A new year means beginnings— a fresh start for some, resolutions for many, and an opportunity to make goals and shift routines in need of change. We often reflect on our lives and look for opportunities to grow, improve, and find gratitude for what we love. It is also a perfect opportunity to reflect upon our relationships, with others and with the world we live in.
Transit—our means of mobility—is an important, ubiquitous way we interact with our environment. It is also an easy place to make small changes with big impacts. Cutting down on car commuting, riding bikes, or increasing use of public transit can reduce our transit eco-footprint and shake up our daily transit routine.
The Costs of Travelling by Car
Ninety percent of Americans drive to work (and only 0.6% bike to work). Commuting by car has significant impacts—both environmentally and financially. As Americans seek space and sprawl out from urban centers, the seeming financial benefits of reduced mortgages and a lower cost of living may be offset by the costs of long commutes to financial centers. One estimate, based on IRS calculations, concluded that a two-car commute of 19 miles each way would cost $125,000 over 10 years. Add to this cost the hours spent in a car, which for many adds a full work-day onto the week (with 6 hours in a car), and the costs and time spent after 10 years may equate to 1.3 working years of time. The costs are considerable, and make city living— and the access to transit that often accompanies urban density—appealing for those who work in financial centers.
The EPA calculates the cost of automobiles using three variables: (1) internal variable costs, which include vehicle operation, fuel and travel time as discussed above; (2) internal fixed costs, or the costs of car ownership associated with insurance, fees and depreciation; and (3) external costs such as road upkeep, which are collectively imposed. Combined, the cost of owning and operating a car is around 40 cents per passenger-kilometer. This estimate was made over a decade ago, meaning that with inflation and as fuel costs have risen, the current cost is much higher.
The impacts of transportation, like all environmental impacts, fall into three categories: direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts. Direct impacts are the immediate consequences to the environment; indirect impacts are those impacts to environmental systems; and cumulative impacts are the additive, combined impacts of transport activities.
Our lives have become so intertwined with transportation activities, from commuting, to freight delivery, and travel, that it has become dominant source of pollution and environmental impact. Transportation accounts for almost 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in some states. Yet, the environmental or external costs of transportation are often unaccounted for, and may be responsible for up to 30% of estimated automobile costs. A failure to consider these costs results in their subsidization by society, by future generations, and by the health of the planet.
Environmental costs include the following: climate change, air quality impacts, noise, water and soil quality impacts, biodiversity factors, and land use changes. Hostra University did a thorough analysis of the environmental implications of transportation. Their conclusion: “better transport practices, such a fuel efficient vehicles, that reduce environmental externalities are likely to have positive economic, social and environmental consequences."
A few months ago, we explored solutions to the problem of automobile impact, which included car sharing, car pooling, and reducing car use. Car pooling could save up to eight billion gallons of gas each year, and leaving your car behind twice a week would save an average of 1,600 pounds of CO2 emissions a year.
Cars produce a full pound of CO2 each mile, although not all cars have the same impact. Driving an SUV versus a hybrid will have different environmental consequences. The EPA suggests that before buying or renting a car, consumers check EPA's Green Vehicle Guide and the EPA/DOE Fuel Economy Guide. These guides provide information on the emissions and fuel economy performance of different vehicles.
If you must drive, drive smartly. Avoid overuse of brakes, hard accelerations, and idling. Remove racks that are not in use, and maximize efficiency when using cruise control. Keep your car maintenance up to date, your tire pressure correct, and remember to change your oil.
Better yet, take a break from the car. Use public transit, walk or bike. 70% of car trips in the U.S. are less than 2 miles, which translates to an easy 10-minute bike ride. Bike commuting also has health benefits: the average person will lose 13 pounds in the first year of riding to work; this saves approximately $544 in medical costs annually, and bicycles are 50% faster than cars during rush hour. This site provides a great infographics that show the benefit of cycling.
The results of a resolution to drive less: Cutting back on our reliance on automobiles will reduce our environmental impact and lessen the cumulative and direct costs of our car culture.