Climate 411

Stimulus Plan? Taking Transit can save you $10,000

Take transit and save money! Photo by Flickr user Steve Wampler.

Take transit and save money! Photo by Flickr user Steve Wampler.

What would you do if you were suddenly given $10,000?

I've been ruminating that question since last week's release of APTA’s monthly "The Transit Savings Report." The report figures that a transit rider living in Los Angeles could save $10,052 a year by avoiding the costs of parking, fuel, insurance and general auto operations. In New York, the annual savings amount to $13,765. Average savings are at $9,240.

I like round numbers, so I'd settle for just $10,000 in savings. I asked some of my co-workers how they'd spend the money. One responsible respondent said she'd pay off student loans or put the money toward a down payment on a house, and another chimed in about those student loans. One said he'd buy a bicycle (my favorite notion) and put the rest into the stock market. Two said they'd devote at least a portion of the money to travel and the other half to aid Haiti—you can see why I regard my co-workers as among the kindest folks on the planet.

One of the thriftiest among the group had a list of seven options, including paying those student loans (a common obligation around here), traveling, visiting family, and buying new clothes. One would pay a year's worth of rent, buy a season pass at Squaw Valley, and spend what's left on exotic—and presumably low-budget—travel. Another would fix his roof. Maybe he would have had a different answer if it wasn't raining.

There's a trend here. Saving money by riding transit can stimulate the economy. A car that spends most of its time parked (and eating fuel when it’s rolling), can really strain a personal budget. It can prevent us from doing what we think is most important.

Not everyone has access to good transit, and lately, with transit cuts spreading across the country, access to good transit is in danger. But imagine what a difference it would make if the Senate passed a jobs bill that put a lot of new money into keeping buses and light rail running, and bus and rail drivers employed? Jobs would be saved; transit riders could continue to depend on transit; people could think about spending on things other than parking and fuel. They could replenish student loan banks, jumpstart the housing market, and help the people of an island nation that's been devastated by an earthquake.

They could do all these things and go about their everyday travel in a way that reduces air pollution from transportation. Under perfect conditions, a full conventional bus could displace 30 to 40 carbon-fueled car trips.

The Senate hasn't released its version of the jobs bill yet, but the House version falls short of ideal in the transportation funding area. It provides about $6 billion to urban transit, and of that, only 10 percent, or about $600 million, is available for operations. I say only because $600 million is less than one year's worth of operations funding cut by the state legislature and governor in California during the last few years of disappointing budget deals. That's just one state.

If Congress wants to save jobs, it needs to give a bigger share of the transportation pie to transit and allow more of it to be spent keeping transit drivers at work. Then the rest of us can start putting our annual transportation savings to work and get the economy rolling again, even as we reduce pollution.

Posted in News / Comments are closed

Parking Cash-Outs: Better than Free Parking

A recent dinner guest revealed that he drives eight blocks to work each day, rain or shine. That's eight short blocks. The guy is a healthy 20-something. Some days it takes him more time to drive than it would take him to walk.

How can we avoid the meter and be greener?

How can we avoid the meter and be greener?

So why does he drive no matter what? He loves free parking.

See, at work his employer pays for his parking. If he kept his car at home during the day, he'd have to pay $100 a month to park in the lot linked to his apartment, or even more to park at another lot. Instead, every evening he drives back home, parks near his apartment complex after city street parking restrictions have expired, and wakes up the next morning to drive eight blocks to park for free at work.

Except that it isn't really free. The rest of us pick up part of the costs of his parking habit–costs like health–threatening air pollution, earth-damaging greenhouse gas emissions, and road wear and tear.

That's just a short list of parking costs. UCLA Professor Don Shoup has brilliantly established that parking costs everyone and that parking costs are hidden in nearly everything, from land values to groceries. He has also established that there are smart solutions, and most revolve around revealing the real costs of parking and pricing parking so as not to make everyone else pay for one driver's decision to drive and park.

One of those solutions is parking cash-out. The idea is that an employer who wants to provide a perk to employees would provide a choice, instead of giving everyone a parking space. The choice would be between the parking spot or the cash. Employees could then use the cash to leave the car at home and spend the money on transit, a new bike helmet, or really comfortable walking shoes. The cash-out is counted as income, but there are some federal tax deductions for cash-out spent on transit or vanpools, and in some cases certain state tax deductions, too.

Parking cash-out programs work where they're offered. Statistics range, depending on the location's alternate transportation options, from a few percent to nearly 40 percent of employees who opt for the cash when it's offered. As a result, the employer gets happier employees and reduces the number of parking spaces needed in the lease. Everyone gets a bit cleaner air and less traffic.

Cash-out isn't offered as much as common sense would suggest this win-win might be. In the rare case where cash-out is required, it hasn't always been enforced. Earlier this year, Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council co-sponsored successful legislation in California that gave certain local governments the option of enforcing the state's parking cash-out law.

There's no need to wait for a law to come to your community. Many employers around the country have voluntarily initiated their own parking cash-out programs. If yours hasn't, ask about it.

Cash-out programs move us all closer to one important goal: giving commuters more choice even as they reduce their environmental impact.

Posted in Cars and Pollution / Comments are closed

Auto Labels: Grades Make Consumer Sense

Courtesy of EPA

EPA Label Option 1

This week, U.S. EPA proposed something that could change the way consumers spend car-buying dollars—labels that make sense.

For 30 years, the federal government has required new cars and light trucks on sales lots to carry labels that show consumers the miles-per-gallon performance of that particular car or truck model. These labels have been somewhat helpful, but they don’t provide as much information as this consumer, at least, would like.

Now the agency is preparing to improve the label performance. It has unveiled two proposed approaches. Both of the new labels would tell consumers how the vehicle stacks up against others for greenhouse gas emissions and other tailpipe pollution. Both of the proposed labels also report how much it costs to fuel the vehicle each year. Only one of the labels—dubbed Label Option 1 by EPA—provides two other very important pieces of information: It also tells how much a consumer will save in fuel costs over five years, and it provides a letter grade that reflects how the vehicle performs on tailpipe emissions and efficiency.

Think about how this grading system could affect you. You could shop for a car without bringing along back issues of Consumer Reports or reams of computer printouts about auto efficiency comparisons. You could quickly scan the field and go for the A and B cars and avoid the D vehicles that spew more pollution and will cost more to fuel.  If you do happen to want a bit more information than is available on the label, EPA has taken care of that too.  Each label contains a QR code that allows many smart phones to access a web page where buyers can compare cars and personalize estimates based on their own driving habits. Department of Energy also provides some really helpful information on its fuel economy website, fueleconomy.gov.

Great idea? We think so. But the auto industry is already complaining about the grading system, trying to compare it to childhood memories of failing or passing.

Courtesy of EPA

EPA Label Option 2

We think of this system as being more comparable to the grading system health departments have used for restaurants for years. You’ve probably noticed the placards. They protect diners from unhealthy food preparation practices and encourage high performing restaurateurs to keep up the good work.

Grades mean something. They’re easy to read and understand. They can steer you quickly toward a smarter car purchase. They are, in short, consumer friendly.

Some states already require cars and light trucks to carry information about pollution levels on their sales labels. EPA’s proposal significantly improves on that model.

You have a chance to weigh in on all of this. EPA is inviting everyone—not just policy wonks and auto industry representatives—to voice an opinion about the labels. The agency needs to hear from consumers who care about good value and a clean environment. The agency will be taking comments for 60 days, which means you need to submit your thoughts by the end of October.

The final version of the new label will be adopted by the end of the year, and the new label will appear on new cars and light trucks beginning in the 2012 model year.

Posted in Cars and Pollution / Comments are closed