The Eonomist: Things to do in 2011?
I've just finished reading my granddaughter's senior honors thesis on improving bikeability (i.e., riding our bikes to work or on errands), a thoughtful, brilliant piece of work in my totally unbiased point of view. It got me to thinking about things we can all do in 2011 to treat our planet a bit more gently.
It's easy for me to advocate walking or biking to work; all I have to do is walk down a flight of stairs to my home office. Since I live at the top of a long, steep hill and, in the past, often worked 80 miles from home, I wasn't so enthusiastic about that a few years ago. But most of us could resolve to bike, take public transportation or group errands and activities so that one day a week we didn't take the car out of the garage.
What if we got rid of all those electric door openers, soap dispensers, paper towel dispensers, faucets, toilet flushers and electric can openers and went back to doing things manually? We'd save a lot of electricity and imported oil, burn a few extra calories and maybe lose a pound over the course of the year.
We must be the only country in the world that spends time and money trying to eliminate physical activity and then spends even more time and money going to health clubs. I am reminded of a friend who was planning a trip to eastern Russia with me. Knowing that a considerable amount of walking would be involved, she signed up for an exercise class. The first morning the instructor asked, "How many of you drove around the parking lot looking for a parking place close to the door?" Everyone sheepishly raised her hand. "Well, that's silly," the instructor said. "You are here to get exercise. Park as far away from the door as you can."
What if we turned the motor off when sitting in the drive-up line at the bank or fast food restaurant? Better yet, what if we just got rid of drive-up windows and parked our car (or bicycle) and went inside? Back in the olden days, I managed to do that with four preschoolers, so I know it is possible. We'd have to make accommodations for the disabled, but most of us don't fall into that category. We could require a handicapped license plate to use the drive-up, similar to what we require for the closest parking spaces.
I've already written about the amount of fuel we would save if we drove 65 (or even better, 55) on the highway. In my best of all possible worlds, that's about the only place we'll be driving our cars.
If our job is too far from home to bicycle, couldn't we car pool? The only time in the last 40 years that I've been caught up on my reading was the year I used VanPool to commute between Colorado Springs and Denver. ZipCars and/or a good bicycle program could take care of our occasional need for a car during the day.
Good public transportation is a chicken/egg issue. In order for it to work, it needs to be so frequent that we don't have to consult a schedule. In order for it to be that widespread, it needs to be used by most of us. A tax on gasoline and parking that internalized the true cost of driving would go a long way toward accomplishing the latter. Perhaps that is an issue that our dysfunctional Congress could agree to work together on.
I'm not a raging environmentalist or obsessed with the idea of global warming. But I do care about our planet and its future. As an economist I know we usually do what we are paid to do and avoid things that are relatively costly. We have created a perverse system of incentives that encourages us to do things that are bad for us (hence the epidemic of obesity) and the planet. If each of us resolved to make a few simple changes in our lives, we could make a big difference.
See you on the bike path. I'll be the one panting along at the end of the line.