By Robin Greenler
[Robin Greenler took part in 350 Madison’s Car-Free for the Climate fundraiser, which challenged participants to make a commitment to go car-free and promote more sustainable modes of transportation for some period of time between September 15 and October 15. Here, Robin shares some thoughts about the challenge.]
- It’s about the margin. We all can improve. Start with where you are. Decreasing car use and emissions by 50%, 25% or even 5% matters. I used to live in the country and had to drive a lot. But still, I could decrease. Now, living in Madison, my baseline use is lower than I ever could have achieved while living on the farm, but it is not about comparing. It is about getting better. Start with where you are and go from there.
What cuts can I do comfortably? What cuts can I do a little less comfortably?
- We all have different contexts. Some of us are: living in the country, in a brutal climate, in an unsafe area; near public transit, grocery store, work, school, the library; without enough money for a fare, for a bike, for warm clothes; with young children, older parents, 24/7 caregiving responsibilities; are retired, are juggling two jobs, have lots of time, have little time; are able-bodied, live with physical restrictions; need to go into an area where racial profiling might keep us from being able to walk, run, ride, be, safely; it is easier, it is harder. It is about what we can do now, from where we are, acknowledging that circumstances make the equation different for each one of us.
What advantages do I have and am I using those to the fullest?
- Fake substitutes or creative strategies? It doesn’t count as decreasing my emissions if I am just trading off my trip for someone else’s. If someone else does my errand, if I order online and have it delivered, or if I just wait until after the challenge, that does not decrease my emissions—it’s just gaming the system. However, for the people who live without a car by choice or circumstance, the rules are different. All of these become strategies that might allow them to be car-free 99% of the time and still be able to function in a car-based society. For those folks, bring on those creative alternatives.
Can I start to see hidden trips in things like online ordering and non-local produce?
- Ride-sharing counts. If I ride-share, it isn’t car-free, but I just halved my emissions, or more if the car carries a bunch of us who all would have driven anyway. And that counts in real ways. Just not for this challenge.
How do I keep my eye on the real goals, not just the public and performative parts?
- Vote for the infrastructure you want. Tailpipe emissions are only the tip of the iceberg. Driving less means less use of car infrastructure. And there is a lot of it: gas stations, parking lots, roads (asphalt concrete is a high-VOC, high–energy input, petroleum-based product, and roadways impact land use, habitat, water runoff), and embodied energy in the car itself (estimated to be about 76,000 kWh), just to name some of it. Conversely, when you walk, bike, or take public transit you are voting for that infrastructure, including more and more affordable public transit, better bike lanes, more sidewalks and green spaces.
What I do is what I support. So, what am I supporting?
- If I do multiple driving errands today and therefore don’t drive tomorrow, it helps. That is not just gaming the system. Lumping errands together decreases total miles, makes me think more strategically about where I need to go and when I need to burn fossil fuels.
What would it look like to maintain a car-reduction mindset all the time?
- It takes more time. It definitely takes more time to walk, bike or take a bus, but not as much as one might think. Having any extra time is a privilege that some people simply do not have—single parents with kids, multiple jobs, constant caregiving, etc. But if I merely have a lot of things I want to do with my small amount of time, then it is about choices. What do I want to do with the time I have? Doing right by the planet and my values is pretty high up there.
As poet Mary Oliver says, “Tell me, what is it [I] plan to do with [my] one wild and precious life?”
- Healthy planet, healthy self. Alternatives to driving are generally healthy alternatives for our bodies. We move, socialize, get outside, breathe more deeply, get sun, exercise, interact, slow down. And again, it is in the margins. Even one less car ride and one short walk help in both ways.
What does my health need and how can I take one step towards that?
- What would a car-free year look like for me? Or what about a car diet—self-limiting by days, trips or miles per year? Even thinking about it makes me realize the privilege I carry—less than 10% of people in the world own cars. Some people could not be car-free for all sorts of reasons, many of which have to do with how our society is structured. And seeing this privilege make me feel self-conscious about even raising it up as a challenge. But I think it is worth thinking about.
What would a car diet teach me? Do I want to learn it?
- Kudos kudos to those who don’t drive at all, some by choice and some by necessity. I suspect many of you have gained significant insights about how you set up your life and how you spend your time, about how we are privileged and how we are impoverished. For the vast majority without cars, I am sure it makes you think much more intentionally about where you want to go and why. And you have saved us all from a lot of emissions. For those of you who are choosing to be all or almost all car-free—and I know you are out there—thank you for your witness, you are powerful role models about what is possible.