Published on November 5th, 2015 | by Andrea Bertoli
What is Alternative Transportation?
We love to talk about alternative transportation, by which we mean anything that’s an alternative to the dominant model of a single-driver, car based society.
It has become increasingly clear that the dependance upon single occupancy vehicle transport is inefficient, unsustainable, and actually pretty unhealthy for us! Whether it’s long commute in traffic, increased road range, or the cancer corridors created by the pollutants of roadways, a lifestyle based on cars is unhealthy for our bodies and our planet.
In this post, we’ll look at compelling reasons to reduce our dependance on the car, take a peek at various options for public transportation, and give you lots of links to learn more about each topic.
What’s the Problem with a Car-based Lifestyle?
The Rocky Mountain Institute explains why the car is failing us as a society:
“In the United States each year, our cars alone cost us well over $1 trillion, burn about 2 billion barrels of oil, and emit about 1.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide—one quarter of all U.S. emissions. The indirect societal cost of these vehicles, including pollution, lost productivity (sitting in traffic), land use for roads and parking lots, road construction and maintenance, and injuries and fatalities cost us another $2 trillion per year, bringing the annual total to a staggering $3 trillion.
A big part of the problem is our cars and how we use them. Today’s vehicles are overdesigned, underutilized, underloaded, inefficient, polluting, and—thanks to the drivers behind the wheel—dangerous. The average personal vehicle sits idle (i.e., parked) for 95 percent of its life. When we do drive our mostly parked cars, we tend to drive alone (more than 75 percent of American commuters are solo drivers) even though our vehicles are designed for four, five, or more occupants (empty third-row seat, anyone?).
In addition, tens of thousands of Americans are killed and hundreds of thousands are injured in car accidents each year. And finally, gasoline engines burn relatively expensive fuel inefficiently, as only ~20 percent of potential energy is converted into useful power for a standard internal combustion engine vehicle.”
Lifestyles based on a car-centered life make our lives more complicated and create a range of damaging effects upon the planet, but also our bodies.
Surely we have all experienced the frustration of sitting in a car for long periods of time while in traffic or on a commute, and probably most would agree that it’s a stressful situation. But why is driving so stressful– and why is that important? Our natural fight or flight response helps our body react to stressful situations with a release of hormones– whether it’s a driver cutting us off or a near-accident. While we’re driving in bad conditions– traffic, dangerous drivers, bad weather– we experience this stress over and over. And when you’re in the car, there’s no way to release the compounded stress. This built up stress can lead to bouts of road rage and dangerous driving behavior, but it has more serious health consequences, too. Studies actually show that driving can be as stressful as skydiving!
If we face this stress twice a day, everyday, it can lead to chronic stressed conditions, the effects of which cannot be underestimated. Chronic stress is a serious medical condition that can lead to health complications. The Mayo Clinic explains that overexposure to stress hormones can disrupt many of the natural processes in your body, and puts you at increased risk for numerous health problems.
Driving stresses us out, and it reduces our overall productivity, too. The Inspired Economist wrote a post about how much time we really spend in traffic each year, and the numbers are shocking. On average, Americans spend about one week each year stuck in traffic, and in some cities (Honolulu, New York and Los Angeles), residents sit in traffic for an average of about 58, 57, and 56 hours each year.
Not only does driving make us unhappy and unwell from behind the wheel, but also at home. Sickness and cancer rates of children and adults living on or near highways– known as cancer corridors– have reached shockingly high rates. Emissions from motor vehicles include air pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter, all of which blows into homes and offices on or near highways. The Centers for Disease Control says that individually each of these pollutants is a known or suspected cause of adverse health effects. Other reports show that car exhaust is a huge contributor to ill-health and it is implicated as one of the world’s largest causes of death.
On top of everything else, cars are expensive. The total cost of a car factors in the upfront cost and immediate depreciation, but also fuel, maintenance, parking, tickets, and insurance. These costs add up considerably, and when you combine it with time spent in the car and with high levels of stress, cars seem very expensive indeed.
There’s never been a better time to take advantage of the many solutions to this problem. Finding ways to reduce your driving time by working flex-time or telecommuting might be possible with your current employer. If those aren’t an option, finding an alternative fuel vehicle can help reduce your impact and improve the health of the planet– although it probably won’t help with your traffic jams!
Learn more about solutions to cars and commuting:
Learn how to drive BETTER to reduce your impact
Meditation techniques to reduce stress
Find carpool apps to share the ride
18 Tips for Telecommuters
Tips for asking about Flex-time scheduling
The True Cost of Owning a Car from Consumer Reports
Alternative Car Solutions
If you are a commuter with a conscious, there are plenty of alternative cars that use less or no fossil fuels at all, or alternative fuels to get you going down a greener road.
The first electric car was on the road in 1890s, but the fossil fuel industry has spent the last century trying to squash the electric vehicle in favor of fossil fuels. But EVs are winning! Current electric and gas-electric hybrids are price comparable (with some very expensive outliers) to gasoline vehicles and are becoming increasingly popular as EV infrastructure expands across the country. Not only are EVs becoming more common, it’s becoming better known that EVs are super fast (offering instant torque and smooth transition to high speeds), very clean to operate, and may end up saving drivers money in the long-term.
AutoTrader says that one of the biggest costs savings is– of course– fuel, but there’s more. Since electric motors don’t have many of the complex moving parts found in a gasoline engine, EVs won’t develop the same problems and the engine is likely to last longer. Electric cars will not need oil changes, and there isn’t a need to repair timing belts or head gaskets. After about 10 years of use the battery might need to be replaced (at about $5,000), but even with replacement battery costs, the numbers still come out in favor of electrics over the long term.
Hybrid vehicles, those using some electric technology and gasoline too, are another great option, as they can reduce your fuel costs considerably. These do still rely on fossil fuels, but use about 40% to 60% less petroleum than conventional vehicles. Other options for alternative fuel vehicles include biodiesel cars, which run on plant-based fuels like converted vegetable oils. Hydrogen fuel cells are an emerging vehicle technology, although they have limited availability for consumers.
Learn more about alternative cars:
Gas2: all the clean vehicle news you could ever want
Learn more about biofuels for vehicles
The true cost of electric cars: upfront costs vs long-term costs from Ecopreneurist
Learn how hybrid cars work
Compare gasoline vs. electric cars
Keep up with news about EVs and hybrids on Gas2
The Sharing Economy can get you there: Carsharing & Ridesharing
Companies like Zipcar, Relay Rides, Lyft and Uber bring driving into the sharing economy, which is a loose term referring to a peer-to-peer business model. There is a lot of evidence showing that sharing economy business models have solidly taken root around the world, and with good reason. Sharing economy businesses offer a way to build community and boost the local economy around positive growth and shared needs, like shared vehicles!
Across the world regulations are trying to catch up with the sharing economy, but for now all of these businesses are in the clear. Carsharing services like ZipCar and RelayRides can be found in cities around the world, and give residents the chance to use a car without the hassle of owning, insuring, and parking a car. This type of carshare still caters to the single occupancy vehicle model, but it does create less overall need for cars and car-dependent systems. Carsharing options can save drivers about $3,000/year and estimates show that each carshare vehicle removes seven to nine personally owned cars from the road, so this is definitely movement in the right direction.
Ridesharing– not to be confused with carsharing– like Lyft, Sidecar, Getaround, and Uber offer people a ride in someone’s car similar to a taxi service. Still relying on a car-based model, it’s not the greenest option, but since the cars are shared, and individual drivers are not sitting in traffic or circling for parking, these companies are certainly reducing impact. Some detractors suggest that rideshare apps like this might replace and make obsolete public transport, especially for higher-income residents, but others see it as complimentary to transportation infrastructure.
Gigaom reports that as of 2014, these rideshare companies won’t release their customer data, and so we are left to speculate about just how many rides are shared, how many of these might be replacements for public transportation, and how much impact these services are truly having. The author writes: “It appears [anecdotally] that Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft’s proliferation has been a good thing for the city [of San Francisco]. Since the population [is] growing so rapidly, the public transit system has been overwhelmed. Ridesharing seems to have helped lighten the new load.” And both Uber and Lyft have sharing options built into the app, so drivers can pair up with others to fill up empty seats, save money, and reduce the number of total trips taken. Getaround estimates that each rideshare vehicle removes 9-13 other cars from the road and offsets up to 100,000 pounds of C02.
Both carsharing and ridesharing are part of a growing transportation network that is helping us reduce our dependance on cars, but public transportation is the other big part of the solution.
Learn more about carsharing and ridesharing:
Find the best carsharing apps for 2015 to help you avoid owning a car
What is the future of car ownership? Lyft thinks most Millennials won’t own cars in a few years
Is carsharing the future of driving?
What is public transportation?
Public transportation usually refers to a collection of transport options that can include buses, railways, subway or metro systems, shuttles, trolleys and more. Most cities around the world have some type of public transport options available, although the routes, rates, and ridership numbers can vary considerably.
For example, the San Francisco Metro Transportation Agency includes everything listed above, with an annual ridership (in 2013) of about 220,000 for buses, streetcars and trolley, while the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) adds another 4 million annual passengers in the fiscal year 2014. Compare these high numbers to a city like Detroit, with a huge suburban sprawl and no history of public transport to meet the needs of the residents; the annual ridership for the Detroit bus system (the only serious public transport option) had just 32,000 riders in 2012. New York City boasts the highest rates of ridership in the US, while Tokyo has the highest ridership in the world. Here’s a list of the 10 best global cities for public transport.
Not only is public transportation a more efficient option for commuting, it’s also cheaper. Research shows that New Yorkers collectively save about $19 billion dollars a year by using public transport instead of driving. Clean tech expert Zac Shahan says that using public transport has saved him enough money to buy a house for his family – about $10,000/year. Research also shows that it’s less stressful riding a bus than driving, so it’s good for our budget, our bodies, and our planet! Sometimes riding the bus, train or metro can be downright enjoyable: riders can read, take naps and even get some work done– none of which you can do while driving your own car! Many bus and train systems offer wi-fi to passengers to help them get their work done on the commute. Even Greyhound, America’s cross-country bus system, offers electric outlets and onboard wi-fi to attract younger, more professional passengers.
Beyond saving money, there are innumerable benefits to taking public transit, the most important being the huge climate impact public transport can have. Switching away from the single-car driver model is one of the biggest steps we need to take in order to reduce our output of carbon emissions. Transportation produces almost 30 percent of all U.S. global warming emissions, according to The Union of Concerned Scientists. Treehugger reports some more numbers about the sustainability of public transport:
- 40 percent: Reduction in U.S. reliance on foreign oil that would occur if one in ten Americans used public transportation daily.
- 7: Number of times safer that riding a bus is compared to riding in your own automobile.
- 450: Millions of gallons saved from people taking public transportation each year. This is roughly the energy needed to power ¼ of all American homes annually.
- 20 percent: Carbon monoxide emissions saved if one in five Americans rode public transportation daily; the savings would be greater than the combined emissions from all chemical manufacturing and metal processing industries.
Learn more about public transportation:
How Riding Transit Saved me Enough money to buy a House
Public transit means more jobs (just like other green economy initiatives!)
Reasons to Take transit that Have nothing to do with the environment
How Transit and biking can boost the local economy
Transit is easy with Google Maps!
Burn Fat, Not Fuel: For the Love of Bike Commuting
Carsharing, buses, and trains are awesome for reducing impact and saving money, but the cheapest, greenest (and arguably the most fun) option for commuting is by bicycle. Bike commuting is adventurous and healthy; instead of sitting in a car and getting angry, you can work out your frustration on two wheels and boost your energy and your productivity. If your ride is long enough, maybe it’s all the exercise you need for the day!
Bike commuting comes with some hassles, of course, most of which stem from dealing with bad drivers or incomplete infrastructure. The best way stay safe is to know your city/state bike laws, ride according to the rules, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Don’t use headphones, and don’t ever text while biking! You need to be ever vigilant for pedestrians, other bikers, and drivers who may not be paying enough attention to the two-wheeled folks on the road. To learn more about bike commuting safely, check out this awesome video from Grist:
And just like cars, there are bike share options spreading successfully throughout cities around the world. Another great option for bike commuting is electric bicycles; if you live in a hilly place or just need a little extra pep in your pedal, electric bikes are a a safe and speedy way to get around town.
Learn more about bike commuting:
Crafty DIY stuff for your bike
How to Bicycle Commute: A Rider’s Survival Guide
Learn how bikes bring the community together
Bikocity: Bike News, Bike Love
Complete the Streets: Building smarter, safer cities through safe transport options
Overall, we see a bright future with alternative transportation innovation. Whether you’re an avid bike commuter, bus rider or if you have to commute by car, you can advocate for cleaner streets and support innovation in the public transport sector. Learning about how your commute affects the planet is the first step to fixing it. We hope that you too support cleaner, greener transport options for your commuting within your city or town whenever it’s an option.