EPA asks: Could you drive less?

To reduce pollution — not to mention cut our dependence on foreign oil — it would help if U.S. motorists drove less. So in it’s blog yesterday, EPA posed the question: What would convince you to change your driving habits?

A number of respondents said the predictable: They’d do it if their community offered better public transportation. But that, of course, begs the question: What is good public transit? I find a more powerful answer in a newspaper account today based on an AP-Yahoo News poll. It dovetails with what most of us have also been hearing on radio and TV news: that escalating gas prices have provoked a swift and dramatic change in the distances we drive.

CHOOSING ALTERNATIVES Subsidized gas and problematic public transit may be fueling road congestion and polluted air. iStockphoto/jondpatton

Much as I hate to admit it, maybe we need far higher gas prices still.

I came from the Chicago metro area with ample public transportation options. Bus lines serve even backstreets and the outlying ‘burbs. Snaking through the bustling metropolis are various rail lines, including the subways, competing above-ground trains, and of course, the famed “L”. When I lived back there, I used them all, even occasionally to travel the 40 miles or so from my home back to college after holiday breaks (and it was a bargain: just 40 to 60 cents each way — which, I guess, also dates me).

But waiting at a bus stop in Chicago’s dicier south, near-north, and west-side neighborhoods could at times prove unnerving. I remember one instance waiting for a bus to rapid transit (the above-ground extension of the subway line) after my summer job as a temporary typist. I hadn’t given much thought to the trip beyond its bargain cost until I realized that about eight men up and down the street were staring at me, mouths almost agape. All in their 40s to 60s, they seemed to be telegraphing the same message: “Are you just plain stupid, girl? Don’t you know this ain’t no place for some head-in-a-book, not-watching-her-back college kid? We can’t be takin’ responsibility for your havin’ no street smarts.”

The men didn’t appear hostile and I felt no fear from them. But I did become concerned about their assessment that I had no reason to feel safe at this bus stop — and at 2 p.m. on a weekday, no less.

Most big cities are saddled with similar safety concerns. Even moving in transit, I’ve been groped on subways and repeatedly have encountered crafty old men who found surreptitious ways to make some sort of body contact on hot sweaty days. And then there were the leering youths who thought it fun to bully any female over the age of 12.

Is it any wonder many women — and seniors of either gender — feel safer in their cars?

When I moved to the DC area, I found public-transportation routing comparable to what had been available back home. But in contrast to Chicago, the timetables offered slim pickings. An 8-mile trip that might take 15 minutes by car could run 150 minutes by bus, depending on the day of the week and time. And forget Sundays. Most bus lines I frequented still don’t operate on that day.

DC’s Metro is clean, reliably air-conditioned, and modern, by old-city-subway standards. But unexplained hold ups frequently delay commutes. So these days, I more often drive my Prius the nine miles to work and halve my commute time. The out-of-pocket cost between the two options has been a wash.

Until recently, that is. Now that gas prices have been weekly creeping upwards, my gas-sipping hybrid is becoming a pain-in-the-pocketbook to refill. I only do it every few weeks, but what used to cost $18 now exceeds $40. The only thing that gives me some satisfaction is knowing that many gas-guzzling-SUV drivers may be dropping $90 or more at the pump.

I’ve taken to combining trips for errands and riding the Metro more. No one’s forced these changes on me. Household economics has triggered these behavioral adaptations.

I — and you — would probably have made such changes a lot sooner if it weren’t for America’s substantial economic subsidies to preserve the motorists’ way of life. Gas-pump prices still fail to account for the full costs of our fuels: heightened foreign security, accelerated global warming, declining forests, and costlier health care as people increasingly suffer respiratory and heart disease triggered by breathing smoggy, particulate-laden air.

Paying more at the pump — not to oil companies but in taxes that can be recycled back into the development of alternative-energy sources — will prompt us all to buy energy-efficient vehicles and to use them sparingly.

And if such a paradigm shift also catalyzes a cycling renaissance, so much the better. Our bodies will thank us for that as well.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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