Climate Connections: Missoulians who are driving less when it matters most
It’s early February in Montana and you’re probably thinking about skiing or relaxing in a hot spring. You’re probably not thinking about biking for your next errand or commute and you’re not alone.
Luckily there are so many other sustainable ways to get around – walking, riding a warm bus, coordinating paratransit through Mountain Line, carpooling with a neighbor or friend, vanpooling if you work in the Bitterroot and beyond, or telecommuting to your desk if you’re able to work from home.
Sometimes you just need to drive and that’s ok. Even better if you can pick up a carpool partner along the way. If you can only make one sustainable trip throughout the week, it benefits us all.
One less car on the road is one less car jamming up the roads with traffic. It’s one less tailpipe spewing harmful emissions that cause chronic health issues and catastrophic climate change. In fact, Missoula’s Community GHG Inventory showed us that 84% of our transportation-related emissions come from our vehicles’ tailpipes.
Why is this so important in February? People tend to drive more in the winter, a time of year when our valley experiences winter inversion. If you aren’t familiar with inversion, it’s a phenomenon that plagues valley communities like ours.
Warm clouds of air linger just above our heads, trapping colder air and everything we emit – tailpipe emissions, smoke from wood fires, etc. – in the air we breathe, effectively decimating our air quality. Poor air quality doesn’t just obscure our beautiful mountain views. Exposure to the microscopic particulates - a.k.a. PM 2.5 – that comprise much of the pollution from smoke and combustion engines also poses serious health risks to all of us, especially to young children, the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions.
In 2022, Missoula In Motion highlighted a few community members as Commuters of Missoula who contribute to cleaner air by consistently making the choice to commute sustainably.
We asked about their transportation habits and the choices they make throughout the year and found that people have a multitude of reasons for leaving their cars at home, or not owning one at all.
Brace, featured as a Commuter of Missoula in May explains, “I like the environmental benefits of not contributing to carbon emissions. It feels like I've gotten that small win of doing something good for the environment and my body. It really is just a nice way see your town, get a little fresh air, and get your exercise in for the day.”
Brace commutes by bike three days a week, allotting one day for driving so that he can run his weekly errands after work. “I think some reasons people don’t want to ride their bike to work is… the unpleasantness of the weather, not wanting to have cold fingers or cold toes. … I've always subscribed to the theory, ‘There's no bad weather, only bad clothes.’ What I would tell people is - have layers; things to take on and off.”
Of course, some people who would otherwise use an active mode of transportation choose not to in the winter because of the weather. Margo is a multimodal commuter who estimates that during the summer she walks or bikes up to 80 percent of the time, a percentage that drops to 40% in the winter.
“I feel like it's easy to get in this mindset that it has to be perfect, though. I’m not going to lie, I drove this week, but it's just sort of like letting go of the idea of being a perfectionist with it. Just do what you can… a lot of people doing a little is better than a few people doing a lot."
Molly, Commuter of Missoula in November, started riding the bus and carpooling this past summer during Missoula in Motion’s City Employee Wellness Challenge. “I'm very competitive, so I was like, ‘I can do that, no problem.’ Really, I had been wanting to because there's a bus stop right outside my apartment complex… The Challenge was the push I needed to actually try; to test it out and see what it was like to take the bus.”
Now, Molly leaves her car parked during the winter to feel safer on her commute. “Driving my car in the winter is so anxiety inducing...Having an option that is safe, like riding the bus or carpooling, takes that pressure off me to drive.”
Ultimately, we think Margo put it perfectly when she said, “I started sustainably commuting mostly because of climate change and trying not to use fossil fuels. In a world where it's easy to feel hopeless about not being able to do anything about what's going, it’s just one little thing that you can do to help out. I feel like I'm giving Mother Earth a hug by not driving.”
That sentiment is something Missoula in Motion emphasizes with all of our outreach especially the annual Clear the Air Challenge, an individual challenge to divert CO2 by using a sustainable mode of transportation for as many commutes an errands as possible during the month of January.
Trip lengths for all the 111 participants stretched between .1 and 25.5 miles diverting a combined 2.96 tons of CO2e from the atmosphere, showing us that whether you can only make one big trip a week or lots of small trips it all adds up to a big positive impact and truly benefits us all.
Like Margo said, give Mother Earth a hug this winter and use a sustainable mode of transportation when you can. In fact, February 16th is Winter Clean Commute Day, the perfect excuse to give it a try. Walking, biking, riding the bus, carpooling, and vanpooling, and telecommuting – there’s really an option for everybody no matter your motivation.
Not sure where to start? That’s when Missoula in Motion comes in. We are dedicated to increasing the use of sustainable transportation in and around Missoula. Our organization provides resources to make the sustainable choice the easy choice, helps folks navigate their new commute, and rewards people just for using sustainable transportation.
Looking for more opportunities to support clean air efforts in our community? Check out Running up for Air Mt Sentinel, a benefit for Climate Smart Missoula, this weekend and join the fun or donate to support participants.
And as our community grows, we can all advocate for policies and plans that make climate-friendly transportation more accessible and equitable. Together, let’s work for cleaner air and a healthier climate for all.
Alli Kane is the Transportation Demand Management Specialist for Missoula in Motion. Climate Smart Missoula brings this Climate Connections column to you the second and fourth Friday of every month. Learn more about our work and sign up for our e-newsletter at missoulaclimate.org.