Green Your Commute
Bike, walk or take the bus: The planet will love you for getting out of your car.
By Jodi Helmer
On days when the sun is shining and her briefcase is light, Margo Knight Metzger walks a mile from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, to her office. When her schedule is filled with local meetings and errands, she rides her bike. She reaches for her car keys only when there’s a downpour or she has appointments more than five miles from her office.
“I started to think more about my personal impact [on the environment] and realized that walking or bike commuting is better for the environment and supporting my personal values,” says Knight Metzger, 32, communications director for the North Carolina Division of Tourism.
Like Knight Metzger, increasing numbers of commuters are ditching their cars in an effort to minimize the environmental impact of drive time—with good reason. Transportation now accounts for more than two-thirds of the country’s climate-changing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions; between 1993 and 2003, transport-associated greenhouse gases increased nearly 25%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Each gallon of gas a car uses generates approximately 20 pounds of CO2. Bicycle commuting creates zero pounds, of course, which is why more commuters are strapping on helmets and riding to work.
The League of American Bicyclists (www.bikeleague.org), a nonprofit bicycle advocacy organization, says 1 million Americans use a bike as their primary mode of transportation, a number that increased 43% between 2000 and 2008.
“More efficient use of time and money is a major factor [why bicycle commuting is on the rise], especially with gas prices where they’ve been in the last few years,” notes league president Andy Clarke.
In addition to the environmental benefits of bicycle commuting, there are significant health benefits as well. Riding a bike burns almost 600 calories per hour, allowing you to metabolize the calories you consume at breakfast before you even sit down at your desk. Biking also boosts your mental health. The cardio workout it provides releases endorphins, hormones that regulate mood. This leads to decreased anxiety, stress and depression.
Bike commuting “is a great time for head clearing and decompression,” says Knight Metzger. “I even stopped drinking coffee in the mornings because riding to work is enough to wake me up.”
Hop a Ride
Riding your bike to work might not be a viable option if you travel long distances or freeway routes to get to work. In that case, you may want to leave the driving to the pros.
The American Public Transportation Association (APTA, www.apta.com) says Americans took 10.2 billion trips on public transportation in 2010, a 35% increase since 1995. The
environmental impact of transit ridership is significant: Making the switch from individual cars to public transportation can reduce carbon emissions by 4,800 pounds per person each year.
“People turned to public transportation initially to save money but once they started taking it, they realized there were other benefits, including environmental benefits,” says Virginia Miller, APTA spokeswoman.
As their ridership has increased, transit operators have taken steps to make their operations more environmentally friendly. Miller notes that one-third of all commuter buses run on natural gas, electricity or hybrid technology instead of diesel or gas.
Another eco-friendly commuter option: carpooling. Despite the fact that carpooling just one day per week eliminates about 400 pounds of C02 per person annually, less than 11% of Americans share a ride.
“As gas goes up, people are looking for ways to save,” explains Phil Winters, director of transportation demand management for the Center for Urban Transportation Research at University of South Florida. “Every car that’s taken off the road makes the whole traffic system flow better;
carpoolers benefit, so do the other cars on the road because there is less congestion, which means less travel time and lower energy consumption and emissions.”
There are times when you cannot avoid driving to work. But even then there are steps you can take to make sure your drive is as easy on the environment as possible, notes Winters.
Regular maintenance is essential. Keeping your tires properly inflated and changing the oil and filters on a regular basis will significantly improve fuel efficiency.
How you drive is important, too. Turn on the cruise control and keep your speed around 55 miles per hour—assuming it’s possible to go that fast during rush hour traffic. The reason? The EPA found that for every 5 miles per hour a car travels over 55 mph, fuel efficiency declines by 10%. Avoid quick accelerations, set the cruise control and never leave the car idling to help decrease tailpipe emissions and increase efficiency.
Of course, there are more aggressive steps you can take to drive green.
Since it’s not feasible for Knight Metzger to bike to distant coastal towns or show up at important meetings with helmet head, she started fueling her 1984 Mercedes Benz wagon with biodiesel in 2006 to ensure that her car trips were as green as possible. Her husband makes the fuel in their garage using cooking grease from a local restaurant. (If you’re not the do-it-yourself type, consider such green options as an electric/gasoline hybrid or an all-electric model for your next auto purchase.)
For Knight Metzger, green commuting is part of an overall approach to life. “The center of our lifestyle is being environmentally friendly; it’s a core value,” she says. “Greening our transportation is one of the things we do to make sure our actions reflect our values.”
Efficiency on the Road
With gas prices topping $4 a gallon in some parts of the country, there’s no better time to learn how to maximize mileage with the vehicle you own. Ron Weiers, pHd, author of Gas Smarts: Hundreds of Small Ways to Save Big at the Pump (Adams Media), offers 300 tips for doing just that. “Each of us can have a direct impact, immediate, and meaningful impact,” says Weiers, the author of eight automotive books. “Consider that what you spend on fuel is largely a function of two very simple factors: what you drive and how you drive.”
Here is a sampling of tips from Gas Smarts to help you fuel up more efficiently, save some money and lessen your carbon … wheelprint.
Ventilate before turning on the air.
If you’re going to use air conditioning, give it a head start by briefly opening the windows and running the ventilation fan. This will clear out much of ther built-up heat within the car and the ventilation system, so your car will cool off more quickly, and you’ll save some gas.
Lower the antenna if it’s not in use.
Unless you have an exterior radio antenna that automatically sprouts from the fender when the sound system is turned on, lower the antenna if you’re just going to listen to a CD. There will be slightly less air resistance and, if you drive far enough, you’ll save enough fuel to pay for the CD.
Low speeds: spare the air and open the windows.
If you’re traveling at relatively low speeds, such as under 45 or 50 miles per hour, consider lowering the windows instead of using the air conditioning. At these speeds, there is relatively little air resistance so the loss of aerodynamics will not be very costly to your fuel efficiency.
Higher speeds: spare the windows and use the air.
Even the most aerodynamic of cars become much less so when you open the windows at higher speeds (above 45 or 50 miles per hour). Under these conditions, energy saved by having low air drag will completely or greatly offset the energy consumed by the air conditioning system.
Read the wind.
Wind direction and velocity can greatly affect fuel efficiency, so it helps to have at least a rough idea of which way and how hard the wind is blowing. For clues, observe flags, chimney smoke, or falling leaves, and adjust your speed or your windows accordingly.