas mileage, but it runs on gasoline only.
  • From GM: Of course, there’s the ballyhooed Volt, a plug-in electric due in late, late 2010 or 2011. But frankly, the Cruze, might present a better immediate mix of both fuel and wallet economy. Expected to get 40 mpg on the highway, it has been abroad (are we sensing a trend here?) and is coming to the U.S. in late 2010.

    The Chevy Cruze, a new high mileage entrant from GM.

    The Chevy Cruze, a new high mileage entrant from GM.

  • From VW: The Jetta TDI (30 city, 42 highway) is a diesel, but much cleaner than before. It’s one cute ride, with amazing room inside. How do the German’s do that? A bonus: You can run biodiesel in these cars.
  • For two-sters who don’t need to toss a tot in the rear seat, there’s the Smart fortwo. It gets gas mileage in the 40s, is easy to park and you may get a parking rate break in big city garages. We’re holding back some of our adoration until the hybrid version.
    The Think

    The Think

  • Another urban micro-car to think about is the Think. This one, in fact, is a zero emissions all-electric, fast-charging EV, which gives it a leg up on the competition.  This Scandinavian marvel is coming soon to a U.S. city via an Indiana factory. It will be a little while before the factory gears up, but expect to see this bitty car skittering around American cities soon. (This it the only car on the list we haven’t personally examined, not that we wouldn’t like to visit Europe….)
  • From Honda: The Insight has some serious clarity on pricing, with a starting sticker in the $20,000 range. Problem is, the sticker with popular features added is a lot higher, putting it closer to its main competition (see below).  Still, with a combined mpg of 40 in the city and 43 on the highway… And there’s still the trusty Civic Hybrid with its robust gas mileage (45 mpg on the highway) and kinda, sorta reasonable price.
  • Toyota’s Prius. Nah, we didn’t forget Toyota. The Prius (54 mpg city/48 highway) still rocks. But they’ve gotta fix that run-away problem.

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