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Save the environment, one commute at a time

Humans cast an immense carbon footprint on the Earth when we commute to work. The following tips can turn our daily trips into a "green" commute, while simultaneously keeping a bit more "green" in our wallets.

David Rizzo burst upon the traffic scene in late 1987 as the first person in Los Angeles to offer alternate routes to motorists who were sick and tired of being stuck in traffic. In 1990 he released a guide to off-freeway commuting in Southern California. Rizzo continues to provide commute management solutions with the 2006 release of his book, "Survive the Drive! How to Beat Freeway Traffic in Southern California."
Imagine, 2.9 billion gallons of gasoline "down the drain" every day. That's how much of this finite resource we waste every day stuck in traffic. On a more personal note, each of us motorists loses an average of 38 hours of precious time idling in traffic each year, costing $710 per person in lost productivity and out-of-pocket gas expense.

Mother Earth doesn't get off much better, as transportation accounts for approximately one-third of all the greenhouse gasses produced in the country. Easy to believe, considering that motor vehicles emit 20 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per gallon of gas burned, for a national average of 5.5 tons per year, per motorist.

Now for the good news: Given that we each cast a "Shaquille O'Neal" sized footprint on the earth every time we commute to work, we can all do something about shrinking that impact. The following tips can turn our daily trip into a "green" commute, while actually helping to keep a little bit more "green" in our wallet.

For those who must drive
Within the U.S., approximately 77% of us insist on driving alone to work, burning up 34% of the energy used in getting around. Yet we still want to do the right thing. Luckily, the following considerations can help.

  • Avoid high speeds. Calculations demonstrate a decrease of 3 miles per gallon between 55-65 mph, which rises to 4.3 mpg between 55-70 because of wind resistance.
  • Avoid jackrabbit starts. Gentle acceleration definitely cuts down on gas usage. The "Driving Change" pilot program in the Denver area harnesses an innovative accelerometer (made by Cartasite, Inc.) with the access of the Internet to help motorists track their driving techniques in an effort to help reduce air pollution and increase mpg.
  • Avoid unnecessary sudden braking. Coast to a stop to save gas and lower the amount of asbestos fibers in the air.
  • Only use "cruise control" on the open highway. In heavy traffic, it simply wastes gas.
  • Practice optimized shifting techniques. Get into higher gears as quickly as possible.
  • Switch off the air conditioner to save 5% to 15% of the energy your car uses.
  • If idling is anticipated for over 60 seconds, shut the engine off.
  • Lighten the load: 1% of fuel efficiency is lost for every 50 pounds of extra weight in your trunk.
  • Remove bike, luggage, or ski racks from the top of your SUV or truck for less wind resistance.
  • Keep tires fully inflated to manufacturer's specifications for a 3% gas savings.
  • Use a multi-grade (versus "straight") motor oil to improve mileage by 1.5% to 2.7%.
  • Keep your vehicle in good state of tune.

Lastly, practice combining errands. This reduces "cold starts," which account for a disproportionate amount of air pollution.

Sharing the ride pays double dividends
Spectacular gains accrue when partnering with a co-worker on the way to the office, as already discovered by over 10% of the working population. A two-person carpool immediately slashes the impact on the earth by 50%.

Other advantages to carpooling include:

  • A shortened duration of travel, since carpoolers can take advantage of high occupancy vehicle lanes.
  • Savings of up to $3,000 per year. Easy to believe, since the AAA figures the average American spends 52.2 cents per mile, or $7,823 per year, to operate their motor vehicle.  Reductions come from savings in gas and car maintenance expenses.
  • Most carpool partners are patient enough to allow stops for errands on the way home.
  • More free time during the commute. The passenger can read, rest, or eat breakfast.
  • Less stress, lower blood pressure, and better mental acuity, as say studies at the University of California, Irvine.
  • With a passenger, a driver's risk of death decreases by 7.5%.

Take advantage of technology to beat traffic
No surprise that traffic congestion creates even more air pollution. Note that mile for mile, a car puts out three times more hydrocarbons at 15 mph, than it does at 50 mph. Thankfully, technology can help reduce the likelihood of getting caught in traffic snarls by providing advance warning. 

Many GPS devices incorporate real-time accident data by subscription. 

  • Magellen RoadMate 2000 Series
  • Garmin Nuvi 660
  • TomTom GO 920 T
  • Pioneer AVIC-N4
  • DASH Express

For those on more modest budgets, the following tools perform a yeoman's duty of "traffic busting."

  • The "Traffic Gauge" ( is an extremely convenient, hand-held device tells you which freeways are crowded and which are not at one quick glance.  Subscription based. Available for Chicago, L.A., Seattle, and San Francisco. Free website coverage available for several other cities throughout the country.
  • "My Traffic" can be accessed via any ordinary cell phone by calling 1-866-MY-TRAFC (1-866-698-7232). Information provided via computer-generated voice. Provides congestion factors and travel times. Available throughout the country for free.
  • "Dial Directions" allow users to call (347) 328-4667 (DIR-ECT-IONS) from any cellphone, explain where they are and where they want to go. The directions will be sent via a text message directly to their phone. If the user has a web-enabled phone, then directions will be sent as an html document. Available in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles at no cost.
  • While it's still in a beta version, "My Location" is operational in 20 countries. Helpful if you get lost, as it uses cellphone towers to triangulate the position of your cell phone.  Sends a map to your smart phone (Most Java-enabled (J2ME) mobile phones, Palm devices with Palm OS 5 and above, and all color Blackberry devices.  Visit, the service is free.

Hop on the bus
For big time gains in reducing greenhouse gases, few things beat transit, and buses lead the way, consuming only 1.5% of the energy used to transport us to work, while carrying more passengers than trains.

Commuting by bus could be for you if you:

  • Live within 15 miles of work and within 15 minutes (on foot) of a bus stop.
  • Work within 15 minutes of a bus stop.
  • Have to make no more than one transfer.

To ease the environmental impact when commuting by bus, urge your local transit agency to use CNG (methane) buses and other cleaner-burning technologies.

Take the "E" train for the environment
As for buses, commuting by train only consumes 1.5% of the total transportation energy. 

Consider commuting by train for:

  • Distances greater than 15 miles (except for intra-city trips, which can be much shorter).
  • If you live in the suburbs, but work in the central business district.
  • Have easy access to a train station (less than 15 minutes) and easy access to work (less than 15 minutes).
  • You have difficult or expensive parking at work.

To further ease the environmental impact when commuting by train:

  • Find a way to the train station without taking your car. Walk, if 1 mile, bike if less than 5 miles. This helps eliminate "cold" starts, which produce a disproportionate amount of air pollution for the distance.

While only 5% of the working population uses the bus or train to get to work, it helps the environment on several fronts:

  • In the U.S., buses and trains combined put out 1/10 the CO2 that cars and trucks produce.
  • New York City Transit alone, reduces air pollution by 400 million pounds each year.
  • Employer paid transit expenses are tax free up to $115 month. That's $1380 per year that never shows up on your W-2 form.
  • Using transit to get to work is not wasted time. Riders can read a book, concentrate on paper work, eat breakfast or dinner and even catch a quick nap.

Technological aids also help maximize the time spent in transit.

  • Use PDAs and laptops to catch up on work.
  • Internet-enabled devices, such as the "Blackberry," help commuters stay wired.
  • "JOTT" enables any ordinary cell phone to send e-mail messages and faxes from you home computer and fax machine; (866) JOTT-123.

Human-powered commuting
Believe it or not, far more people walk to work (just over 2%) than take a motorcycle, or even a bicycle for that matter. Walking and biking, of course, use zero petrochemicals and produce minuscule amounts of CO2. Bicycling just one day reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 24 pounds.

Telecommuting means not going anywhere, but only in the literal sense. Approximately 3.6% of Americans e-mail, phone, or fax their completed work to their jobsite, remaining at home and saving tremendous quantities of gasoline while reducing air pollution. Talk to your employer about setting up a telecommuting program. Doing it just one day per week cuts your carbon footprint by 20%.

Obviously, we have many options at hand to save the environment. Take any of the above steps to do your part and help ensure a cleaner earth for ourselves and our children.