To Drive or Not to Drive? Changing Transportation Habits in a Car-Centric Country

Here's a guest post from our friend Meryl Compton at Frontier Group. Meryl writes about the challenges of deciding whether or not to ditch a car in a car-centric country.

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Below is a guest post from our friend Meryl Compton at Frontier Group. Frontier Group provides information and ideas to help citizens build a cleaner, healthier, and more democratic America. Frontier Group’s experts and writers deliver timely research and analysis that is accessible to the public, applying insights gleaned from a variety of disciplines to arrive at new ideas for solving pressing problems.


To Drive or Not to Drive? Changing Transportation Habits in a Car-Centric Country

By Meryl Compton, Frontier Group

My friend and I recently moved into a new apartment in Denver. As in any big city, parking comes at a premium, and getting a spot for each of our cars requires a three-month waiting list.

We strategized about how we would get by with only one car for three months: “We’ll do all our errands together,” “We can take the bus to Boulder and take my parent’s car to the mountains.”

As much as I hate to admit it, we agreed that we would wait for a second spot and put up the extra $80 each month.

I like to think of myself as an environmentalist, but I still feel dependent upon my car. Every time I open my car door, I try to rationalize it – I’m running late, I have too much stuff to carry. I also blame it on our transportation system – it is not my fault that a highway is the only way to get where I’m going, that I can’t afford an electric car, or that the bus doesn’t go where I need it to go.

But do two friends living eight blocks from work, around the corner from dozens of bars and restaurants and walking distance from Union Station really need two 25 mpg cars? Of course not.

Am I really such an environmentalist after all?

The choice to live close to work is certainly a point in my favor. People living in walkable areas like downtown Denver produce far fewer emissions than those living in sprawling suburbs. The typical Denver-area commuter travels 8.5 miles each way to work every day. Multiply that by a couple hundred days a year, and the avoided driving miles – and carbon pollution – from walking to work really add up.

Still, my roommate and I don’t need to have these cars at our constant disposal. As the Denver Metro Area’s population has grown in recent years, I have seen our highways and mountain roads become increasingly congested and witnessed the visible impact that the growing number of cars has had on our local air quality. Most drivers, myself and my roommate included, probably care about breathing clean air and keeping our skies smog-free, but it’s often hard to relate our individual car trips to the bigger problems of air pollution and climate change.

I am conscious of the impact of my driving habits and try to take public transit, walk or bike whenever possible, but I still feel like I can’t get by without access to my car. If people like me are hesitant to let go of our personal cars, what will it take to convince a significant number of Coloradans to do so?

The first step is to understand and be honest about why we feel so reliant on them. For me, it’s about having the ability to buy groceries, visit my family in Boulder, and go to the mountains whenever I want and as quickly as possible. I could walk a mile to King Soopers, crossing multiple four-lane roads with four bags of groceries, and I could spend an hour and a half taking the bus to Boulder. Or I could use my car to safely get to the grocery store in five minutes and drive directly to North Boulder in under forty. As long as it remains so much safer and more convenient for me to do these things by car, the incentive to do so will be strong.  

If we want to make it easier for people like me seriously consider ditching our cars, we need to make sustainable modes of transportation the most convenient, safe and affordable way to get from point A to point B. Currently, Denver falls well short of the mark, ranking 80th out of 100 cities worldwide in a 2017 analysis of sustainable urban mobility.

There are plenty of policy solutions that can help move us in the right direction. Cities like Denver can expand and improve public transit networks, make shared bikes and scooters widely available (and carve out space on streets to make it safe to use them), and support ride sharing initiatives and other measures to extend access to car-free mobility. Denver and other neighboring communities can also make it easier for people to choose to live closer to work, recreation and public transportation.

But any solution has to extend beyond Denver and include finding ways that Coloradans can experience the state’s natural beauty without a car. One resource many Coloradans would appreciate is the CoPIRG Foundation and Snowriders International’s guide to car-free skiing and riding in Colorado.

Reducing the number of cars Coloradans own makes sense for our environment, the livability of our cities and our bank accounts. Smart, wide-ranging transportation policies can shift the way that people commute, shop and travel, and are necessary if we are serious about solving the big challenges of air pollution and climate change.

I may have paid for that second parking spot, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop biking, walking or taking the bus whenever possible. And it doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop pushing for changes that will make it easier for me and others to ditch our cars for good.

Photo credit: Richard Masoner via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund