The automobile is one of the most important inventions of the past 150 years. This is not only because it provides convenient personal transport and great independence through mobility, but also because of the problems it can cause. Namely, city organizers are concerned with air pollution as a threat to public health and the release of carbon emissions exacerbating the trend of global warming, as well as traffic congestion and the expansion of roads creating a loss of urban space.
On a personal level, too, you may find that using a car is not necessarily the best choice. For instance, the costs of fuel and car maintenance can add up quickly. And it’s frightening to consider the high rate of deadly accidents on the highway. We’ll discuss the other alternatives that might be easier on your wallet, your safety and health, or even the environment.
Think about all the reasons you got in the car in the past week. You might be surprised about how many trips you made were actually within an easy walking distance, especially if you live in an urban area.
Although walking may take longer, don’t forget to consider the benefits for your health. You may be better able to find time in your schedule for extra walks when you consider that it could add time to your lifespan. According to the Mayo Clinic, walking helps you stay fit and can lower your blood pressure, maintain good cholesterol levels and generally put you in a better mood.
When it comes to energy use, walking is extremely efficient. It’s believed that saving energy is the reason why our primate ancestors when from all fours to bipedalism. And walking is significantly more energy-efficient than driving.
There are times when walking won’t cut it, perhaps because your destination is a bit too far, or because you're in a rush. For these situations, consider biking instead of jumping in the car. Bikes are much cheaper to buy and maintain than a car, and they don’t take up much space. In addition, you can easily weave through traffic congestion, possibly making it a quicker alternative during rush hour.
And although we said that walking is more energy-efficient than driving, biking is even better. Some estimates say that biking is 50 times more efficient than driving, and that the bike is one of the most energy-efficient transportation mechanisms devised by humans.
Bikes also don’t take a lot of resources to manufacture compared to cars, and they don’t add pollution to the air or contribute to global warming.
Of course, many people are in situations where their daily commute is so long that it's simply impossible or impractical to walk or bike. And because walking and biking expose you to the elements of harsh weather, it means stormy days, hot summers and cold winters might make walking or biking too difficult.
But in these circumstances, the bus might still make for an attractive alternative to a car. If you're lucky enough to have a bus route near you, it’s definitely worth taking advantage of. Compared to driving alone, public transportation like buses can use less fuel per passenger and reduce the amount of traffic congestion. Many areas have lanes dedicated to buses or high occupancy vehicles, which might make taking a bus faster than driving yourself.
If you live in or around an urban area, you may have access to a mass transit rail system, such as a subway or metro train system. Although bus routes usually have more stops and accessibility, mass transit rail systems don’t have to deal with traffic congestion from the road, and can therefore be faster than the bus.
Although when compared to a bus system, mass transit rail systems have high initial costs, but cities generally find them to be a good long-term investment. Rail systems can carry more passengers per vehicle than buses and produce less noise and air pollution.
Especially popular in Europe, intercity passenger rail is an excellent alternative to driving. Like mass transit rail within urban areas, it can carry more passengers per vehicle than buses and is a very efficient mode of transportation for that reason. Compared to cars, taking the train can be significantly more energy-efficient on a per-passenger mile basis.
However, in the United States, rail freight companies own the railways themselves. This can mean that passenger trains have to take a backseat to freight trains, even making stops to let them pass. This situation makes it difficult for passenger trains to stay on schedule, and as a result they tend to be a less popular choice in the U.S.
Of course, if walking, biking and public transportation are not viable options for your commute, there are still other alternatives that can make your daily trips cheaper and more environmentally friendly. One such option is carpooling -- simply finding others who have a similar commute and offering to ride with them.
Because you can split fuel costs and cut your emissions per person, carpooling is a great way to cut down on expenses and feel good about reducing your personal environmental impact.
The challenge to carpooling is that you need to not only find others who have a similar commute but are also on a similar working schedule. Adapting your commute to a bus or train schedule is difficult enough for some people, but to rely on coordinating a ride with one or two other people can be extremely restricting.
If you're flexible and only need a car occasionally, you can avoid the hefty costs of buying and maintaining a vehicle with a process known as car sharing. Zipcar and Flexcar are both popular car-sharing companies that allow you to reserve a vehicle and borrow it. The system is perfect for short-term sharing, because fees can be on an hourly or daily basis.
The cars are usually stationed in reserved parking spots in convenient locations on streets around a city. For Zipcar, all you have to do after reserving the car is unlock it with your personal Zipcar card. When you're done with the car, you return it to the spot where you picked it up. Zipcar includes gas and insurance in the annual and hourly or daily rates.
Just because you don’t have any convenient public transportation or a schedule that lends itself to being tied down to carpooling doesn’t mean you're out of options. If you're still determined to reduce your carbon footprint, you should consider looking into an alternative fuel vehicle (AFV).
While you can maintain the convenience of owning a personal vehicle, an alternative fuel vehicle will run on fuel other than petroleum. For instance, compressed natural gas (CNG) is one such alternative fuel that produces less pollution and greenhouse gases. Renewable fuels include ethanol, which is derived from plant materials, and biodiesel, which is made from vegetable oils and animal fats. Propane burns cleanly and is available domestically in the United States, making it attractive for weaning the country from dependence on foreign oil. Finally, vehicles running on hydrogen-powered fuel cells will produce no air pollution.
Another alternative is an all-electric vehicle. Although it created some buzz in the 1990s as the wave of the future, the electric car struggled to gain traction with consumers because of its limitations -- but it may be due for a comeback soon. In fact, Chevrolet announced in 2011 that it would come out with an all-electric car called the Spark.
All-electric cars are more energy-efficient than gasoline vehicles. In fact, they don't emit any pollutants when in use. Even though electric cars may ultimately get their energy from power plants running on fossil fuels, the cars still tend to contribute fewer carbon emissions than traditional cars.
However, electric car batteries are limited and don’t last long. As battery technology improves and more charging stations are installed, electric cars may continue to become a more viable alternative to traditional cars.
Until all-electric cars are able to improve significantly in performance, you may need another, more practical option in the meantime. That’s where hybrid vehicles come into play. Examples such as the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius are popular as eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional car that need less fuel, but are still reliable and perform decently.
A hybrid vehicle has a gasoline engine, as well as an electric motor and batteries for storing power. By combining the two kinds, drivers get the best of both worlds. For instance, engines running on gas are inefficient at low speeds, so the electric motor can take over at those times, whereas the gas engine can be there when you need more power. Remember to balance the better gas mileage against the higher initial cost of the vehicle.
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