One problem with Earth Day and many conversations about climate change is that by putting the issue on a global scale, the problem can become overwhelming. You read about ever-increasing global temperatures and our still-increasing global carbon emissions, and your personal impact feels so insignificant that hopelessness sets in.
There are lots and lots of causes of climate change that are beyond my expertise and the scope of this blog. But transportation makes up a huge percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. Seattle Neighborhood Greenways posted two graphs today that help to shrink the scale of the problem to a still-large, but more manageable level.
In Seattle, 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from road transportation (“non-road transportation” emits another 22 percent). Walking and biking can’t reasonably offset the entire 40 percent, but it can easily and quickly reduce it.
For example, 41 percent of all trips made in Seattle are three miles or less. Most people are physically able to bike three miles with ease, and many of the trips are an easy walk. Half of trips in Seattle are fewer than five miles. These trips are the lowest-hanging fruit in reducing carbon-emitting transportation choices.
But climate change is a complicated reason for advocating for more biking and safer streets. On a governmental, system-wide level, climate change is one of many great reasons to institute policies that prioritize walking, biking and transit when making transportation investments.
But on a person-to-person level, the same arguments are not always as effective. When people phrase climate change as the result or fault of a person’s individual everyday choices, they draw a somewhat expected backlash. It is a bit smug to tell another person (especially a stranger) how they should (legally) live their life or that their car is the cause of global climate change.
If climate change motivates you to ride a bike, that’s great (it motivates me). I like bikes a lot and think they are a great emissions-free way to get around, but even I cringe when someone says they’re “saving the planet” by riding their bike and that people who drive are “part of the problem.”
Nobody drives a car because they hate the planet. When asked why people don’t bike, the most common answer is that they are concerned about safety. Most Seattle residents want to bike more than they do today. When streets are made safer, people discover that bikes are a convenient, fast and easy way to get around. So instead of motivating change through guilt (a method with a rather poor success rate), we should fix our communities so they are no longer engineered so disproportionately toward driving for even simple trips. When people have real transportation choices, most people will only choose cars for trips that truly need a car.
Will this solve global climate change? Of course not. But it’s a big bite out of Seattle’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and it will make our city and neighborhoods a lot safer and more vibrant in the process.