Environment

Americans Are Still Buying Gas-Guzzlers, But Here Are 7 Signs That the Market for Green Transport Is Exploding

More and more Americans are finding other ways to get around in greener fashion, from Smart Cars to Vespas.

Americans get a lot of flack for their big cars. And often for good reason.

After sales figures for the first half of 2009 came in, it's looking like Ford's F-Series pickup trucks are set to make their 28th year at the top of the charts, with nearly 180,000 sold in the first two quarters.

With gas mileage near the bottom of the heap -- 15 miles per gallon in the city and around 20 on the highway -- the trucks are icons of America's suicidal obsession with gas guzzlers.

And suicidal it is. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, since the early '90s there has been a 20 percent increase in CO2 pollution from SUVs and pickups, which aren't required by federal law to meet the same fuel-efficiency standards as cars.

Not only are Americans' vehicles less efficient, but we own more of them and drive them more often than other countries. The U.K.'s Guardian reported in 2006:

Americans represent 5 percent of the world's population but drive almost a third of its cars, which in turn account for nearly half the carbon dioxide pumped out of exhaust pipes into the atmosphere each year, according to a report.

U.S. cars play a disproportionate role in global warming because they are less fuel efficient than passenger vehicles used elsewhere in the world, emitting 15 percent more carbon dioxide, and because they are driven further across America's wide-open spaces, said the report by the Environmental Defense watchdog group.

This sounds pretty depressing, but it's not all bad news. On Sept. 15, President Barack Obama announced a proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department to increase corporate average fuel economy (or CAFE) standards to 35.5 mpg by 2016. The new requirements would go into effect in 2012 and are predicted to save 950 million metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions in four years.

There's also more good news on the horizon, and it's coming from consumers. It turns out not everyone wants to own a 5,000-pound vehicle like an F-150, and that's a big help in combating global warming.

Here are seven ways Americans may be turning around that gas-guzzling trend.

1. Hybrids Catching on Like Wildfire

OK, with parts of Southern California still smoldering, wildfire metaphors are probably in bad taste right now, but the comparison is apt.

It turns out, Americans are not entirely opposed to saving gas -- and money. The Toyota Prius is the most fuel-efficient caron the U.S. market, and it saves the average driver $1,500 a year on gas, with 48 mpg in the city and 45 on the highway. It's a no-brainer for over a million people worldwide and hundreds of thousands in the U.S.

Last month alone, nearly 20,000 Priuses were sold in the U.S., and sales in July and Augustjumped an astonishing 48 percent and 45 percent, respectively, in comparison to the same time last year. As non-hybrid-vehicle sales fell 13 percent, overall hybrid sales increased by 35 percent in July from 2008 figures -- partly aided by the "cash for clunkers" program.

While the Prius is the iconic hybrid, competition is coming from a bunch of other manufacturers, with Honda's Civic Hybrid running in second place.

2. Plug It In

Electric vehicles of all kinds are making a comeback. After General Motors "killed" the EV1, electric vehicle lovers were despondent. But times are changing.

Plug-in hybrids are set to start hitting the U.S. market soon, with Toyota planning to release 500 of them later this year, and the Chevrolet Volt scheduled for 2011. Volvo is hoping to get into the market with diesel/electric in 2012.

There are also some 100 percent-electric cars coming back to the U.S., but so far there aren't too many on the road.

BMW is field testing a few of its Mini E's, an all-electric, zero-emissions version of their popular Minin, and there are limited number of the high-end Tesla Roadsters, which will can run about 241 miles on a charge (and go zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds), but will cost you about $100,000. Pretty soon, we may also be seeing the electric version of the Smart car, the Smart ED cruising the streets.

And plug-in technology isn't just limited to cars. A whole range of electric vehicles have been developed, many of which are especially good for urban areas.

LEVs, or light electric vehicles include electric scooters, electric bikes, one-person commute cars,electric pedicabs, and neighborhood electric vehicles.

These are particularly prudent because over half of all urban car trips last less than 10 minutes, and 80 percent are within 10 miles or fewer. If you're not going far, why use a heavy, greenhouse-gas-emitting vehicle if you don't have to?

Better yet, why drive at all? Electric bikes are becoming a popular option for people who are looking to add a little power to their pedaling, don't want to show up to work sweaty and value a greener, cheaper way to get to where they're going. Oh, and of course not having to worry about parking is a bonus. Electric bikes start around $350.

The e-bikes' popularity may be growing in the U.S. and worldwide.

"This year's hottest trend on two wheels: electric bikes, or e-bikes,"Business Week reported. "Last year, 23 million were sold worldwide, and the number is expected to double by 2012, says Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports, a biennial publication tracking the industry. Interest in the designs, which contain an electric motor to give a cyclist a helping push, is growing globally, with markets flourishing in China, India, Europe and the U.S."

Best Buy, the country's largest consumer-electronics store is now selling electric-powered scooters. And the New York Times reports:

Propelled by a perfect tailwind of technology, high oil prices and the vogue for all things green, global sales of bikes driven by battery-powered electric motors have climbed nearly 20 percent since 2005.

In the United States, consumers are also migrating in greater numbers to e-bikes, drawn in part by lighter and more powerful batteries and practical aids, like bike lanes and lockers. E-bike sales are forecast to double by 2009 to 200,000 from 100,000 in 2005.

Of course, to get the most green for your buck, plugging into a power grid that is coming from renewable energy sources is best -- the last thing we need is a burst of business for coal-burning power plants.

3. The Best Things Come in Small Packages

If you are going to go the traditional, automobile route and don't want a hybrid (or want to spend about half as much money -- they start around $12,000), there is the Smart Fortwo, ranked as the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered car in the U.S., with 33 mpg in the city and 41 on highway. And if there was a "best car to park" award, it would likely go to the Smart car.

The car is a joint venture between Swatch (yes, the watches) and Mercedes-Benz, now a Daimler AG company. Over 1 million of the tiny gems have been sold worldwide in 40 countries. They finally made it to the U.S. market in 2008 and sold about 25,000 the first year. If you live in an urban area, their popularity seems to be growing, with new models (including an adorable convertible) that are both cute and classy.

The car's eco mission also goes beyond fuel efficiency. Here's what the company says:

In addition, the vehicle already exceeds the 2016 corporate average fuel economy standards, and is classified as an ultra-low emissions vehicle by the California Air Resources Board. It is also certified by the EPA as a "Smartway" vehicle.

... Ninety-five percent of the vehicle is recyclable, and the dash material is made from recycled synthetics. In addition, the "smartville" factory in Hambach, France, where the vehicle is produced is one of the most modern and environmentally friendly plants in the world.

The vehicle earned the highest front and side crashworthiness ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and received high marks in crash tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, including a top five-star rating for side-impact protection.

Looks like the little car may make a big splash in green driving.

4. When in Doubt, Go Italian

Yes, all the cool kids are driving Vespas these days -- and for good reason -- they are cute, cheap (relative to automobiles), and save a lot on carbon emission. Vespa reports that its scooters get on average 70 mpg, and you're likely not to spend more than eight bucks when you fill up at the pump.

Even better, thecompany reports:

If Americans were to use one of the latest eco-friendly motor scooters for just 10 percent of their everyday travel, they could potentially reduce national fuel consumption by 14 million gallons of gasoline per day and decrease carbon-dioxide emissions by 324 million pounds per day.

... [T]hey could also reduce fuel consumption by approximately 58 percent, carbon-dioxide emissions by 80 percent, and significantly reduce traffic congestion.

And sales seem to be doing well. Vespa did great when gas prices went through the roof last year, and overall, the Motorcycle Industry Council reported that scooter sales in 2008 reached their highest annual level ever seen.

"The MIC is currently estimating 2008 scooter sales at 222,000, a new record," the Examiner reported. "Back in 1992, total motorcycle and scooter sales combined were just 278,000. Further demonstrating strong interest in affordable, fuel-efficient bikes, 2008 retail sales numbers for dual-purpose motorcycles were at 48,000, their highest levels in nearly a quarter-century."

5. Who Needs a Motor?

For the more ambitious and fit, there is an even cheaper and greener transportation option if you need to get around town -- the good old-fashioned bicycle. In some cities, bike use is on the rise. Between 2006-07 San Francisco reported that bike ridership rose by 15 percent. An estimated 40,000 of the city's 744,000 residents bike to work. Portland, Oregon, often ranked a top bike-friendly city, also saw a jump in commuting cyclists, from 4 to 6 percent of their population.

Bicycling is growing across the country -- or at least, we are spending more money on our bikes. The industry made $6 billion in 2008 -- up from $5.3 billion in the early part of the decade. The League of American Bicyclists reports that operating a bike will run you about $120 a year, whereas car ownership is more likely to cost around $7,000.

"The National Personal Transportation Survey found that approximately 40 percent of all trips are less than 2 miles in length -- which represents a 10-minute bike ride or a 30-minute walk," Jim Motavalli wrote for E Magazine. "Fifty-four percent of all commuters live within 10 miles of their worksite -- making their commute time by bike or car just about the same."

That sounds like good enough reason to start riding.

6. Why Not Just Share?

Of course you don't have to own a vehicle of any sort to get around, if you are willing to share. The ever-savvy and eco-conscious Europeans started car-shareprograms years ago, and they've finally caught on in the U.S., where there are now more than 200 programs in more than 600 American cities.

Clean Fleet Report says, "Each shared vehicle results in 6 to 23 cars not being owned. Once someone joins a car-share program, they cut their vehicle miles traveled up to 80 percent."

Zipcaris the most popular of car-sharing programs and boasts over 260,000 members. San Francisco is one of the leading cities for car-share programs with Zipcar and City CarShare, which has more than 6,000 members in the Bay Area.

"Two-thirds of our members either sell a car or don't buy a car," said City CarShare CEO Rick Hutchinson.

Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said: "I'm proud to be a long-time supporter of City CarShare, and I applaud their members for saving more than 1 million gallons of gas over the last five years."

7. Better Yet, Just Go Public

Instead of adding to the 250 million cars on the road in the U.S., it would be more prudent to invest in our public-transportation infrastructure -- each weekday 14 million Americans opt for public transit, and 28 million ride it regularly.

The American Public Transportation Association reported that, "Americans took more than 7.8 billion public transportation trips in the first nine months of 2006, up 3 percent from the previous year," Katharine Mieszkowski wrote for Salon.

Light rail had the highest percentage of growth among all modes of transportation, with an increase of 5.4 percent. Double-digit growth was seen in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Sacramento, Calif. Other big gainers include Buffalo, N.Y., and Houston."

In 2007, Americans took 10.3 billion trips on public transportation, the highest number since the Model T and its progeny took over the nation. In the second quarter of 2008, commuters from New York to Los Angeles took almost 140 million trips by buses, trains and streetcars, an increase of 5 percent over the same period in 2007, according to the American Public Transportation Association. At the same time, the number of miles that Americans traveled by car declined 3 percent, reports the Federal Highway Administration. Three words: high gas prices.

So, much of our attitude toward public transit is related to money, not surprisingly. Overall, our interest in riding the rails and buses has fallen as we've gotten more attached to our cars. And as government money has been poured into highways, our public-transportation systems have often been forsaken. Recent budget cuts in states like California have resulted in fare hikes on public transit, and sometimes decreased services, too.

Hopefully we can turn that around, because you would be doing a lot more for the environment (and your savings) by riding public transit.

E Magazine reported that: "APTA released a study that found that transit saves 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline every year, the equivalent of 108 million cars filling up, almost 300,000 each day. If twice as many Americans had transit choices, we'd save 2.8 billion gallons. Two-worker households that use public transit on a given day save more than $6,200 a year on average."

While there may be an exciting new horizon we're approaching with electric cars like the Tesla Roadster and hydrogen- and solar-powered vehicles in prototype stages, the most bang we can get for our buck is likely to be from the least-energy-intensive forms of transit, so that means encouraging walking, biking and public transportation. That also mean investing in the infrastructure to make it safe and efficient. When gas prices shoot through the roof again, maybe more F-150 drivers will join the green revolution, but let's hope they don't all wait until then.

Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.