How to Go Green: Commuting

businessman works on smartphone while commuting to work on a city bus

Marko Geber / Getty Images

With gas prices ever on the rise, people living farther from the workplace, and traffic conditions worsening by the week, the daily commute is increasingly having an impact on our wallets and our lifestyles -- as well as global climate change. From getting the best gas mileage to work-from-home jobs to reducing air travel and international travel (by holding teleconferences, for example), improving your commute means improving your quality of life. To help you do so, we've rounded up our best tips for eco-friendly commuting, improving your green travel, starting a carpool, commuting by bike, and much more in this guide. You'll save money, time, and reduce your carbon footprint -- and could even lose weight!

Since 1960, the number of miles Americans travel each year has more than tripled. Meanwhile, fuel economy of passenger vehicles has decreased. Between 1993 and 2003, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation went up nearly 25 percent, according to a report by the US EPA. And despite the fact that nobody likes sitting in traffic, we are increasingly driving to work alone in our cars, all the while contributing to global warming and making ourselves miserable.

In fact, light-duty vehicles -- that's passenger cars, vans, minivans, SUVs, and pickup trucks -- account for 62 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., says the EPA. Passenger cars alone are responsible for 35 percent of that, and are the largest contributor of any vehicle category, above even heavy-duty vehicles and aircraft. Consider now that for each gallon of gas a car burns, it emits about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. Multiply that by a daily commute of 40 miles for a car that gets 24 miles per gallon, and you have a car that's spewing out more than 8,000 pounds of CO2 for its commute each year. Saving just a few gallons of gas each week can really add up.

Shifting away from the one-person car commute would be terrific way to cut carbon emissions, save oil and gas, and get to work more quickly, and many cities have helped make this happen. Portland, Oregon, for example, added buses, light rail, and more than 250 miles of bike trails, reducing carbon emission to pre-1990 levels. London has imposed a congestion tax for motorists driving into city center. Using public transit, biking, or walking are all excellent ways to get started -- even if it's just one day per week, or for part of your commute. But even if you're stuck with commuting by car, there's a lot you can do, including driving more efficiently, carpooling, or opting for a hybrid vehicle.

Top Green Commuting Tips

Walk or Bike to Work

Obviously putting yourself in motion is the lowest-carbon option for traveling to work. Assuming you are healthy and don't live in a war zone or surrounded by interstate highways, anything under a mile can easily be walked. If biking sounds a little intimidating, try sharing a bike until you get the hang of it, or pairing up with a more experienced cyclist as a mentor. While you're at it, try using the stairs instead of the elevator. You may start to question why you are paying those hefty gym fees.

Use Public Transportation

Yeah, we know -- we are always going on about public transportation. But it's more than just a greener way of getting to work -- it can be a great way to meet your neighbors, avoid traffic, save money (depending on where you live), and improve your health. Start slow if it's hard for you: Go one day per week by bus or rail, or drive only part way. To make it easy for yourself, keep a set of timetables on your fridge or notice board, or bookmark your local transit authority's website or Google Transit. Once your up to speed, consider campaigning for better services and greener operations.

Work from Home

The greenest commute is the one you don't make at all. Telecommute, bring paperwork back to your pad, hold phone conferences, take online classes, or otherwise work from home. It will save you the time you would have spent on the trip, and also tons of gas. As a bonus, you get to work in your pajamas -- try that on Wall Street!

Switch to a Four-Day Work Week

Haven't you always wanted a three-day weekend every week? Here's your chance. Talk to your boss, and your family, about working four ten-hour days, instead of five eight-hour ones. If you're commuting to college, try to arrange a four-day class schedule. Just one day out of your schedule reduces the time and energy that go into your weekly commute by 20 percent. If that's too much to ask for, explore shifting your hours so you commute when the roads are clear, when you can share a ride with a friend, or to fit in with bus or train timetables. Many bosses will care more about what work you do than about when you do it.

Consider Carpooling

How many people at work live near you? Is there any chance of sharing the ride?

Maintain Your Car Properly

If you must drive to work, looking after your car is just plain, common sense. Regular maintenance of your car not only means it lasts longer, it will also save money on fuel. This means you should make sure your car tires are always inflated properly, you should change the oil regularly, and you should take unnecessary loads out of the car to ensure fuel efficiency. How often do you rally need your golf clubs at work, Tiger?

Slow Down

Seriously, staying at or below 55 miles per hour vastly improves your fuel efficiency, and for every 5 miles per hour above 55 that you go, you reduce your fuel efficiency by 10 percent. Of course, in many cities there's very little chance of getting above walking speed at rush hour, but for those of you who still see open road occasionally, tread lightly on the pedal.

Calculate the Price of Gas

Use a travel budget to get a full picture of how much it's costing you to drive, and then make goals to reduce. If you have errands to run, do them on the way to and from work. If your car use is minimal, consider getting rid of your own vehicle and joining a car club for those major errands or large trips you can't make any other way. If you're moving, factor in ease of travel when considering where to live. A bit of planning goes a long way in reducing your reliance on the car, and it makes you life so much easier too.

Drivers, Stop Your Idle Engines

As a general rule of thumb, if you are going to wait for longer than 30 seconds, it is better to kill the engine than to leave it running. This saves gas and also keeps emissions out of the surrounding air. This is especially important when waiting to pick your children up from school -- kids have enough to deal with without being gassed by their parents!

Buy a More Fuel-Efficient Car

So we really can't get you on a bike? Perhaps you'll consider trading in your vehicle in for a smaller, more efficient one, or a hybrid. You might also consider a car that runs on alternative fuels like biodiesel, ethanol, straight vegetable oil (SVO), or electricity. Remember, however, that efficiency and conservation are should always be your first line of defense.

Green Commuting: By the Numbers

  • 25: Percentage of the world's oil that the US consumes, though it only accounts for 4 percent of the world's population.
  • $25 billion: Amount the US spent on oil in 2005.
  • 19.4 pounds: Amount of CO2 that one gallon of gas produces.
  • 22: Average miles per gallon for a passenger in 2001.
  • 12: Number of days per year that the average Canadian spends commuting.

Sources: New American Dream, Emission Facts: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle, General Social Survey: Commuting times

Green Commuting: Getting Techie

Car Sharing services are systems by which a fleet of cars (or other vehicles) is jointly-owned by the users, or in which users pay a membership fee to use available cars. They are generally considered to reduce car use through incentivising public transport, and shifting costs of motoring from ownership and maintenance, to the number of miles driven. Zipcar is the most well known car-sharing service.

Carpooling services are systems or organizations that offer to match up commuters, or other travelers making a similar journey, so they can share the use of one car. Often the traveler pays for a share of the gas used, thereby saving both riders money, and emissions.

Telecommuting is an arrangement whereby employees can work from home and enjoy flexible working hours and locations to enable them to work from home, or another location, rather than traveling to a central office location.

Biodiesel is a replacement fuel for regular diesel made from plant or animal fats. These can either be virgin oils grown specifically for fuel, or waste cooking oils or animal fats from meat processing plants. Biodiesel is generally considered to have a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels, though this depends on the feedstock used to make it. Waste resources are much more environmentally preferable to virgin oils. Most diesel cars can run on biodiesel without the need for an engine conversion.

Ethanol is an alcohol-based biofuel that can replace gasoline in cars that have been designed to use it. It is often prepared from food crops such as corn or sugar cane, prompting fears that increased usage will threaten food prices. However, cellulosic ethanol, i.e. ethanol made from woodier materials that are often wasted, is being touted as a possible solution to this problem.

Where To Get Green Commuting Accessories

Public Transport Information
Google Transit
The Man at Seat 61
Performance Bike
Electric Bicycles
Schwinn electric bikes
Car Sharing Services
Zip Car
Ride Sharing or Carpool Services
Green Car Insurance
Hybrid Travelers
Lovecraft Biofuels
Piedmont Biofuels
Alternative Fuels Data Center's Fuel Station Finder
Electric Cars
Electric Motorbikes
Carbon Offsets
Carbon Fund
Solar Electric Light Fund

Further Reading on Green Commuting

A Canadian program, the Walking School Bus, encourages kids to walk to school by neighbors stopping at houses along the way and picking up children to walk together to school.

We've already said that maintaining your car is REALLY important, as is the way you drive it. has some comprehensive advice.

Want more facts and figures about transportation in the US? Check out The American Public Transportation Association, or The Bureau of Transportation Statistics, but be warned, it can make for pretty depressing reading!

Looking to find out more about commuter incentive programs? Check out this list of programs encouraging carpooling and other environmentally sound commuting options.

The Clean Air Council offers advice on setting up a telecommuting program.

Meanwhile, Momentum Magazine looks at how everyone benefits from a bike-friendly workplace.