It's not easy being green

bartLast week the family visited the California Academy of Sciences. Charged with a pious sense of environmentalism, we decided to take public transit. We drove to the nearest train station at Union City and purchased tickets to the city. It being Sunday, trains were not frequent and there were no direct trains to our destination, so we hung around on the platform for a while before the BART train rolled in. We changed trains at Bayfair and eventually reached Glenn Park station. At Glenn Park, we waited a while for the bus to the Golden Gate Park and reached our destination 2 hours and 15 minutes from the time we started from home. A few hours later, we did the journey in reverse. Total travel time: 4 hours, 30 minutes. Total cost: $50( train and bus tickets).

Yesterday, we visited the city again, opting for the King Tut exhibit at the De Young Museum, which is located right across the Cal. Academy of Sciences. This time we took the car, printing out directions to the complex maze that is the Golden Gate Park. We left at almost exactly the same time as last week and arrived at our destination in 45 minutes, despite one wrong turn inside the park. It was early enough to find parking right  below the museum. In the afternoon we drove back, losing our way one more time, and reached home in about an hour and 15 minutes. Total travel time: 2 hours. Total cost: $ 20 ( parking and gas).

You might argue that there is a hidden environmental cost in the second option, in terms of pollution and use of scarce resources, and not factoring that in is unfairly tilting the balance in its favor. But to the average user, the obvious advantages are what count. The impact on the pocketbook and one’s time is real and immediate, while the environmental damage is in the abstract, so it is not surprising when consumers make unfriendly choices. Even an informed consumer will hesitate to work against his immediate self-interest; I know taking the train will not be the first choice for me when I plan trips to the city during non-peak travel times.

In the Bay Area, public transit is simply not convenient enough. Even if we were willing to pay more so that we may preserve the environment, the cost in time is simply unacceptable. Our lives are busier and more scheduled than ever, and no parent will consciously choose to drag impatient kids around a  minute longer than he/she has to. So there are obvious improvements to be made here.

The other is to assign a cost of the environmental impact to the driving option. Low gas prices drive our choices in the wrong direction. They deter innovation and investment in mass transit and do not reflect the destructive consequences of fossil fuel use. Had gas been at 6 dollars a gallon, the cost of driving to the city would have jumped to 37 dollars, a bit closer to the cost of mass transit. Additionally, some of that gas revenue could have been used to make improvements in public transit, perhaps bringing costs and travel time down.

The point is that it is unreasonable to expect people to make good choices about the environment when it is so hard to be green. Make the decisions more realistic and practical and the message of conservation is more likely to get embedded in the public consciousness.

Picture by Saikofish.

One thought on “It's not easy being green

  1. Nanda

    Good simple comparison on the difficulty of using mass transit.
    The huge discrepancy in time is not always true and depends a lot on pt A and pt b. When I lived in Foster city (1995 – 2004), it was extremely convenient time-wise to take cal-train to Giants games. Even then, I think cost wise car would work out cheaper for > 3 people.
    I completely agree with your second to last paragraph. The cost of gas should reflect the true price. I argue for the same points whenever I get into a debate on mass-transit vs private car. Unfortunately, as is obvious in every country, the automobile lobby is too powerful to let a proper cess put on gas. There is also the fear that it will slow down th economy.
    Until the advantages tilt in its favor, only truly conscientious folks will take the extra trouble to use mass-transit. 
      

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