How much does that trip really cost?! Let’s use the pandemic pause to shrink our gigantic transport and travel-related carbon footprint

There are a lot of things most of us sorely miss from before the pandemic: hugging our friends and family, eating at restaurants, hosting parties…but I don’t think any of us would say we miss rush hour traffic. I don’t think most people miss work related travel. Coronavirus-related lockdowns caused record drops in carbon emissions this year, in large part related to decreases in emissions from transportation and travel. Climate scientists aren’t too optimistic about this temporary drop having much of an impact on the overall catastrophic level of carbon we’ve put into the atmosphere, assuming we just go back to “normal” when the pandemic is over. But what if we carry forward some of our more sustainable habits from this time of crisis?  

Pre-pandemic, the average American spent over 200 hours commuting per year, with many clocking in way above the average. I work about a 14 minute drive from home–now. Before the pandemic, the drive was over an hour each way (I took MARTA instead for a 45-50 minute trip each way and plan to get back to that when things are safer). Long commutes can suck the life out of you. They raise stress levels and make it so much harder to find enough time for sleep and exercise. And they come at a tremendous cost to our climate. Transportation is the biggest contributor to US greenhouse gas emissions at ~28.2%. Certain jobs can’t be done well at home, but for those that can, employers and employees should have conversations now–while most people aren’t in a major hurry to get back to the office–about making arrangements to continue partial or full telework even when the pandemic is over. 

Same goes for work-related travel, which often accounts for 25-75% of an organization’s total carbon footprint. Is the intangible value of “face time” (the real kind, not the iphone kind) with a potential client really worth it? We figured out pretty quickly how to get work done without the travel in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, and considering that the climate crisis looms as a much larger threat to the future of our civilization, we should think twice before getting on auto-pilot and booking those plane tickets again as soon as the pandemic is under control. 

Similarly, do families really need to spend all their weekends and emit huge amounts of CO2 shuttling kids to travel sports competitions? Could we get back to a norm of youth sports games being something for Saturday morning, in town, and having the rest of the weekend to relax? 

Many of us have been finding a new appreciation for nature in our own backyards and neighborhoods these past few months in the midst of disappointments over cancelled trips. We may be daydreaming about the big trips we want to take when we have the freedom again, but it’s worth at least considering if we could enjoy a vacation a short drive away enough to avoid the emissions of a flight or especially an international trip. This author calculated that his family of three’s winter vacation from New York to Miami generated enough emissions to melt 90 square feet of arctic sea ice. Travel isn’t as trivial or easy of a thing to give up as incandescent light bulbs or single pane windows. Many of us have wonderful memories of travel, and it can open our eyes to the world around us in a way that’s hard to quantify. But travel-related emissions we can quantify, and they’re scarily high. I’m not saying you have to deprive yourself of your dream vacation or skip your best friend’s destination wedding, but at least think of travel as an indulgence like a decadent dessert or strong cocktail–something to enjoy occasionally, in moderation, rather than seeing it as a virtue or civic duty to pursue. 

One thing I really hope we do get back to after the pandemic, in larger numbers than ever, is mass transit, in combination with making cities more walkable. This is a powerful illustration of how alternate forms of transportation clear the clogging of our roads that happens when we each drive a car to our destination. Before the pandemic pushed me to drive to work, I enjoyed my routine of driving to the MARTA station (not ideal, but walking to the bus stop and taking the bus to MARTA would push my commute too long), taking the train a few stops, and walking a half mile to arrive at work a lot more energized than I am now just getting out of the car and walking in. On top of lowering carbon emissions, public transit benefits communities financially, reduces air pollution and traffic congestion, and is healthier, safer, and more economical for individuals than driving. Many experts believe that in a net zero carbon future, people will be living closer together, able to walk or use efficient public transit to get to most of the things they need. We can make choices to move towards that more sustainable future by choosing (if possible) to live near our workplace and near the friends and family we like to see frequently, living in denser areas, and advocating for walkability, increased public transit, and mixed use developments in our communities. 

So what concrete steps has my family taken to lower our transportation and travel related carbon footprint? We try to limit our driving: Andrew works at home (even pre-pandemic), and I go in two days a week, and when feasible I will get back to taking MARTA. We try to stay pretty close to home for the most part, which hasn’t been too hard this year! Earlier this year, we traded in my Camry for a plug-in hybrid Honda Clarity, which has a 48-mile electric range (~43 miles in the winter and ~55 with the weather we’ve had lately), so we rarely dip into gas. We bought it used so we didn’t qualify for the $7500 federal tax credit on electric and plug-in hybrid cars, but the savings were pretty much passed along to us, so remember the tax credit if you look at prices of new electric or plug-in hybrid cars. There is also a GA Power $250 rebate for installing a level 2 charger at your home for an electric or plug-in hybrid car. We considered buying a full electric car with a longer range, but we decided the environmental impact of buying the larger battery wouldn’t be worth it when the vast majority of our driving can be done on the smaller electric range, with the gas engine only for backup. (Of course, we could have made it work to buy an all-electric car with a range similar to the Clarity, and just made more of a point to map out the charging stations in our area to use those rather than gas as a backup for longer outings.) Andrew’s car is a Prius V, which used to be what we drove for most of our family outings; now we use the Clarity much more, but take the Prius V on trips since we pack a million things for our kids and we’re still at the stage where I need to sit in between their carseats in the back. At some point in the next five or six years as electric car options continue to improve, we’d like to replace the Prius V with an all electric car with a longer range that we could take on trips. We rarely fly, although with little kids and with most of our close family nearby, that’s not much of a sacrifice for us the way it would be for many people whose families are more geographically scattered. We have changed our bucket list some and no longer daydream about what international trips we want to take when the kids are older. We loved our honeymoon in Costa Rica in 2010 and at the time told each other we’d return for our ten year anniversary; this year, in the interest of being climate friendly and not spending too much time away from our kids, we instead planned a couple nights at the South Carolina coast… and then the pandemic hit, and we ended up going extra climate-friendly and celebrating with a picnic by the river a half mile from our home. Good old milestones in the time of covid. There is a growing “no fly climate sci” group, since for people who fly frequently, air travel can easily make up the majority of someone’s carbon footprint. One climate scientist decided to stop flying altogether after he realized it accounted for ⅔ of his carbon footprint. If you do need or want to fly, read here for some lower emission ways to do it, including choosing coach and buying offsets. Climate conferences were already starting to trend virtual before the pandemic, and hopefully with a long pause of no one traveling for conferences in any field, the change will stick. 

None of the changes my family has made are nearly enough. We’re doing what we can, in the world we currently live in (in which we live in a sprawling, trafficky metropolis), with our limitations of time and small kids leading us to turn to the convenience of the car over walking/biking more often than we should. We need systemic change: high speed rail instead of mass air travel, dense walkable communities with efficient public transport where it becomes rarer for families to feel the need for a car, teleworking as a long term strategy to keep rush hour traffic off the roads. We need to imagine this future, more vibrant and connected world, and advocate for policies to get us there. And on our way to a more sustainable system, there are small and big choices we can make so that we don’t melt quite as much sea ice. Next time you’re looking for a new job, keep a short commute and flexibility to telework as a major factor in your decision, and think about whether there’s a way around commuting alone in a car (walking, biking, public transport, carpooling, teleworking). If you’re thinking of moving, consider a denser, more walkable community. Make a goal for the next vehicle you buy to be electric or hybrid, or better yet, see if your family can get by with one car, or no cars. For a vacation or weekend outing, consider destinations closer to home. Avoid circling around looking for a closer parking spot or idling in the carpool line. Maybe if we focus less on seeing the whole world and more on preserving it, we can keep it beautiful and livable for generations to come.

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