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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Driving around and around city blocks looking for parking seems like a colossal waste of fuel (and time). Is anyone working on ways to reduce this extra traffic and emissions burden? -- Bernice Mickelson, New York, NY

It’s true that we waste lots of gas and time—and create lots of stress for ourselves—in the constant search for parking spaces. UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup and his students observed hundreds of cars driving around four sites in Los Angeles’s bustling Westwood Village, a commercial district next to the UCLA campus, and found about one in three drivers was “cruising” in search of a spot. On average, each cruising driver spent only 3.3 minutes on the hunt over about a half-mile in distance — but the numbers add up quickly, given that some 8,000 cars park in Westwood Village each day.

“Over a year, cruising in Westwood Village creates 950,000 excess VMT [vehicle miles traveled]—equivalent to 38 trips around the earth, or four trips to the moon,” says Shoup. This excess mileage in just one small business district waste some 47,000 gallons of gasoline while producing 730 tons of CO2 emissions annually. Shoup thinks crowded metro areas should increase the price of street parking to make it cost as much or more than commercial or private parking garages so as to discourage all this wasteful cruising and force drivers into dedicated parking facilities where they won’t slow down other motorists.

Luckily there’s a slew of new services that make it easier than ever to park responsibly. BestParking, Parking Panda, Parker, ParkWhiz and ParkMe each provide users with access to hundreds of garages and lots in major cities across the U.S. through easy-to-use Smartphone interfaces. SpotHero works on a similar model but also offers up its own dedicated discounted spots in select parking facilities.

Meanwhile, SpotOn Parking is using San Francisco as a testing ground for its new service connecting drivers with property owners looking to monetize under-utilized parking spots. Users of the free SpotOn app can search for available spaces nearby—and reserve and pay with the click of a virtual button. 

Of course, another way to reduce the need to park is to embrace public transit and ridesharing. If you ride the bus or train—or walk or bike—you won’t have to waste time or fuel looking to park. Another way to avoid parking hassles is by using Uber or Lyft, or by joining a car-share service like Zipcar which provides dedicated parking spots all around town for its vehicles.

At the meta level, American cities could follow the lead of some of their forward-thinking European counterparts like Antwerp and Zurich which have significantly reduced the overall number of (private and public) parking spaces available, in turn leading to a measurable downturn in vehicle miles travelled within city limits. If people have nowhere to park, they won’t bother driving their own car into the city. 
While encouraging people to use public transit, car sharing or at least parking apps is a step in the right direction, policy changes that reduce the number of spots altogether might be our best bet in reducing gas consumption, carbon emissions and the waste of time we all experience hunting for that next parking spot.

CONTACTS: BestParking, www.bestparking.com; ParkWhiz, www.parkwhiz.com; Parker, www.theparkerapp.com; Panda Parking, www.parkingpanda.com; ParkMe, www.parkme.com; SpotHero, www.spothero.com; SpotOn Parking, www.spotonparking.com; “Europe’s Parking U-Turn: From Accommodation to Regulation,” www.itdp.org/europes-parking-u-turn-from-accommodation-to-regulation/; Donald Shoup’s “Cruising for Parking,” http://shoup.bol.ucla.edu/CruisingForParkingAccess.pdf.

Dear EarthTalk: Are self-driving cars good for the environment? -- Billy Shea, Boston, MA

You know the future is here when you see that the car beside you at a red light has nobody at the helm. That’s already happening in California where a few companies (Uber, Google, Apple, Tesla) have begun testing autonomous vehicles on the open road—albeit with human drivers at the ready in case anything goes wrong. Meanwhile, the major automakers have begun integrating autonomous driving technologies (blind spot detection, GPS mapping, assisted parking, etc.) into existing models, and will surely offer their own fully self-driving cars once lawmakers qualify them as street legal, maybe as early as 2018.

Proponents say that not only will driverless cars make our roads safer (as they can sense walkers, bikers, other cars and road infrastructure to avoid collisions), but will also be a boon to the environment. Zia Wadud, who co-authored a study released earlier this year assessing the travel, energy and carbon impacts of autonomous vehicles, says the widespread adoption of the technology could reduce energy consumption significantly. “Automated vehicles can interact with each other and drive very closely as a ‘platoon’,” reports Wadud. “This can reduce the total energy consumption of road transport by 4% to 25%, because vehicles which follow closely behind each other face less air resistance.” Beyond the platoon benefit, driverless cars can also shave another 25 percent off overall automotive energy consumption through more efficient computer-assisted ride optimization.

Yet another environmental benefit could be fewer cars on the road altogether. “Your car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then give a lift to someone else in your family—or, for that matter, to anyone else: After delivering you to your destination, it doesn’t sit idle in a parking lot for 20-plus hours every day,” report MIT researchers Matthew Claudel and Carlo Ratti in a recent McKinsey.com article. “By combining ride sharing with car sharing ... it would be possible to take every passenger to his or her destination at the time they need to be there, with 80 percent fewer cars.” They conclude that clearing four of five cars from the road would have “momentous consequences” for our cities regarding pollution, traffic, efficiency, and parking.

But Jason Bordoff of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy argues in The Wall Street Journal that driverless cars hurt overall energy efficiency by undermining public transit: “If you can work, watch a movie or sleep while in the car, perhaps you will take a car rather than public transportation or be more likely to drive for long trips.” He adds that autonomous vehicles also “significantly expand the universe of potential drivers” bringing more people (and cars) onto the road and possibly increasing total vehicle miles travelled overall. “Even car-sharing services could increase energy demand if the ease and convenience pulls people away from mass transit, walking or biking and into cars.”

Bordoff remains optimistic that autonomous vehicles can provide a net gain for society and the environment, but only if we are careful about how we implement the technology. “To ensure that autonomous vehicles deliver economic, energy security and environmental benefits, we will need supporting policies targeted at those objectives, such as increased fuel-economy standards, investments in public transportation infrastructure, and R&D in alternative vehicle technologies.”

For his part, Wadud agrees with Bordoff that driverless cars could actually be bad for the environment depending on how things shake out. “Let’s not be blinded by the driverless cars by saying they can solve everything – know that there could be risks and be careful about them,” he says. “That said, I do hope that driverless cars will encourage car sharing and help reduce our energy use and carbon emissions. However, what will happen in reality remains to be seen.””

CONTACTS: “Help or hindrance? The travel, energy and carbon impacts of highly automated vehicles,” www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0965856415002694; Claudel and Ratti’s “Full Speed Ahead: How the Driverless Car Can Transform Cities,” www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability-and-resource-productivity/our-insights/full-speed-ahead-how-the-driverless-car-could-transform-cities; Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, energypolicy.columbia.edu.

Dear EarthTalk: What is vegan leather made from, and how does it compare with conventional leather in regard to environmental impact? -- Katherine Sutton, Washington, DC

Leather is stylish, fashionable and wearable throughout the year, but its production takes a heavy toll on animal welfare and the environment. While many environmentalists and vegetarians swear off leather altogether, more and more are turning to vegan leather as a cruelty-free alternative. But even vegan (AKA synthetic) leather has its environmental problems, given the toxin-laden base materials it is typically made from and the harsh chemical tanning and dying processes it is subjected to in order to make it into the type of shiny, tough and stylish material we are have all grown to love.

Most vegan leather is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or polyurethane. According to Andrew Dent of Material ConneXion, PVC is a respiratory irritant and known carcinogen. And when it is exposed to high heat or landfilled, it releases dioxins linked to developmental, reproductive and other health problems.

Meanwhile, polyurethane-based synthetic leather isn’t much better. Jody McCutcheon reports in eluxemagazine.com that off-gassing from polyurethane can cause lung irritation and trigger asthma attacks. And the solvents used to make it malleable like leather are highly toxic in their own right.

“When it does break down, vegan leather releases phthalates—initially added as a softening agent—which subsequently enter the food chain and the atmosphere, causing breathing problems, breast cancers, hormonal disruptions and birth defects,” adds McCutcheon. 

Of course, vegan or synthetic leather does have one huge environmental advantage over conventional leather: no animals are directly harmed in its production. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), most conventional leather comes from developing countries where animal welfare laws are either non-existent or unenforced. A PETA investigation in India found workers were breaking cows’ tails and rubbing chili peppers and tobacco into their eyes “in order to force them to stand, get up and walk after they collapse from exhaustion on the way to the slaughterhouse.”

Of course, plenty of conventional leather comes from domestic sources as well. PETA says that millions of cows and other animals are killed for their skin every year right here in the U.S., with many of them forced to endure the horrors of factory farming such as extreme crowding, castration, branding, tail-docking, dehorning and other forms of control. PETA adds that beyond its pollution burden, conventional leather also “shares responsibility for all the environmental destruction caused by the meat industry” including carbon emissions and the chemical agricultural inputs and waste of cropland to grow animal feed.
For the sake of both animals and the planet, stay clear of all leather, faux or real. Plenty of clothing brands are now embracing non-animal materials and cruelty-free sourcing while keeping up their fashion chops. One example is Olsenhaus, whose faux-suede microfiber fabrics are made from recycled television film yet retain the softness, comfort and look of real suede. Another responsible choice is Dinamica, which makes its fabrics from 100 percent recycled PET bottles; the company’s eco-friendly suede look-alike material produces 60 percent fewer carbon emission than so-called virgin polyester. For more animal- and environment-friendly clothing and fabric options, check out PETA’s Cruelty-Free Shopping Guide.

CONTACTS: Material ConneXion, www.materialconnexion.com; Olsenhaus, www.olsenhaus.com; Dinamica, www.dinamicamiko.com; PETA, http://features.peta.org/cruelty-free-company-search.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways environmentalists are using social media to further their causes? -- Sam Baskin, Tullahoma, TN

Environmental advocates and organizations have embraced the revolution in online networking in no small way to raise awareness about climate change and the need for conservation of wild lands and animals—and to generate support for specific campaigns and the green movement in general.

Perhaps the most immediate way social media help the cause is via the mountain-top selfie. For many of us, a trip into the wilderness isn’t complete without a public post to announce our whereabouts. At the University of Vermont, researchers are using geo-tagged photos on social media to study the use and relative popularity of different parks and even specific trails. New tracking capabilities of personal technology also record real time statistics that can be used as a crucial defense of public parks. 

Social media has also been repurposed for environmental activism in several ways. Advocacy organizations are able to widely disseminate their messages through different social media platforms. By delivering their messages in a short, dynamic format, these groups are able to reach a wide consumer base. However, it’s difficult to assess the long-term engagement resulting from these messages. 

Nevertheless, larger environmental groups have hundreds of thousands of online fans that drink up every post and call-to-action. For instance, the Sierra Club has some 625,000 “likes” on Facebook and more than 200,000 “followers” on Twitter. A number of environmental campaigns have used social media to apply key pressure on polluters, including the Greenpeace anti-Arctic drilling campaign. Groups have used disturbing videos and touching images alike to garner large-scale public support. 

And social media isn’t just for the large, well-heeled groups. Individuals are using social media to similar ends, telling their stories and drumming up sympathy and support. Communities that are suffering particular environmental damages are able to tell their stories on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms, helping to humanize the issues. For example, victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill posted about the environmental effects of the accident on Facebook and Twitter.

Social media platforms also effectively connect these stories to larger issues through the use of hashtags. This includes a recent movement nationwide to reach Donald Trump through his daughter, Ivanka, whom the President-elect stated he leans on for advice. The #DearIvanka campaign on Twitter allows individuals to raise their concerns about a number of proposed policy changes, including environmental deregulation and nominated officials. One such tweet read “@IvankaTrump Please work with your father to respect the environment. Our children’s future is at stake. #dearivanka #greenpeace.” 

“Social media has become an important tool for providing a space and means for the public to participate in influencing or disallowing environmental decisions historically made by governments and corporations that affect us all,” says Public Lab co-founder Shannon Dosemagen. “It has created a way for people to connect local environmental challenges and solutions to larger-scale narratives that will affect us as a global community.” 

CONTACTS: “What’s Nature Worth: Count the Selfies,” http://bit.ly/2hxxqUa; #DearIvanka on Twitter, twitter.com/hashtag/dearivanka; Public Lab, www.publiclab.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit WWW.EARTHTALK.ORG Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

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