Katherine Auge

For many of us, hopping into our vehicles to make a trip is a part of our daily routine that we seldom think twice about. Yet in reality, every time we drive, we are making a choice with real measurable impacts on the health of our bodies, our community and our planet.

If we take a moment to consider our options and their impacts before reaching for the keys, together, we can enact momentous change. One quarter of all trips in the U. S. are 1 mile or less, yet nearly all of them are taken by car.  Meanwhile, American lifestyles are becoming increasingly sedentary.

Why talk about sustainable transportation in the middle of winter, as snow is (finally) falling and frigid temperatures are in the forecast? Clearly, there are unique barriers to biking, busing, walking or carpooling in the winter (and dangerously cold temps are nothing to be flip about – please do be careful out there).

But polar vortexes aside, if we can try a sustainable mode of travel during the winter, we’re that much more likely to make that choice more often at any time of year. That’s why Missoula In Motion is again hosting our annual Clear the Air Challenge this January – and it’s not too late to participate!

Individuals can earn prizes by logging sustainable trips and tracking the collective impact participants have on diverting CO2 from entering the atmosphere. The challenge tracks both commute and errand trips so even those who need to drive to work or are retired or unemployed can be involved. All participants are entered to win a raffle prize, so even if you can only take 1 or 2 sustainable trips throughout the course of the month, it’s still worth joining!

The Clear the Air Challenge aims to inspire choosing sustainable transportation options during the time of year when it’s the hardest to do but matters the most. Our current habit of driving alone in a vehicle for the majority of our trips emits high levels of harmful toxins into the air. Transportation accounts for 35% of all local CO2 emissions here in Missoula, a majority of which comes from tailpipes on personal vehicles.

In addition to the detrimental climate impacts of gas-powered vehicles, the effects vehicle emissions have on air quality are felt locally, particularly during the winter months.  Inversions in Missoula trap harmful pollutants close to the valley floor, keeping them in the air we breathe for days, or even weeks at a time. Long term exposure to poor air quality results in increased rates of heart and lung disease, and ultimately, shortened life spans.

And shifting to sustainable transportation doesn’t just benefit your personal health and carbon footprint – it also supports critical community climate goals. Missoula has committed to achieving ambitious goals in shifting the modes by which we travel. The Activate Missoula 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan calls for reducing the drive-alone commute rate by half and tripling the number of people commuting by bike, foot and transit by 2045.

Attaining such ambitious targets will require open minds, progressive public policy and significant improvements to the built environment. We have a long way to go, and it won’t happen overnight. Fortunately, the foundations are in place: zero-fare transit service, an extensive trail network, widespread ridesharing opportunities and even commonplace telework policies all offer convenient and affordable sustainable transportation options – empowering us to leave the car out of the equation when possible.

For the past 25 years, Missoula in Motion has been helping individuals discover all their transportation options, encouraging Missoulians from every walk of life to rethink the ways they get around and realize the benefits associated with sustainable travel. It is true that many people face many barriers in choosing to bike, walk, bus, carpool or vanpool, and by no means do we expect everyone to adopt a car-free lifestyle. It is all about doing what you can, when you can.

Even a 1% reduction in the number of vehicle trips can have a much more significant impact on traffic congestion and emissions. Imagine the difference if every person managed to ride the bus to work, or carpool with a neighbor just one day a week. The impact would be huge!

Now is the time to make the move to sustainable transportation and unlock all the benefits that go along with it. If we can start to see commuting differently, we can pave the way to making Missoula a happier, healthier and more climate-safe community for years to come.

Katherine Auge is the Program Manager with Missoula In Motion. Missoula In Motion offers resources to support individuals interested in choosing sustainable transportation options. Learn more at Missoulainmotion.comLearn more about and register for the Clear the Air Challenge here.

Climate Smart Missoula brings this Climate Connections column to you two Fridays of every month. Learn more about our work and sign up for our e-newsletter at missoulaclimate.org.