Car Trips Quiz > October 22, 2008

What percentage of trips between one and three miles in the U.S. is made by car?

  • 95 percent
  • 75 percent
  • 90 percent
  • 50 percent

Answer: 90 percent.

A whopping 90 percent of short trips—such as those made running kids to school or going down the street for a gallon of milk—are made by car. Furthermore, only 31 percent of trips fewer than one mile are made by foot or bicycle. According to a recent report from EarthShare member, the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, our apathy is costing us. Don’t miss this new report to learn how active transportation can improve everything from national health to our collective carbon footprint.

The 2008 Rails-to-Trails Conservancy report, “Active Transportation for America,” (ATFA) is the first of its kind, quantifying the national financial, environmental and health benefits of bicycling and walking.

Financial Impact

Given the recent decline of the U.S. economy, it’s encouraging to know that active transportation—the act of walking or bicycling to work—can save you some much-needed green. In fact, the ATFA report estimates that if we replaced our shortest car trips with bicycling or walking, we could save between 2.4 and 5 billion gallons of gasoline annually. At a price of $4 per gallon, this would equate to $8 to $17 billion in fuel savings every year.

Committing to more carless commutes could also help you save on health care. That’s because the estimated annual health care costs are between $20 and $330 higher among people who do not satisfy the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendation of 30 minutes of physical activity per day. Thus, if we all hit the pavement for short trips instead of turning on the engine, we could increase the number of calories we burn—and save between $400 million and $28 billion in annual health care costs.

Environmental Impact

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that enters the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, including the oil we use to power our cars. Scientists believe that CO2, along with other greenhouse gases, is largely to blame for global warming.

Double Bracket: Living in a community that allows you to walk or bike to run errands can save about 500 gallons of fuel, or 10,000 pounds of CO2 each year.  According to the Rails-to-Trails report, personal transportation accounts for 1.2 billion tons of CO2 every year. If we all left our cars in the garage during short trips, we could save between 21 billion and 45 billion tons of CO2 from our atmosphere every year.

Furthermore, a commuter who rides five miles to work, four days a week avoids 2,000 miles of driving for year—the equivalent of 10 gallons of gasoline and 2,000 pounds of CO2.

Rails-to-Trails estimates, “savings of this magnitude reduce the average American’s carbon footprint by about five percent.” Talk about making a difference in the world.

Medical Impact

The U.S. has struggled for more than a decade against obesity, and without much success. According to figures from the North American Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO), more than 64 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. A 2008 study by Bloomberg’s Center for Human Nutrition predicts that number could jump to 84 percent by 2030.

Our penchant for driving doesn’t help matters, according to the ATFA report, which notes that the country’s “car-focused transportation system is a major contributor to our sedentary lifestyles,” adding that not only do we use cars for nearly all of our trips, “but the large volumes of motorized traffic combined with the lack of adequate infrastructure have made bicycling and walking difficult and dangerous in many communities.”

This lack of infrastructure also contributes to the childhood obesity epidemic, which acting U.S. Surgeon General Steven Galson calls “a national catastrophe.” In addition to costing the nation billions of dollars, physical inactivity also causes a human burden. According to the report: “Because obesity decreases life expectancy for several years, for the first time in history, the current generation of youth may not live as long as their parents.”

One solution: replacing short car trips with bicycling or walking. This alone “could significantly increase Americans’ activity levels,” notes the report. “Commuting two or three miles by bicycle takes only 15 minutes, and the complete round-trip satisfies the [Center for Disease Control’s] recommendations for daily physical activity.”

Get Involved

While the ATFA report illustrates the myriad benefits of active transportation, it also shows us that not all communities have the infrastructure to support it. Take a look at the full Rails-to-Trails report to see how cities like Portland, Minneapolis and Camden are tackling infrastructure challenges—including the lack of bike lanes, pedestrian overpasses, and bike sharing programs—to improve the health of their cities and residents.


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