I was alone in my car last Friday when I found out that the earth’s atmosphere now boasts the highest concentration of carbon dioxide in over a million years. How apropros is that? Alone. In my car. Idling in downtown traffic, reading the electronic headline ticker across the street. The news would have been appalling even if I weren’t an urban planner, but my profession made the whole thing feel positively Shakespearean. I was acutely aware of everything I, idling alone in my car, was doing to exacerbate the issue, and I sank low in my seat convinced that my fellow drivers could see hypocrisy written across my face.
I debated my previously innocuous choices as I idled away, waiting for the light. My destination was only five miles from my home at most. I could have easily biked. I enjoy biking, but had wanted to avoid the rain. The bus was another option, but the route would have at least tripled my travel time each way, making it an inefficient and unappealing alternative. So I chose to drive.
Obviously my decision to drive was understandable and nothing out of the ordinary. I’m willing to bet that most people in the same situation would have made the same choice, but that’s precisely the point. That people will make choices that are most beneficial or useful to them is obvious, but it’s a powerful framework to build on. When we as planners or communities try to change collective habits that have a negative impact on our quality of life, we tend to think of some combination of reward and/or penalty. This certainly has its place, but, where individual choice is concerned, we might be prudent to consider the long term impact of simple convenience on the choices we make. I would have taken the bus if it were the more convenient option, and I’m positive that I’m not alone.
It might seem to be an obvious thought, and it certainly isn’t a new one. But it helped me feel a little better when the light finally turned green and I was able to continue to my destination. Unfortunately, we can’t enact change over night, but we can move forward with a clear idea of how to achieve goals in the long term. When it comes to altering the individual decisions that increase CO2 emissions, part of the long-term solution will be to encourage better choices by making them the more convenient and obvious option. It’s a start.