Smarter Living: Energy

Smarter Living will help you be the biggest loser on your block (and we mean this in the best way possible): Over the course of our "CO2 Smackdown" series, we'll help you drop 10 tons of heat-trapping pollutants. In Step Four, we provide a strategy to get out of the car and commute to work by foot, bicycle, bus or other means.

On average, we drive 12.1 miles to work every day and the vast majority of us do this alone. Every gallon of gas consumed emits more than 25 pounds of heat-trapping pollutants, making transportation the next biggest planet warmer after energy production. And this isn’t to mention sulfur dioxide and other unhealthy elements in smog. Appallingly, only 12 percent of the energy from gas actually is used to move the car forward—the rest is lost to idling and other inefficiencies.


Changing driving habits can be challenging, not just because it can require finding new options for travel, but because it can also mean altering your morning schedule to match the transportation options available. Yet finding the right transportation options can free up your morning in ways that remain invisible from within the confines of your car.

1) Measure the length of your commute
Finding out just how long your commute is will help you determine whether it's feasible to walk, ride a bicycle, carpool or bus to work a regular basis. It's important to measure the distance and not just consider the time it takes for the drive since other transportation options such as bicycling may actually be quicker if traffic congestion is a constant problem.

2) Investigate transportation options in your area

a) Check bus routes, trains, walking paths and bicycle routes. It's best to allow yourself more than one option for commuting given inclement weather or the chance of missing an infrequent bus.

b) Check your city’s website for bus and train schedules. You can find public transportation directions and travel times for some cities at and Google maps provides directions for bicycling that follow public bike routes, as well as public transport and walking routes. Urge your city to convert its bus fleet to hybrid or compressed natural gas since these provide much greater clean air benefits and reductions in heat-trapping pollutants than diesel buses.

c) Find out if your bus or train stations provide bicycle shelters that will allow you to ride to the nearest station and leave your bike in a secure area during the workday.

d) Check your workplace for an indoor bicycle lock up. If none exists, talk with your employer about providing one.

e) See if your employer has a carpooling program. If not, discuss the possibility with your human resources officer and canvass fellow employees about carpooling. If you can’t join a carpool at work, there are many sites working to connect riders, such as and

3) Try each of the options available
Over the next couple of weeks, take the bus, ride your bike or any other combination of options. You don't need to do this every day, but finding out which will work best for you before you settle on any single mode of travel is critical to changing your commute permanently. If you bike, be sure to do so safely following these guidelines. What you may find, is that you prefer to walk on mornings with a little more leisure time available and bicycle, carpool or take public transport on other days.

4) Switch modes as needed.
Don’t let a single bad experience on the bus send you back into your car, but by the same token there’s no reason to get in a rut on your route to work. Ride your bike on a nice days and explore your city a bit; take the bus or carpool when it rains.


Annual savings (when compared to driving a car and assuming the average 24.2 mile r/t commute):

1,385 pounds/year for every weekday you bicycle to work. If you do so every day of the week for 50 weeks in the year, you'll save 6,925 pounds—that's 3.46 tons!

1,264 pounds/year for every weekday you ride to work on a peak-occupancy commuter rail train such as the New York's Metro-North Railroad; if you do so every day of the week for 50 weeks in the year, you'll save 6,320 pounds or 3.16 tons.

1,262 pounds/year for every weekday you ride to work on a peak-occupancy heavy rail train such as the New York City subway or San Francisco's BART; if you do so every day of the week for 50 weeks in the year, you'll save 6,310 pounds or 3.16 tons.

1,240 pounds/year for every weekday you ride to work in a full van pool; if you do so every day of the week for 50 weeks in the year, you'll save 6,200 pounds or 3.1 tons.

1,228 pounds/year for every weekday you take a peak-occupancy light rail train to work; if you do so every day of the week for 50 weeks in the year, you'll save 6,140 pounds or 3 tons.

1,167 pounds/year for every weekday you take a peak-occupancy bus to work; if you do so every day of the week for 50 weeks in the year, you'll save 5,835 pounds or 2.9 tons.

749 pounds/year for every weekday you carpool to work with one other driver (of course, the more drivers, you add the fewer trips each of you will make in your own cars). Carpooling with one other driver every day of the week for a year, will save you 3,745 pounds, or 1.9 tons.

How to Calculate Your Commute's Emissions

To determine more precisely how much CO2 your commute produces annually, run the numbers. The formula is:

Round trip commute (in miles) ÷ Your Car's MPG X 5 days/week X 50 weeks/year X 25.3 lbs. CO2/gallon = Pounds CO2 emitted per year

For example, if your commute is 40 miles roundtrip, and your car gets 19 MPG, the calculation is:

40 miles ÷ 19 miles/gallon X 5 X 50 X 25.3 lbs CO2/gal = 13,316 lbs CO2 (or 6.7 tons)

You may then reduce the numbers of days per week in the calculation to take into account your shift to bicycling, carpooling or riding the bus (and if you happen to have a long vacation in the work year, you can knock some weeks off for that too). For the number of pounds of CO2/passenger mile for public transportation, see the U.S. Department of Transport's document "Public Transportation's Role in Responding to Climate Change."

As little as $50 for a used bicycle and about $450 for a new bicycle

Approx. $2.50/day for public transportation

Gas costs for carpooling


If you don't have a bicycle, you don't need a top-of-the-line model. Check out used options to get started, then put aside the money you're saving on gas to buy the bike you want. You can always resell the older bike.

Check if your employer provides incentives to ride public transportation, such as subsidized monthly passes.


Telecommute all (or some) of the work week.
While this may not be feasible, if you can free up tight office space while being productive at home, your employer might consider the option—and may even take sympathy when confronted with the distance you drive on a weekly basis.

last revised 4/15/2011

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on