Shades of Green: Driving Climate Change

How does a modern family ditch gas-guzzling transportation?

Cars may get us where we need to go, but they’re also big polluters. (Photo credit: Ruben de Rijcke.)

My car was the first adult purchase I made when I landed my first real job. I needed a dependable way to get where I needed to go. But it was more than just a mode of transportation. My car became a symbol of my newfound independence. I even named it Liesl — a nod to “The Sound of Music” and the car’s Germanic origins.

I’ve since had to trade in Liesl to get something a bit more economical and make room for two dogs and a toddler. But I still love how my car can get me anywhere I need to go — from the grocery store to pick up whatever food my toddler will actually eat this week to the mountains for a weekend camping trip and everywhere in between. And I’m not alone in the bond I feel with my car: Culturally, cars have symbolized the growth of technology, greater interconnectedness, and even upward mobility for the middle class.

But for all of their benefits, there’s one thing I hate about cars: They’re a disaster for the climate. In the United States, transportation is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. More than half those emissions are coming directly from passenger cars and trucks. Globally, cars are responsible for nearly 20 percent of our carbon footprint. And things aren’t getting better. As our population grows, there are more cars on road. We’re spending more time in our cars as we contend with increasing traffic and sprawling development.

Globally, cars are responsible for nearly 20 percent of our carbon footprint.

My own family’s impact is double that of some households’, since we’re a two-car family. And my husband’s commute is even longer and farther than mine. So, faced with the statistics, I realized that our cars had to be the next target in our family’s quest to become more sustainable. I already knew that opting to walk, bike or take public transit are alternatives that reduce reliance on vehicles that run on fossil fuels. But were these options viable for our family and our lives?

Temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees in the sweltering summer of our Tucson, Arizona, home, and I certainly wasn’t going to convince my hot three-year-old to walk with me to school each morning. It might be a more viable option when we’re experiencing milder weather, but her school is 3 miles from our house — not exactly around the corner. So we decided to try public transportation. I envisioned us taking the bus together to my daughter’s preschool, and then I could stay on the bus to enjoy an easy commute to my office. During my ride, I could catch up on the news or check out that podcast I’ve wanted to listen to. Maybe I’d actually finish The New York Times crossword puzzle.

That vision was short lived. Unfortunately Tucson’s transit system is seriously lacking, considering how large and sprawling it is. Bus stops are few and far between, and many aren’t sheltered. The routes are infrequent, and buses are often late. That meant lots of time in the sun even if we weren’t hoofing it from a bus stop to our destination.

Tucson’s streetcar. (Photo credit: David Wilson.)

It took me an hour to get to my office via bus, with lots of walking and transfers — a trip that takes just 20 minutes in my car. Thinking maybe it was just the rush-hour traffic, we tried the streetcar as a family on the weekend. That was also a disaster. Because the streetcar’s route is so limited, we had to drive to a stop to get on. Then we had to wait 30 minutes for the train to arrive. Thirty minutes in toddler time might as well be an eternity. After a quick survey of coworkers and friends about the area’s regional transit, I discovered that our experiences were the norm.

While my daughter loved riding on trains and buses so much, it became clear pretty quickly that public transit wasn’t our ticket to a smaller carbon footprint. So what’s plan B? How can we make our commutes more sustainable?

In the short term, we’ve committed to riding our bikes more and walking when possible. The bike trailer for our daughter makes biking more difficult, but I can turn my solo office commute into a workout session. Tucson has a number of well-maintained, bike-friendly routes, and our house sits on one of the most frequented. I just don’t know if I’m ready to use it daily, or in the heat of summer.

We also found ways to reduce our carbon footprint when we do drive. Our family-friendly ride means we can easily fit more people in our car, even with a car seat. We can carpool to dinner, our weekend soccer games and even Sunday hikes. We also combine trips when we can and plan out routes in advance so we don’t waste time (and gas) aimlessly driving around. Finally, as hard as it was to do, I’ve tamed my lead foot — because driving more slowly has been linked to pretty significant reductions in emissions.

But we certainly have a long way to go.

Smart planning and public transportation makes city living more enjoyable and also helps tackle the climate stresses of cars.

Seriously addressing our gas-guzzling ways is going to take work, and we need government leadership to support that work. As more people move to cities, we need to smartly plan to avoid sprawl. We also need more public-transportation routes and walkable cities. Innovations like bike shares also help, so once you’re downtown you don’t need to drive from place to place.

Planning like this makes city living more enjoyable and helps tackle the climate stresses of transportation. It also ensures we can protect wild spaces and save room for wildlife instead of destroying habitats for development.

And the companies that make our vehicles need to help too. Rather than continuing to build bigger and more wasteful vehicles, car manufacturers need to focus on making our rides more sustainable — utilizing new technologies like solar-powered electric systems that help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and shift us to less carbon-intensive options.

Jessica Herrera is a media specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity.