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Getting from Here to There

By Neal Abrams

If you really want to reduce your footprint, you need to look at how you get from one place to another. Whether it is walking, cycling, driving, or flying, each form of transportation has its own energy footprint, based on how much it affects our environment. In the United States, transportation accounts for 28% of all energy use. Most of that energy comes from sources like oil and gas, which are not sustainable and have a very large footprint on the Earth.

What are some ways you can reduce your transportation footprint? One way is to use your own body to get you places. Consider walking, bicycling, or even using a scooter to get places. Sometimes you need to get somewhere very far or uphill from where are, but don’t want or need to get a lot of exercise along the way. In that case, you might want to consider an electric bike, which uses lithium-ion batteries to store energy and power a very efficient motor.

When adults do need to travel in a vehicle, taking a bus can be better for their energy footprint than driving a car. Some modern buses are powered by a special fuel called biodiesel, which is made from renewable resources, like vegetable oil and even algae! Even if you can’t ride on a “biobus,” a traditional bus is still a better choice than a car. Why? Because a bus full of people has a smaller footprint than if all of those people were driving their own cars.

Buses cannot work for all situations, and a traditional car is sometimes necessary. When you’re old enough and you have a choice, you might consider using an electric vehicle (EV), which also runs on batteries. Some EVs use high-capacity lithium-ion batteries, and can travel hundreds of miles on a single charge! While these vehicles do not burn any gas, they do require electricity, which is traditionally made in high-footprint power plants that burn coal or gas. Another way to produce electricity is by using renewable energy sources like solar panels or wind turbines. Even if your family does not own these technologies, your parents or guardians can ask if your power company can deliver energy that comes from renewable resources.

There are even some high-speed trains that are both very fast and have a very low footprint because they use the power of magnetism. These trains levitate above the track using opposing forces of magnets, which is how they get their name “maglev.” Advances made by chemists and chemistry have helped develop these exciting technologies.

The last and probably simplest way to shrink one’s transportation footprint is to work or learn remotely. In fact, a lot of us are doing this by using new technologies. Being able to do this means we don’t have to use any transportation energy to get to school or work. There is not one solution for everyone in every situation, but the next time you need to go somewhere, try thinking about how you can reduce your own footprint!

Neal Abrams, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Chemistry at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.