Reduce the amount you drive and win.... free gas?

Shuttle Challenge/Screen capture

It is counterintuitive. One would think that giving gas away would encourage people to drive more. But in a worthwhile Canadian initiative, the Shuttle Challenge is doing just that.

It is actually a pretty sophisticated program. When you sign up, they send you a data logger device that plugs into your car's OBDII port (onboard diagnostics port that has been in every car built since 1996) and between that data and GPS, calculates your mileage and fuel consumption. The Shuttle Challenge people note what we have been saying on TreeHugger for years:

Arguably, your biggest contribution to the warming of the planet is the use of your car and one of your greatest stresses is your commute.

Shuttle Challenge/Screen capture

The Shuttle Challenge essentially pays you to cut your consumption; Get out of your car and take transit, ride a bike, carpool, whatever, reduce your gas consumption by 10% and they will pay you for it, with gasoline yet. My first reaction was not only that this was counterintuitive but that it was nuts. Corey Diamond of Summerhill Impact, the group behind the Shuttle Challenge, had similar reservations and explains:

I have to be honest – it still sounds crazy to me too. I’ve been asking myself this question for months – "Should an environmental organization be giving away free gas to reward people for driving less and driving better?" Intuitively, the answer should be "no". This is going too far. This is a desperate plea to bribe the public to do the right thing.

But he counters with what he calls 3 hard core facts, each of which is open to argument:

Canadians simply cannot get out of their cars.
...the conventional Canadian lifestyle is just not conducive to simply getting rid of cars and opting for bikes or buses. Our cities, our climate, our collective inertia have conspired against us to make this an impossibility.

Perhaps, or maybe gas is too cheap, that nobody pays for the externalities like pollution and highways and parking. It's not inertia, it is policy.

Canadians are obsessed with gas prices.
If a gas station reduces its price by 3 cents, word of mouth leads to long lineups at the pump. People leave their homes to get in the car, to fill up the tank and drive back home. A Google search for "Cheap Gas Toronto" yields 1.6 million results. People are mobilized from coast to coast in search of "cheap gas" – like the weather and hockey, the price of gas is part of our collective mindset.

This is absolutely true. My mom has friends who put on their bathrobes at 10 at night and go out to fill their cars because that's when the prices drop. People idle their cars for ten minutes waiting to save two cents a litre at the neighbourhood cheap gas bar.

Existing interventions aren’t working.
Average commute times for major urban centres in Canada are increasing....While we are seeing the rise in Smart Commute programs and urban cycling, these remain on the fringe – campaigns for the converted and one-off feel good endeavours. Whatever we're doing now, is not working. We still get back in the car, at the end of the day.

So if it's unrealistic to stop driving altogether, we remain a gas-guzzling culture and "drive less" campaigns aren’t adding up, what would it really take to get people out of their cars? More gas, for driving less.

It is a kind of circular logic. But in a country where the economy runs on digging gasoline out of the ground in Alberta and where the government almost seems to welcome global warming, it is not likely that we are going to get anything more substantive. So if you live in the Greater Toronto area, sign up at the Shuttle Challenge and, dare I say it on TreeHugger, win free gas.

Tags: Tar Sands | Toronto | Transportation

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