Carbon - a personal journey

2008-08-19 00:00

For those of us trying to live a greener, more carbon-conscious life, the first two commandments should perhaps be: “Thou shalt not own a car” and “Thou shalt not fly away on holiday”, writes Elizabeth Rosenthal recently in the International Herald Tribune. Let’s leave out the vexed question of offsets which can become a grotesque exercise in self-justification, such as the couple who recently proclaimed that they only had one child and a small car to offset their one overseas trip a year.

Many people are, as we say in South Africa, trying, trying to do their bit for the environment and the future of the planet. Many are succeeding. Thermostats are going down and energy-efficient light bulbs are going down in price. Recycling is becoming routine. Greenness is growing despite governmental inertia. The trouble is that travel accounts for between 75% and 90% of the personal emissions of people in the developed world and these emissions are going up inexorably. Hence all the good that is done at home is offset in the negative sense when we travel either by car or by plane.

Unfortunately, the studies show, Rosenthal informs us, that not only is personal transportation the number one carbon creator for individuals, but it is one of the most difficult areas in which to effect personal change. Few people who have acquired a car and tasted the delights of its convenience and

status go back to public transport, and few drivers manage to cut down on their air or car kilometres, even if they appreciate the need to do so. Finally, car owners tend to buy bigger, not smaller vehicles as they move through their car-owning lives. All of which means that personal carbon dioxide cuts are not happening in the areas that they most need to.

I suspect that Rosenthal’s perspective, although clearly Western and American, is generally right. In Johannesburg one notices a growing number of small cars on the roads these days, but on the other hand the sheer number of cars, big or small, continues to rise. Every gain, it seems, is immediately cancelled out, swamped, buried and negatively offset.

As a resident of the godless city who has to commute daily to work, I decided to experiment with the buses. Now I imagine that for readers who regard Johannesburg as the epitome of the urban jungle, the idea of boarding a bus in such a rough place would be like diving, covered in cuts, into a piranha-infested river. I have come to the conclusion that in almost every way this perception is false. In fact, overall the bus beats the car, often hands down.

Take safety. When did you last hear of a bus being hijacked? One hears of taxi violence or taxi rank violence almost every week, but not bus violence or bus-stop violence. When did you last hear of an urban bus being involved in an accident in which passengers are killed or seriously injured? Accidents to inter-city coaches occur quite frequently because of their high speeds, but in town buses rarely go much faster than the speed limit and in a collision their height and weight are advantages for their passengers.

Take stress. Someone else does the driving. This involves a loss of control, but the men and women who pilot the Johannesburg buses are admirably skilled. They have to be; they deal with taxis and from time to time one has the free entertainment of seeing a taxi firmly elbowed out of the way or even helplessly wedged in while the driver waxes apoplectic.

Take comfort. The older buses are a little clunky on their suspension, but the newer ones give quite a smooth ride. I am fortunate to live out in the suburbs far enough so that I always find an empty seat in the morning and I am able to take a relatively early return bus, also with guaranteed seating.

Take mental stimulation. One can use the travelling time to read, or alternatively to take note of fellow travellers (who are a very mixed bunch, by the way) and what they are wearing and saying or what is happening on the street. Observing the world through the window of a car is a distraction from the task of driving. On a bus there is some social connection, some sense of equality and solidarity with those inside and out.

As for cost, the fare is about equivalent to the petrol one would consume in a car. However, drivers know that petrol is only part of the fortune one spends annually on the running of a private vehicle.

Then there is time. A 30-minute car journey goes up to 45 minutes on the bus, including brief walks to and from the bus stops. However, if one factors in reading time gained, then a bus journey actually saves me half an hour a day.

Finally, the carbon dioxide factor. Most estimates put a bus passenger’s carbon footprint as a fraction of that of a car user.

The main risk for me is to be accused of being a faux-prole since I sometimes cadge lifts off colleagues and I also still have access to a car. But car pooling is a good thing and my ultimate hope is to end up as one of the more adapted members of the commuter species when the price of fuel finally kills off private transport.

• Chris Chatteris is the media liaison officer for the Jesuit Institute of South Africa (Jisa).

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