Current Issues > Consumption

Living Closer to Home

You reduce, you reuse, you recycle. You avoid excess packaging, use things over and over, and measure your trash in “weeks per bag” rather than “bags per week.”

So what more can you do to reduce the environmental impact of your earthly existence? Try “living closer to home.”

Living closer to home is about transportation. We all need transportation to get to work, to the store, to the doctor, or to visit friends. More often than not, we drive. That’s what our culture encourages us to do, in hundreds of subtle and not so subtle ways.

Transportation is a good thing, but it doesn’t come cheap. A Missouri energy study found that transportation accounted for about 41 percent of all energy used in the state in 1990.

Nationally, vehicle trips are growing a lot faster than population. US population grew 21 percent between 1969 and 1990, while vehicle miles grew by 82 percent. Motor vehicles account for about a third of all air pollution, and building new roads just in the Kansas City area will cost $15 billion over the next 25 years – almost $10,000 for each one of us.

Our travel becomes traffic the minute we start the car: my trips, added to your trips and everyone else’s trips, add up to traffic congestion. Our individual trip-making decisions determine how much congestion we cause, how much congestion we experience, and ultimately the quality of our personal lives.

Consider this: if each of our trips were only half as long, there’d be half as much traffic and half as much congestion. Actually less than half, because some of our trips would be so short that we’d choose to make them on foot or by bicycle rather than by car. And on those walking or cycling trips we’d experience each other’s trips as encounters, opportunities to stop and get better acquainted. We’d build community in the process of passing one another on the sidewalk, rather than just adding to congestion and air pollution as we pass each other in our cars on the street.

Not realistic to make all your trips half as long, you say? Maybe not, but stop and think about how far you drive. Do you drive farther than the nearest store to get groceries? Do you drive to a park to exercise instead of walking in your own neighborhood? Do you drive miles to see a movie or eat out, rather than to a theater or restaurant closer to home?

Our transportation impacts are a result of our daily decisions. But those decisions are also influenced by decisions about how our city grows. Unfortunately, a lot of trends are running in the wrong direction: bigger “mega-marts” ultimately mean fewer places to buy bread or toothpaste, so most of us end up having to travel farther to buy those things. Strip malls that aren’t pedestrian friendly also force us to drive. Even worse, tax incentives are sometimes used to subsidize precisely the kind of development that puts things farther away from us, on average, and thus leads to more traffic and congestion.

Fortunately we can still “vote with our trips” to reduce our own transportation impacts. By doing things closer to home – even if it seems to cost a little more – we can help keep shopping and other opportunities close at hand.

Live closer to home? All things considered, it makes a lot of sense.

Here are some things you can do to reduce your own transportation impacts on the environment:

  1. Walk or bike instead of using a motor vehicle, at least part of the time.
  2. Carpool or take public transit to work, at least part of the time.
  3. Choose destinations that are closer to home, or closer to work.
  4. When you have a choice of vehicles, choose the one that gets the most miles per gallon.
  5. Use the telephone or the internet when you can instead of the accelerator pedal.
  6. Next time you move, choose to live closer to your work and your other regular activities.
  7. Next time you move, choose to live near public transit, and where there are stores or services nearby that you can reach on foot.
  8. Tell your local public officials that sidewalks and crosswalks and people-friendly traffic signals are important to you and your family.
  9. Next time you buy a car, buy the most fuel-efficient vehicle that will meet your routine needs. If you occasionally need a larger vehicle, rent it.
  10. Write President Bush and your Senators and Representative and tell them you support raising motor vehicle fuel efficiency standards.
  11. Speak out against proposed uses of tax incentives to finance projects that aren’t pedestrian friendly.
  12. Ask your Governor to support or implement state policies and programs that reduce urban sprawl.
  13. Question the wisdom – and the motives – of anyone who tells you we need to spend more on highways but less on public transit.
  14. Love your planet. Live closer to home.

Offered for your thoughtful consideration by the Sierra Club (April, 2005)