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Rob Perks’s Blog

Put down the keys, step away from the vehicle

Rob Perks

Posted September 16, 2013 in Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil

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"The idea of pushing a ton of metal to move 200 pounds of flesh is just insanely inefficient. This doesn't even account for the energy used in maintaining the infrastructure and building the roads; It is an inherently stupid way to design a transportation system."

Lloyd Alter made that excellent point in his discourse on the Livermore Laboratory's new energy use graph. A key lesson he drew from the data is that transportation is one of our biggest problems when it comes to ineffecient energy use. As one of his top solutions, he offered this suggestion: embrace urbanism.

"The fact is, people are getting in their cars to go from place to place, not drive in circles for fun," Alter noted. "We have to make it possible to survive without the car, and that means greater density and local shopping. It does NOT mean everyone has to live in New York and high rise buildings; many of our small towns and cities are eminently walkable."

The New York Times explored this topic over the weekend, noting that "[t]he price of sprawl has become been increasingly undeniable. Moderate-income families have seen their transportation costs balloon to more than a quarter of their income. Cities have discovered that low-density developments fail to pay for their own infrastructure. More recently, a new study of economic mobility suggested that sprawl, and its accompanying lack of transportation options, prevented access to higher paying jobs."

Be honest, wouldn't we all like to live better by driving less?

The University of Dayton in Ohio is even encouraging students do just that by giving away 100 bikes to incoming freshman in exchange for an agreement that they would leave their cars at home.

But for those of us not getting free bikes, what would it take to live car free? Maybe not forever. That would be difficult for most of us -- even for folks like me who commute to work on public transit -- but certainly we could get by okay for a day or so without traveling by car. Well, now is the time to give it the old college try.

Consider taking part in Car Free Day (or more like days), which is being held September 20-22 in more than 1,500 cities in 40 countries.  Here in Washington, D.C. there are lots of events planned over that weekend for people who want to go car-free (or car-lite).  You can take the pledge at www.carfreemetrodc.org -- and be entered to win prizes like an iPad, Capital Bikeshare memberships, and a SmarTrip card loaded with fare.

The purpose of this annual event is to reduce the number of cars on the road in the areas where it's celebrated and to encourage people to explore their neighborhood and the region by foot, bike, bus or train. As the website explains, "The benefit to greater society is a day with less traffic congestion, a greener environment and reduced gasoline demand."

The fact is, new research shows that Americans are driving significantly less of late -- this is especially true of Millenials and aging Baby Boomers. Much has been written of late about the diminished utility of driving. But we still drive a heckuva lot, and so we're spending lots of our hard-earned money doing it (for gas, parking, auto maintenance, and insurance). 

Consider commuting, which according to my recent report on the topic shows how utilizing alternatives to driving could save some serious cash (as well as cut pollution). That's one reason for a new trend dubbed "driving light", which is explained in this article in The Oregonian today:

"[W]ith the cost of driving, along with tightening budgets and changing attitudes, more households are realizing they don't need to drive everywhere and they don't need a car for every family member who can drive."

Certainly, investing more of our federal and state funding to boost our transportation choices is the key to making it more convenient to travel other than by car. In the meantime, seriously consider keeping your car parked in the driveway this weekend. Enjoy Car Free Day.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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