By: Elizabeth Grover
Unless you are lucky enough to enjoy the luxury of working from home, chances are you hate your commute. The vast majority of Americans commute to work, suffering through traffic, train delays, crowded buses, and unpredictable subways. While attending a primarily commuter university, these complaints are compounded with the challenges of living on a student budget. The impact that our daily commute has on our everyday lives is clear to see, but it is also important to acknowledge how impactful commuting can be on the community as a whole. We perceive driving as the most convenient way to get ourselves from point A to point B, but this convenience is greatly costing the planet. Choosing greener commuting options can reduce your carbon footprint, and perhaps save you money in the long run.
Since the spark of the public’s concern over global warming, now redefined as climate change, the buzz word phrase, “carbon footprint,” has come into our colloquial vocabulary. If you do not have any experience studying environmental science, however, you may not know exactly what having a large “carbon footprint” means, and how drastically carbon emissions affect the environment. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a naturally occurring gas in the Earth’s atmosphere. Presumably, if it occurs naturally in our atmosphere, that it would be harmless to the environment, but human evolution has greatly disrupted the natural carbon cycle. In a healthy environment, CO2 levels would be regulated through the consumption of plants and soil naturally absorbing excess carbon dioxide1. Industrialization has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the air through the burning of fossil fuels and we’ve disrupted the Earth’s ability to regulate itself through deforestation and city developments.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, thus warming the climate of the planet, and thus contributing to climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions account for 82 percent of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases. This statistic is both startling and empowering— we, as humans have caused this problem, but we also have the power to fix it. Rethinking your commute is one way you can change your impact on the environment on an individual level.
Let’s break down where exactly the carbon dioxide comes from. The largest contributors to CO2 emissions are industry, electricity, and transportation. The greatest portion of carbon emissions comes from transportation, being 34 percent1. Transportation includes not only cars and trucks, but also air travel, marine transportation, and railways. The most common way to travel, however, is by car. 93 percent of commuters drive alone. This percentage is important to consider— 93 percent of people are personally adding to the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at least five days a week due to their work commute. If more people considered using public transportation to get to work or school, this number would be greatly reduced, and hopefully in turn, our carbon emissions would be greatly reduced.
Public transportation reduces carbon emissions by taking more individual passenger cars off the road. A bus transporting twenty people is better on the environment than twenty cars transporting twenty individuals. Although buses are large vehicles, and perceived to be less fuel efficient than small cars, their carrying power has proven to have a positive impact on the environment. Buses generate only about 20 percent of the carbon monoxide and just 10 percent of the hydrocarbons per passenger-mile when compared with a single-occupancy vehicle. Trains are an eco-friendly alternative to driving by yourself as well. Trains have an even larger capacity than buses, therefore having a greater potential for replacing single occupancy vehicles. Trains and buses also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing traffic. If there are fewer cars on the roadways, due to people choosing public transportation options over driving their own vehicle, then there is less fuel waste and emissions that come from sitting in traffic jams3.
Not all communities have adequate public transportation systems, however, and making these switches are either too challenging or impossible. Rural communities, for example, often do not have any form of public transportation, and people living in these communities have no other choice but to commute by car on a daily basis. Urban areas have the greatest access to public transportation. We, as University of Massachusetts Boston students, are lucky to go to school right on the Red Line. The MBTA, although imperfect, is committed to reducing carbon emissions and providing the most environmentally efficient transportation possible. Over the years, the MBTA has invested in reducing their own “carbon footprint” by improving their buses and trains. Investments in new hybrid buses that are 20 percent more fuel efficient and new locomotives that meet stricter EPA standards, have made public transportation in Boston greener than it has ever been.
Public transportation can be challenging to rely on. The train schedule may not match your work schedule, or the subway is always too congested to board. But, if you can manage to make public transportation work for your schedule and your life, then you’ll be making a difference in the health of the environment.
1 “Overview of Greenhouse Gases.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 11 Apr. 2019, www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases.
2 Mckimmy, Matt. “How Commuting Impacts the Environment.” RideAmigos, RideAmigos Blog, 19 June 2019, rideamigos.com/blog/commuting-impacts-environment/.
3 “Why Is Public Transportation Good for the Environment?” National Express Transit, Paratransit Company, 3 Jan. 2018, www.nationalexpresstransit.com/blog/why-is-public-transportation-good-for-the-environment/.
4 Jessen, Klark. “MBTA Acts to Reduce Environmental Impact, Prepare for Climate Change.” MassDOT Blog, 17 May 2016, blog.mass.gov/transportation/mbta/mbta-acts-to-reduce-environmental-impact-prepare-for-climate-change/.