BU Today

Health & Wellness

Going Green: The Ups and Downs of an Eco-Friendly Existence

Click above on an economic sector of Massachusetts to see how many million metric tons of carbon dioxide it creates.

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Every day, several hundred thousand people drive to work in Boston. And last spring, after moving into the heart of Dorchester, I became one of them.

I’m not proud of this. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy, thousands of Massachusetts vehicles contribute to the more than 31 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that annually flood our atmosphere. So, when BU Today decided to publish a series on green living, I volunteered to take public transportation to work three days a week. During my five-week commuting experiment, I tracked the trade-offs — time, expenses, carbon footprint, and mood. Both commutes scored their victories, but in the end, the numbers favored public transportation. Still, if my five weeks on the road and the rails taught me anything, it’s that lifestyle decisions go way beyond the numbers.

As the crow flies, my home in Dorchester is just 4.5 miles from my office. My commute, however, is a 26-minute, six-mile tangle of surface streets. Add eight minutes to that because I park at a meter a quarter mile away until it’s legal to park on the street in front of my building. Driving home during rush hour takes longer, thanks to Boston’s abundance of one-way streets and no-left-turns that force me into a 43-minute, seven-mile route.

Pretty shabby. But the MBTA is worse. Our hub-and-spoke subway system forces me from Red Line to Green Line, eating up about an hour each way. Over five weeks, this led to more than seven hours of extra commuting time.

Biking to work, as 1.4 percent of Bostonians do, isn’t an option. Those cyclists are either far braver than I, or their routes aren’t crowded with buses and peppered with double-parked cars. Besides, there’s no shower in my building, and after such a harrowing ride, I know I’d reek.

So, it was either drive or take the T, and I was eager to find out how my choice impacted our planet. After all, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuel use in the United States — the most of any economic sector.

The good people at www.makemesustainable.com, an online guide to green living, say the average passenger car emits one pound of carbon dioxide per mile. But I don’t drive the average passenger car. I have a 2003 Subaru Forester, also known as a small SUV, and according to www.fueleconomy.gov, a service of the U.S. Department of Energy, my car emits 1.16 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile.

That means that over the five weeks I traveled by subway, 226 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide were pumped into the atmosphere by my car. And if makemesustainable.com is right — the average American is responsible for about 20 tons of carbon dioxide a year — I’d cut my personal contribution to global warming by nearly 10 percent if I rode the T every day.

But let’s snap out of these green dreams and get back to reality — i.e., money. A round-trip T commute is $3.40, or $10.20 over three days. The price of gas fluctuates, but a fair estimate would be $2.90 a gallon; my car gets 19 miles per gallon in the city. Thus, driving for those three days costs $5.95, which doesn’t include feeding the meter ($4.50 a week). That brings the total to $10.45 a week, just 25 cents more than the T. Still, there are other costs associated with driving. For instance, two new tires set me back $250 (the old tires had to be disposed of — another green demerit).

I was also tagged with a $25 parking ticket, which brings me to my final metric: mood. In general, while the majority of Americans get to work by car, they’re not happy about it. And the commute’s not getting any easier. Between 1982 and 2005, worsening traffic congestion increased the average annual delay for rush hour drivers from 14 to 38 hours, costing the American economy $78.2 billion a year, according to the 2007 Urban Mobility Report by the Texas Transportation Institute. The report ranks Boston as the 12th worst commute in the country.

It’s a grim scene, particularly because driving has never held much romance for me, especially in this town. My abysmal sense of direction and penchant for turn signals make me ill-suited for Boston’s streets. All things being equal, I’d rather walk or take the T.

However, you have to like people to ride the subway during rush hour. More specifically, you have to like standing really close to a lot of people for a long time. Boston has an extensive public transportation system, but it’s overbooked. Recent figures from the Boston Metropolitan Planning Commission reveal a subway system operating at about 185 percent of capacity during rush hour. Reading is a juggling act, and even space-out time is hampered by constant jostling.    

In the end, I was surprised by how quickly I had become addicted to driving to work, considering I’d only been doing it for a few months before beginning my green-living experiment. Even taking into account the aggravation of traffic, the cost of gas and vehicle upkeep, and the knowledge that I’m contributing to the warming of our planet, I craved my own space during that half hour between home and work, and I found myself greedy for the time I could save on four wheels.

Still, when September brought more vehicles and a road resurfacing project to my route, I decided to continue taking the T once or twice a week. The other day, a drive to work that began at 7:05 a.m. took me a full hour. So I’m not ready to give up my Charlie Card just yet.

To rate Chris’s efforts, click here.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

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