Does driving less (or not at all) actually help the environment?

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Shortly after moving to Toronto, Jordan Bishop quit driving because he wanted to minimize his impact on the environment.

It took a while to get used to the change. He grew up in a small town two hours northeast of the city, where getting your licence is a rite of passage.

“All of my friends, including me, went and got our licences on our 16th birthday, and just about all of them had bought cars within a year,” said Bishop, 27. “I drove to work, I drove to friends’ houses and we had to drive more than 10 km just to get to a grocery store.”

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But Bishop said his neighbourhood in Toronto is quite “well-connected” to streetcars and bus routes, which made it easier to stop driving.

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“My favourite way to get around is by bike, and I walk a lot, too… But in the winter, biking isn’t safe and walking is pretty cold, so I take more public transit,” he said.

“It’s one of the main reasons I chose to live here.”

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He sees not driving as his way of making a small difference.

Bishop is also the founder of Yore Oyster, a travel company that aims to help Canadians find cheaper days.

As part of his work, Bishop has taken more than 200 flights in the last five years.

“I definitely see the irony in that,” he said.

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“Except for my chronic flight habits, I live pretty modestly, so I’ve never felt bad about my own contributions to climate change. However, not driving does make me feel better about building Yore Oyster, which contributes directly to climate change.

“I know giving up driving is a tiny contribution on my part, but isn’t it always just a series of tiny contributions that create real, lasting change?”

Giving up your car does make a difference

Automobile and light-duty trucks account for about 11 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

Driving less can make an impact, “particularly if you drive a lot,” said Warren Mabee, professor and Canadian research chair in renewable energy development and implementation at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

If you want to quit driving cold turkey, Mabee said cycling and walking are the best, lowest-impact options. Transit is a close third.

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“It’s not for everyone, [but] transit impacts are usually low, particularly if the routes are well-planned,” he explained.

A “well-planned” transit route would include few empty buses or trains and little opportunity to idle, among other things.

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However, lots of Canadians don’t have a choice — the only way they can get around is by car.

“Many people may find that they can reduce discretionary driving — [like] consolidating trips to the store and avoiding unnecessary trips — but part of our travel is often inelastic,” Mabee said. “Think of the people that need to commute to work and who don’t have a transit alternative that’s realistic.

“This is why a big priority needs to be developing useful alternatives. Think fast and regular rail service, better bus routes, bike lanes.”

If you must buy a car, here are some things to consider

For people who can’t live without a car, there are some environmental factors to consider when choosing a car to buy or lease.

To begin, it’s important that you don’t buy a bigger vehicle than you need.

If possible, avoid “over-sized and heavy vehicles, and be aware of efficiency of the engine and its emissions,” said Anshuman Khare, professor of operations management at Athabasca University.

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The more consumers prioritize high efficiency and low emissions, the better cars will become for the environment.

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“When you look at a car as a product, there is a lot more energy and emissions that is spread out from the time it’s manufactured,” Khare said.

When researching new cars, it’s important to consider the whole lifespan of the vehicle — namely, how it was manufactured and where it will go when you’re done with it.

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While zero-emission cars — or electric cars — are a step in the right direction, they still require manufacturing, which has a negative impact on the environment.

In addition, Khare recommends trying a “co-modal approach” to transportation, “where you mix using your car with public transit.” He also hopes that ride-sharing services such as ZipCar will become more popular in the future.

“The car is an unsustainable mode of transport and a move towards public transport and investment in mass transit is the sensible approach,” he said.

The need for better alternatives

Bishop can appreciate that it would be difficult to stop driving altogether in a less-connected community.

“Living in a large urban centre like Toronto means you hardly need to drive at all,” he said.

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“It only gets tough when I go back to my hometown, because you need to drive everywhere. Even my friends live at least 5 km away, and we have zero public transit.”

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There are a lot of reasons cars can’t be eliminated overnight, and the biggest one is that “not everyone has an alternative in place,” Mabee continued.

“If we’re serious about meeting our climate challenges, we need to plan and build transit options that work for most people. We can’t just rely on existing infrastructure,” like only having rail service where someone built a railway 100 years ago.

“We need to prioritize building new public infrastructure beyond roads and highways.”

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Khare agrees — ultimately, change has to come from the government.

“I think everybody should make a conscious decision… Asking questions is important, but I think it’s all three parties — governments, businesses and individuals — coming together that actually could lead to impact.”

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