How to break the addiction to always using cars and embrace the wild array of sustainable transportation options right in front of you Special Publication: Commute Solutions
Addiction: the condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.
As Americans, we often speak of the dangers of addiction to things such as drugs, alcohol and gambling. But what about that nasty habit we’re all guilty of—our addiction to using cars?
It’s a widespread dependency. Santa Cruz County residents, in total, traveled 5,428,740 miles by vehicle every day in 2007, according to the California Department of Transportation, and it’s not showing any sign of slowing. The 2000 census reported 126,106 commuters in Santa Cruz County, but the Association of Monterey Bay Area Government projects that this figure will be 208,750 by the year 2030. That’s an additional 82,644 commuters on our roadways, and an ominous leap in our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Luckily for Santa Cruz, there are organizations, government agencies and advocates working hard to ensure that we don’t get carried away with our addiction. With AB32 requiring California to reduce GHG emissions 20 percent by 2020, and the City of Santa Cruz upping that with its “30 by 20” goal, which aims for a 30 percent reduction by 2020, based on 1990 levels, the movement finally has a deadline for real change. The city’s “30 by 20” ideal includes a 39 percent reduction in transportation emissions—critical considering that vehicle use accounts for 53 percent of our GHG emissions, according to the city’s 2009 Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory.
In order for the community to achieve this goal, locals will have to wean themselves off of vehicle dependency and hop on board with the growing number of available alternatives.
Tegan Speiser is the senior transportation planner for the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) and manager of the commission’s Commute Solutions program. The RTC formed Commute Solutions 30 years ago to serve as the go-to resource for residents looking to utilize the community’s available modes of transportation. Speiser says that although it is not the organization’s place to tell people how they should get around, they do hope to make alternative transportation as appealing and accessible as possible. Ultimately, she says that people cannot continue relying on cars if the city is going to meet the GHG reduction goals.
“People say ‘OK, well, I’m going to rely on new technologies and cleaner fuels and we’re all going to drive Priuses someday,’” she says. “But the reality is that none of those new technologies and fuel fixes will be enough to get to the 2020 goals. There has to be an element where we change our habits.”
How To Kick The Habit In 30 Days
When it comes to breaking or forming a habit, the magic number is often cited as 21 days, as popularized by Dr. Maxwell Maltz in his 1960s book “Psycho-Cybernetics.” However, the number changes depending on whom you ask—while many researchers claim it to be 30 days, others say it’s 66. Speiser happens to think anywhere between three and four weeks of dedication will do the trick.
“While science may not be able to tell us exactly how long it takes to form a new habit, it does seem that dedicated focus, repetition and reinforcement over a period of time is what matters,” she says, adding, “And you can try anything for 30 days.”
My current habit involves a 1998 Toyota Corolla, a car that, despite falling to cosmetic ruin, has actually served me quite well. It has transported me north to the foggy depths of San Francisco more times than I can remember, and down to the sand and sun of San Diego on countless voyages to my hometown. I also depend on my car to get to work, which is about three miles from my home. According to the True Cost of Driving Calculator (available at commutesolutions.org), once everything from gas and insurance to pollution and parking is taken into account, I am spending about $1.35 per mile I drive. In purely environmental terms, I am releasing one pound of CO2 per mile when I drive solo, according to sightline.org. The ’Rolla may be handy for trips around the state, but faced with this true cost of driving—monetary, environmental and otherwise—I realize I am long overdue for retiring her as my only means of getting to work.
But where to start?
“The fact is that getting out of your comfort zone is hard,” says Speiser. “It’s easier to do what you’ve always done. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable. But you don’t get the benefits of the payoff that way.”
With one month of potential habit-forming ahead of me, I set out to explore the options of sustainable transportation in Santa Cruz and hear the stories of others who have successful green commuting routines along the way.
The More the Merrier: Carpooling
Carpooling may be the simplest solution for commuters, as it requires no new infrastructure—costs and emissions are cut by 50 percent by simply putting two people in one car. As far as personal obstacles, the increasing number of ride-matching services helps to alleviate the very real concerns of finding a safe, compatible carpool partner.
Websites like carpooltoschool.com, zoompool.com, and shareshotgun.com take a hint from social networking sites like Facebook and databases like Craigslist to help hopeful carpoolers find one another. Another successful carpooling service is RideSpring, a five-year-old Santa Cruz company that provides client companies with ride-matching databases for employees. In January, RideSpring announced a 50 percent increase in alternative commuting in 2009 among their clients. In addition to providing a “carpool guide” on their own website, Santa Cruz’s Commute Solutions also provides a ride-matching service through 511.org, a mammoth Bay Area ride-matching system that covers 12 counties.
“People say, ‘OK, well, I’m going to rely on new technologies and cleaner fuels and we’re all going to drive Priuses someday. But the reality is that none of those new technologies and fuel fixes will be enough to get to the 2020 goals. There has to be an element where we change our habits.” –Tegan Speiser, SCCRTC senior transportation planner
“Although there are other private services out there, you get better quality match lists [with 511.org] because you have more people seeking partners in one location—10 counties all in one database,” says Speiser. “We promote getting everyone into this system.”
Like similar services, Commute Solutions offers to help interested persons know the right questions to ask potential matches.
“It’s a lot like blind dating,” carpooler Eric Fraim tells me. “It might not work out but in our case it did.”
Fraim, a satellite data analyst for NASA Ames, found his carpool partner of two years through Commute Solutions and 511.org. Faced with safety and financial concerns, Fraim was looking to stop riding his motorcycle from Santa Cruz to Mountain View for work five days a week. He entered the carpooling database with the help of Commute Solutions, but because of a long commute and early schedule—he leaves Santa Cruz around 5 a.m.—he had to wait several months before the system found him a match. As advised by Commute Solutions, Fraim asked the questions that mattered to him—Do you smoke in your car? What radio stations do you listen to? How flexible is your schedule?—before testing the pairing.
“If he was a jerk or drove too crazy I would’ve said ‘sorry’ and tried again,” he says. “But we’re lucky. We aren’t perfect but we’re close to it.
“I had a lot of hesitation initially but once I started doing it, I realized how easy it was,” he continues. “I’d suggest everyone give it a try, at least a couple of times, because it’s really worth it.”
511.org’s RideMatch service allows you to enter your schedule, flexibility and preferences, and to choose an origin and destination, and a radius around each signifying how far you are willing to go to meet your partner. It also offers help with the new craze in long-distance commuting: vanpooling, in which seven to 15 commuters ride in vans owned by one of the vanpoolers or leased from a vanpool company to get from, say, Santa Cruz to Silicon Valley. The service also offers “bike buddy” matching.
My route to work is substantially shorter than Fraim’s—about three miles one way instead of 40—and I was disappointed to see the words “No Matches Found” staring back at me after I completed the online form.
I shared this news with Speiser. “You may have a short commute, and maybe carpooling isn’t ultimate for you, but the system is very dynamic,” Speiser offers. “People are coming in to it daily, so you should check back on a regular basis.”
As with Fraim, perhaps it will take a while before my perfect match—or a match at all—finds me through Commute Solutions. Until then, there are plenty of modes to try that don’t involve a car at all.
With Your Own Two Feet: Biking and Walking
As a reporter, there are some days when a bike just won’t do—I can be in Watsonville in the morning, our downtown offices midday, and someplace else that afternoon. However, I happily took advantage of gearing up and getting on my cheap red road bike on the days when I knew I’d be sticking around town. I was surprised to discover that it actually took me less time to get home on my bike than it does to wait in rush hour traffic, and was starting to think that bicycling might be my new favorite way to mobilize—and then the January storm struck. Mother Nature had thwarted my sustainability efforts.
Piet Canin, program director of Ecology Action’s Transportation Group, assured me that the key to a successful biking habit—or one that utilizes any form of alternative transportation—is to be flexible.
“Maybe you’re not going to bike through the heavy rain storms, but if you just bike when it’s nice weather, that’s going to be 85 to 95 percent of the time,” he says. “Making incremental changes is what it is all about.”
“I had a lot of hesitation [about carpooling] initially but once I started doing it, I realized how easy it was. I’d suggest everyone give it a try, at least a couple
of times, because it’s really worth it.” -Eric Fraim, Santa Cruz carpooler
Weather is a factor for some, but Canin says a busy schedule is the biggest deterrent for most riders. “Everyone has an extremely busy life, some have layers upon layers of busyness—if your kid’s school is on the Westside, their soccer practice is on the Eastside, and you work on 41st Avenue, you are beyond the possibility of using a bike to do all those things,” he says. However, he adds, even if these busy bees only ride a bike to work one day a week, “they reduce their footprint by 20 percent.”
Upper Westside resident Christi Voenell manages to bike almost everywhere despite a busy schedule that includes working downtown and raising her 7-year-old son. Voenell, a 2009 Santa Cruz Clean Air Month prize-winner, biked to work during the storm (equipped with great rain gear), but says that “each day is a process and a decision.” Now that her son is old enough to bike with her, her family drives even less. In addition to saving money, reducing her environmental impact and getting exercise, Voenell says she bikes simply because she enjoys it.
“My dad used to meditate in the morning and the evening,” she says. “He was a single parent of two girls. I feel like in some ways when I have that 20 minutes of biking to or home from work, I have that time to get ready or unwind. It’s my time to be in my body and out of my head.”
“The fact is that getting out of your comfort zone is hard. It’s easier to do what you’ve always done. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable. But you don’t get the benefits of the payoff that way.”
According to Canin, the number of cyclists like Voenell in Santa Cruz County has boomed over the years and continues to grow. He cites the American Community Survey, an interim to the U.S. Census, which reports that 9.3 percent of Santa Cruz residents who commute do so by bike. “In 2000, we were at 4 percent,” says Canin, adding that Ecology Action’s popular Bike To Work week has experienced a 50 percent increase in participation since then.
Despite increasing popularity, safety remains a major concern for Santa Cruz cyclists and the No. 1 hesitation amongst those who choose not to bike, according to transportation studies. Ecology Action and People Power, a local sustainable transportation advocacy group, are two of the local groups dedicated to bicycle safety education and providing resources like route mapping. Both organizations also continue to encourage local government to increase the amount of bike lanes, racks, signage and routes, and to move forward with projects like the Arana Gulch Bike Path, which is nearing fruition, the King Street Bike Boulevard, which will be considered later this year, and construction of a bike pathway along the county’s 32-mile rail corridor, which the RTC is currently planning to purchase with grant monies.
People Power Director Micah Posner can be seen riding his bike most places, but he also promotes walking whenever possible—like bicycling, it eliminates your transportation emissions. “That is what is so strange about Americans,” he says, “it only takes about 20 minutes to walk a mile, but most of us would drive that distance.” However, he says that he has seen the number of pedestrians in Santa Cruz flourish—although it is harder to quantify than the number of bicyclists, for example, because “there are no counts on pedestrians.” Like with cycling, he believes the city could make improvements that would further increase the number of walkers. “The city could help by doing a whole host of minor things, like protect the crosswalks better, different curb systems, and identified pedestrian pathways,” he says, adding that improving lighting and sidewalks in places like Lower Pacific Avenue would help to boost foot traffic.
Faced with raging winds and pounding rain, I put a hold on biking and walking and opted for a warmer, drier means of public transit until the weather improved.
The Gift of Time: Busing
Vice President Joe Biden wrote an article for the January-February issue of Arrive magazine titled “Why America Needs Trains,” in which he shared his experience riding the train from his home in Delaware to his capitol workplace everyday—more than 7,000 round trips since he became a senator in 1972.
“From Wilmington to Baltimore I’d read the papers and make phone calls,” he writes. “At Baltimore, I’d start preparing for that day’s hearings, amending my opening statement or going through the list of witnesses. And by the time I arrived in D.C., I’d be ready to jump right in.”
Say what you will about Biden, he has a point: a morning commute, whether it is just across town or out-of-state, can be better spent than being alone, mindlessly steering your way through traffic.
Although riding the train is not an option in Santa Cruz (yet!), the same advantage—the benefit of reclaiming your time—can be found for $1.50 a ride (or $4.50 a day, $22 for five days, or $50 a month) on any one of the Santa Cruz Metro’s 39 fixed bus routes.
“People often choose to drive their car because of assumed convenience—because it is faster and easier,” says Speiser. “But there is something to say for spending your morning commute not behind the wheel.”
“Making incremental changes is what it is all about.” –Piet Canin, director of Ecology Action’s Transportation Group
Driving to work takes me anywhere from six to 10 minutes. Riding the bus, I came to learn, takes 17 minutes, not including the time it takes to walk to the bus stop. However, the few minutes of reading it allows, plus the unbeatable people watching, proved worthy of the slightly extended length.
For Justin Reyes, a Santa Cruz resident and third-year San Jose State University student, riding the bus is even more worthwhile: two days a week, Reyes pays $4 each way to ride the Hwy 17 Express from downtown Santa Cruz to the library at SJSU, bypassing the several hundred dollar school parking pass and gas costs. He spends his time on the Hwy 17 Express, which now offers free Wi-Fi Internet, doing schoolwork.
“It’s pretty relaxing not having to worry about driving over the hill,” says Reyes. “Sitting in traffic is frustrating enough, now I can sit in traffic and do homework. That’s three hours of studying I don’t have to do when I get home.”
The environmental benefits of riding the bus are also a bonus. Compared to the one pound of CO2 produced for every mile a person drives alone, .2 pounds of CO2 are produced for every person who is on a bus that is three-fourths of the way full, according to sightline.org.
The Last Hurdles
Even after kicking a car habit, there are some undeniable uncertainties that a green commuter faces whether they carpool, ride the bus, bike, or walk: What if your child gets sick at school and you have to pick him or her up? What if you are hurt at work, or encounter some other medical or family emergency? Not having a personal car handy for this type of situation is a major roadblock preventing people from using alternative transportation.
“To eliminate the hurdles that prevent people from using sustainable modes of transportation,” in Canin’s words, Ecology Action offers programs that rid of these uncertainties.
Karena Pushnik, senior transportation planner for the RTC, and her coworkers are covered by Ecology Action’s Transportation Member Services insurance program. Employers, in her case the county, pay an annual fee of $5 per employee to provide each of them with three main services: 0 percent interest bicycle loans, discounted METRO passes and, most assuring, an emergency ride home on days when they use alternative transportation (in the form of taxi vouchers).
“I have teenagers, so if I ride my bike and something happens—my kid breaks his arm or whatever—I need to know that I can get there fast,” Pushnik says. “Having that insurance that I can get somewhere if I need to is part of the reason I feel like I can ride my bike to work at all. It’s worth it just knowing it’s there, but I hope I never have to use it.”
According to the True Cost of Driving Calculator (available at commutesolutions.org), once everything from gas and insurance to pollution and parking is taken into account, I am spending about $1.35 per mile I drive. In purely environmental terms, I am releasing one pound of CO2 per mile when I drive solo, according to sightline.org.
According to Canin, the service covers about 7,000 local employees at 15 companies, including major employers like UC Santa Cruz and the City and County of Santa Cruz, as well as many smaller private businesses.
Ecology Action also offers non-employer-based emergency ride home insurance through their RideSurance program, in which individuals committed to using alternative transportation at least one day a week pay $24 a year for four emergency rides home or $100 worth of taxi rides.
Also hoping to make alternative transportation as easy and alluring as possible, Commute Solutions is launching Cash for Carpools, a carpool incentive program, later this month. “The target audience is people who are currently driving alone,” says Speiser. “If they make a commitment and carpool for 12 out of 30 days in a month (if they work part time it’d be pro rated) and keep a log, they automatically get $25 for each person in the carpool per month in form of a gas card, and will also be entered in a twice-a-year drawing for a year’s worth of gas.”
The RTC is currently doing a minor update to their Transportation Planning Document and preparing to do a major revise in 2012. Pushnik and Speiser hope that as Santa Cruz moves into the future of transportation, the focus will not be on how many cars can fit on our roads, but how many people. They encourage residents to speak up about what more they need to make green transportation a realistic routine.
“This is the time when we look at what is needed,” says Pushnik. “What is it that you need to get you to bicycle? A new bicycle lane somewhere? Now is the time for people to tell us what transportation improvements they need out there to make those alternatives more attractive.”
Changing a habit can seem daunting—as Speiser says, it requires stepping out of your comfort zone. But, through my 30 day commuting experiment, I learned that it isn’t about overhauling your lifestyle or believing you can do everything at once. It is about doing what you can, and that is enough. “The point is that everyone can do something,” says Speiser. “Even if you don’t think carpooling is for you, or riding the bus is not for you, at least for now, it’s great to have those choices.”
I still turn to the ’Rolla in times of need, but I’m comfortable hopping on my bike when the sun is out, or taking the bus when I can. And I’m still waiting on the day when 511.org will alert me of my match-made-in-heaven. As Laina Shulman, author and co-founder of pure-health.com, says, “Creating a new habit is not easy, unless the reasons for doing so are important … What I know for certain is that when the whys are big enough, the hows take care of themselves.”
When driving is inevitable, there are plenty of green driving tips to reduce your GHG emissions and save money. According to fueleconomy.gov, each 1psi below specified pressure reduces mileage by .4 to .5 percent—so keep those tires full! Several local tire shops, like Lloyd’s Tires on River Street, now offer nitrogen fills for tires, which will help maintain tire pressure for longer. Nitrogen diffuses through the tire casing much more slowly than oxygen, and also helps tires run cooler, thereby increasing tread life.
Bill Le Bon, co-owner of the Green Station on Ocean Street, says that while their business promotes biking and walking as primary modes of transportation, they provide alternatives for when those means aren’t options. “If those don’t work, there are other options,” he says. “You can use biodiesel, or use an electric car or scooter. We are trying to provide options to help people break their fossil fuel addiction.” The Green Station sells recycled B99 biodiesel, made from grease waste from local restuarants, as well as electric ZENN cars, electric bikes and electric scooters.
93,085: number of Cruzans commuting within Santa Cruz daily (2000 Census)