A Day of Saving Oil: The Potential of One City

Each day we get more news of the gusher in the Gulf, spewing polluting oil and threatening the future of marine and coastal environments and the livelihoods of the people that depend on bountiful seas. One day, however, we could focus on what would reduce our need for oil and risky off-shore drilling. What we’ll find it that we can make an impact using the tools we already have.

As an illustration, I recently calculated the amount of oil and carbon pollution the city of Pittsburgh and its metropolitan area commuters could save in one day. You can find the results in cool graphic form in the June 2010 issue of National Geographic (see Environment section) and I’ll discuss them here as well.

We can get a picture of today’s typical commuting patterns in and around Pittsburgh by looking at recent Census data for the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA. There are about 1,087,500 commuting workers in the area and the vast majority drive solo to work. Here’s the breakdown for the main modes:

Pittsburgh Commuters Today

Single driver:                        78%

Carpool:                                 9%

Public Transit:                        5%

Self-propelled (walk, bike):     4%

Telecommute:                         3%

Given this, we asked, how much oil and carbon pollution could Pittsburgh save by changing commuting habits for a day? We created a scenario in which only modest changes were allowed using existing vehicles and infrastructure. We increased transit ridership by 20 percent to fill existing empty seats. We doubled the percentage of workers that carpool and tripled the percentage of telecommuters. We assumed that people that walk or bike increased by 25 percent. Still, 61 percent of commuters drove to work alone in our lower-impact day. The final adjustment to our scenario assumed that 60 percent of those drivers used smart driving and car maintenance practices that can cut fuel use.

For example, drivers avoid jack-rabbit starts from stop signs and green lights, cruise on highways at 65 mph instead of 75 mph, keep tires properly inflated, use fuel-efficient motor oil and remove excess weight from the trunk and unused roof racks. While ‘eco-driving’ is no substitute for driving a more efficient vehicle or commuting without your car, it can cut fuel consumption when consistently applied; we assumed a 15 percent improvement in fuel economy for eco-drivers in our one day scenario.

Pittsburgh Commuters, Lower Impact Scenario

Single driver (status quo):    24%

Single driver (eco-driving):   37%

Carpool:                               18%

Public Transit:                        7%

Self-propelled (walk, bike):     5%

Telecommute:                         9%

The results of these modest changes in commuting habits is that the Pittsburgh area saves 213,700 gallons of gasoline in one day (equivalent to 5088 barrels of oil) and $587,675, assuming $2.75/gallon gasoline. Pittsburgh would also cut global warming pollution from daily commuting by 20 percent.

The oil savings in Pittsburgh could certainly be multiplied by similar changes around the country. There are 21 MSA’s bigger than that of Pittsburgh and others of similar size. If all 21 areas plus Pittsburgh saved at least 5000 barrels per day, the total 110,000 barrels per day savings could avoid the need for drilling from one or more offshore oil rigs.

A national day of more eco-friendly commuting would be a huge accomplishment but it’s just a start for weaning us from oil. Fortunately, the Obama Administration is taking steps to make our cars and trucks more efficient and running on cleaner fuels. We also need to reform national transportation funding and provide commuters with more mobility choices, such as more access to transit and pedestrian/bike-friendly routes and more livable communities. Taken together, these efforts can dramatically reduce America’s oil dependence not just for a day but for the future.