The Ultimate SUV

By Michael Dover Gazette Contributing Writer

I use a sport-utility vehicle that burns no gasoline. It doesn’t run on diesel or ethanol or electricity. It doesn’t emit greenhouse gases or any other pollutant. And I can park it almost anywhere.

As soon as the roads are clear of ice and snow, my bicycle is my “other car.” It hauls me around with ease, burning only carbohydrates and fat—two very local fuels. The “sport” part of my SUV is obvious. It’s fun, I get a lot of terrific exercise, and I get to go nice places—back roads, bike paths, scenic spots.

But the utility of my bike matters, too. From my house to the center of Amherst is three miles. Every time I bike into town on an errand or for a cup of coffee, about a quart of gasoline doesn’t get burned. Multiply that by, say, three times a week and 40 weeks per year and that becomes almost 30 gallons that stays at the gas pump.

Of course, my SUV can carry more than just me. I have a couple of panniers (“saddlebags”) attached to my rear luggage rack that can hold an impressive amount of groceries. If I want to do a major shopping trip, I hitch on a trailer that will hold four or five loaded grocery bags. The round trip to the supermarkets is around 11 miles, which I might do once a week. Multiply that by 40 weeks and I’ve now saved about another 18 gallons from the combustion chamber.

I recently decided to see how much carbon dioxide I keep from emitting by not using my car for these trips. (I don’t count my pleasure rides because I’m not substituting my bike for my car on those.) I started by estimating my errand-mileage, which I rounded down to an even 1,000 miles per year—some weeks I won’t do the shopping trip or won’t go into town as often. Looking up our little Scion xA on one of several CO2 calculators on the Internet, I figured that those 1,000 miles of not driving prevented 650 pounds of CO2 from going into the atmosphere. These are small potatoes, to be sure. But what if 1,000 of my Valley neighbors did the same thing? That’s a small fraction of the people who live between the Vermont and Connecticut borders. Now we’re talking about 325 tons a year.

Could a million Americans drive 1,000 fewer miles per year? What if they walked or biked or took the bus instead of automatically reaching for the car keys? Using my same calculator, we’d now be saving 325,000 tons of CO2 a year. Actually, it would be more, because most cars on the road are less efficient than my Scion.

Of course, this alone won’t solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of tons we need to reduce. But these aren’t just feel-good personal steps: Actions like these send messages, and messages can influence others. Some politicians and vested interests prefer to think that “people” won’t change their ways, but we can show them otherwise. The most important message is to businesses, governments and the media: We all know we have to let go of old ways; we’ll support real action to save the planet even if it means shifting our personal priorities.

How about you? Do you have a bike? Take it down to your local bike shop, get it tuned up, and check out the panniers. Take it to the corner store for the milk instead of taking your car. Maybe in a few weeks you’ll start riding it to work or hitching a trailer to take the kids to day care. You’ll feel healthier and have fun in the bargain. And by all means spread the word!

Michael Dover is a retired environmental scientist and member of the Hitchcock Center board.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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