Drive Less for Cleaner Air

Family in a car

Sometimes before you can start new habits that are good for you, good for your children, and good for the environment, you have to let go of old habits to make room. During January we had a whole month of Save Green habits.

We don’t think too much about habits. That is what makes them habits. Becoming more conscious of our choices wakes us up to new possibilities. Maybe some of our habits are good for us, like running up and down the stairs. Maybe some of our habits are not so good for us or our children.

On my mind often is air pollution and the clear health effects that result from our collective bad habits. Air pollution is on my mind as every person in my family has trouble breathing or speaking, gets red eyes, or has other not-so-subtle problems when our air pollution is at its worst. Not all of the effects are so obvious, though. When you find out not only that air pollution can cause breathing problems for children, such as increased infections for newborn babies exposed to air pollution, but that air pollution harms cognition for all of us, causing particular problems in the growing brain, it becomes more urgent to address our role in creating that air pollution.

We know where air pollution comes from: industrial sources, energy, and transportation. According to the U.S. EPA, vehicles on the road contribute 25% of air pollution. A lot of this is industrial transportation, but we make some contribution to that air pollution every time we drive. And, air pollution may start local, but as it flows through the airshed, it becomes the problem of everyone.

The good news is, we can easily change some of our ingrained driving habits as we put ourselves on the on-ramp to bigger changes.

As my children are well into the age of activities, I think about driving habits a lot. As I’ve worked on air pollution issues, I’ve heard some very articulate citizens ask to be given accurate information but not to be pressured through guilt. Yes, we should make big changes, like planning and development that doesn’t make us so dependent on individual vehicles, and I hope we will make those changes. If you want to make a small change today, try these suggestions. If you make another change tomorrow and the day after that and you find out it wasn’t so difficult, maybe you will be ready to make bigger changes that have bigger impacts. It all adds up.

Obviously, if you are fortunate enough to live in area with great public transportation, your choice to leave the car behind will be a lot easier. If you can walk or ride bikes, even better. If you haven’t yet figured out how to leave the car behind, try a few of these ideas to change your overall air impact. The first step in change is reducing the need. There is always something you can do.

  • Trip chain. Combine your trips out. Map out the route that will mean fewer stops, less time waiting at lights, less stop-and-go driving, and fewer cold starts. The bonus is: you will use your time more efficiently this way, too.
  • Idling. Don’t idle more than 10-30 seconds. Experts disagree on when it is best to turn the car off and back on, but they don’t disagree that you shouldn’t sit in a car with the engine running. Avoiding the drive-through window at the bank or for food may requires some planning. If you have a car full of kids and dog, you can probably just turn your engine off while you do business at the bank. You should not, however, turn off your engine while at a traffic light. The risks in that situation are greater than the benefits.
  • Tune up. A well-maintained car pollutes less than a poorly maintained car. Regularly change air filter, oil, and fluids. Check that the tires are at proper pressure. It also costs less to keep a car in good shape than to fix it after major breakdowns.
  • Fill up cool. On warm days, don’t fill your gas tank midday. When fuel expands and evaporates in the heat, it contributes to air pollution. This may take some planning ahead to be sure that you fill the tank in the evening or early morning.

Also check with local clean air advocates to see if there is anything you can do that is specific to your area. See Clean Air in Canada or Air Now in the U.S. for more tips to reduce your family’s contribution to air pollution.

Little things we can change do add up when many of us make the change.

Throughout March we will offer getting started guides. This is a week of Letting Go of Old Habits.

Image © Arne9001 |

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