Taking the Train (or Bus), With Our Kids, to Energy Independence

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Riding the rails with a kid is just plain fun. I love it when my daughter joins me on my commute to work, or even better when we go downtown to see a museum with friends. Suddenly the journey becomes a memorable part of the whole experience, as I get peppered with questions about the various stops, the other passengers and whatever she happens to be reading at the moment. In fact, even when I’m alone I get more out of the trip, since I can read at leisure without putting lives in danger.

But driving? I just write that off. That time is – other than the occasionally memorable audiobook, conversation or song on the radio – essentially wasted. And talking with my daughter may in fact be dangerous, since while an adult passenger will perceive challenges in traffic and cooperate with rather than distract the driver there’s no guarantee that a child will do so (see study comparing cell phone and passenger distractions here and an article about distracted parents specifically here).

Today, in the wake of Father’s Day, is a great time to try whatever transit options you have available to you. It’s the American Public Transportation Association’s annual Dump the Pump day, when people in cities across the country make a point of reducing their fuel consumption by opting to ride rather than drive.

Now is the time to join the crowds flocking to public transportation. Here are the trend lines: Since 1995 public transit ridership is up 37.2 percent, outpacing population growth, which is up 20.3 percent, and vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which is up 22.7 percent. Granted, rates are relative. Population and VMT baseline numbers are much higher than public transit ridership. But with good policy and personal choices, we can drive those numbers further in the right direction. And in fact, looking at a shorter time frame we see that VMT is no longer a curve – it’s flat (for a great set of infographics about what’s driving VMT growth down, click here).

This is great news for our energy future. If you ride rail, based on average energy consumption across the country (and there’s a lot of variation; clean energy sourcing and efficient vehicles get you better results) you slash your energy use in half compared to driving alone. And if more of us take transit, figures like that one become even more impressive thanks to the “load factor” in the savings equation. It’s simple math. If 20 not 10 of us are on a rail car, the savings per passenger soar.

And unlike coal energy, the fossils we displace by taking transit – liquid fuels refined from crude oil – exacerbate our national security. Oil dependence is dropping thanks to remarkable boosts in vehicle efficiency standards and higher domestic oil production. This helps to make us less vulnerable. But – as events in Iraq most recently illustrate – we are still hit by price swings in the global market place due to events out of our control. One way to get more control over our energy destiny is to increase mobility choice, including more public transportation.

That way, when gasoline prices change at the pump, we can keep our gasoline costs down by opting to take the train or bus instead of driving. What do I care if the price of gas jumps to 4, 5 or more bucks if it costs me less because I can ride instead of driving in traffic?

So today let’s take our daughters and sons on a train or bus ride, making the journey fun, helping reduce our oil dependence, and saving some hard-earned dollars. And then maybe take some of that money and invest it in something worthwhile. My daughter’s suggested substitute? Italian ices. Sounds pretty good to me.