Every year, environmentalists and the public alike celebrate Earth Day in late April. It is a day with a long, proud history – a day when, for a brief moment, we share our environmental concern with a broader public. But let’s be clear: one day is not enough.
This year marks more than 40 years since the first Earth Day, 50 years since Silent Spring, and 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit. The mounting environmental threats we face as a region, and as a nation, cannot be dealt with in a day. They require sustained effort towards a sustainable future. They require every one of us to do our part, every day.
That may sound daunting, but here’s one solution that’s as easy as walking or riding a bike: one of the best things you can do for the environment is to bike more, to walk more, or to take public transportation. This Earth Day, give your car a rest.
There’s no question that driving is a strain on our environment, our economy and our health. Transportation is the largest US consumer of petroleum, accounting for twenty percent of US greenhouse gas emissions. High prices aren’t slowing us down, either: last year Americans spent $481 billion on gas, a record high. That’s in part because the number of “extreme commuters”— those who travel ninety minutes or more each way—have been the fastest-growing category.
For all the money (and time) spent, it’s not making us happy. Drawing on a body of research, David Brooks wrote in the NY Times that “The daily activity most injurious to happiness is commuting.” Nor is it making us healthy. Commuting by car raises people’s risk of obesity, increases their exposure to pollution, reduces air quality through hazardous air pollution, and reduces sleep and exercise. Across the US, vehicle exhaust accounts for 55% of nitrogen oxides, and 60% of carbon monoxide emissions. For those driving, and the 25 million Americans living with asthma, this is a bad thing. These reasons and many more, CLF is proud to be affiliated with the Environmental Insurance Agency (EIA) that offers discounted insurance rates for those who drive less.
The portrait is clear: driving is one of the most polluting things we do nearly every day – and we don’t even think about it. If you want to celebrate Earth Day, drive less.
I’ve been a bike commuter my entire adult life. I rode to work in Boston in the mid-1980’s, and now, 25 years later, I’m doing it again. I can tell you that the over those years, the biking culture here in Boston has changed dramatically. When I first began riding, it was very common for me to stop at an intersection and be the only bike commuter. Now, I’m almost always part of a large pack.
A MassBike fact sheet claims that “in 2000, 0.52% of Massachusetts workers 16 and older (15,980 people total) used a bicycle to get to work.” Meanwhile, the League of American Cyclists claims that between 2000 and 2009 bike ridership in Boston increased by 118%. This rise makes sense, given the efforts by Boston’s bike-supporting Mayor Menino and his bike Czar Nicole Freedman, under whose tenure the city of Boston has installed more than 50 miles of bike lanes. Boston’s great bike sharing program, Hubway, also undoubtedly helps. After having been named one of the country’s worst biking cities by Bicycling magazine, last year they named us one of the country’s 26 best.
There’s no doubt we’ve come a long way. Back when I began riding to work in Boston, there was a fend-for-yourself, cowboy sort of attitude. That’s all changed, and for the better. Cyclists follow the rules far more frequently now. This makes for safer travel for all, and gains respect among drivers and the general public for this alternative form of transportation. Biking shares the road, and also reduces the need for public expenditures on roads. By encouraging biking, we make the most of our shared investment in transportation.
We need the same increase in respect for other forms of transit, like buses, subways and trains, which also help us get the most out of our transportation dollars. Instead of continuing to build infrastructure that funnels everyone onto roads across New England, in their cars, we need to share our transportation resources, for our benefit, and the planet’s.
We also need to optimize our transit system for walking, for biking, for trains and for buses. And we need to treat all forms of transportation equally. As CLF’s former President Doug Foy once said at UVA’s Miller Center, “It’s always amazed me that we refer to driving, roads and bridges and then everything else an alternative form of transportation.” Indeed. Isn’t walking the primary form, for all of us? The one we first learned to use? All of these “alternatives” should be equal forms of transportation, with equal access for all.
The growth of urban biking is due in large part, in recent years, to the power of numbers. And the improvement in bikers’ attitudes also continues to help: if you give respect, you get respect. But there’s also something else going on here: You can’t keep a good idea down. Let’s consider a few stats:
- A short, four-mile round trip by bicycle keeps about 15 pounds of pollutants out of the air we breathe. Source: MassBike.
- A 15-minute bike ride to and from work five times a week burns off the equivalent of 11 pounds of fat in a year. Source: MassBike.
- Individuals who switch from driving to taking public transit can save, on average $10,120 this year, and up to $844 a month. Source: American Public Transportation Association APTA
Who wouldn’t want to save money, improve their health, and save the earth? A newspaper put it well when they ran a headline that said, “Commuting to work is ‘bad for your health’ (unless you cycle or go by foot…).”
This Earth Day, ditch the car and pick up your bike. Or go for a walk. And then, when it comes time to go back to work, keep on riding. I’ll see you on the road.