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Can changing our transportation habits help meet the emissions goal?

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Michelle Cumming Lokkegaard at the train station.
To get to work, Michelle is dropped off, drives or takes the bus to the train station in Allerod, about file miles away, which takes her into Copenhagen. Michelle says it's a major logistical puzzle each day to coordinate work schedules, transportation and picking up their son at school.
Michelle Cumming Lokkegaard

Even with the advent of light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit - not to mention talk of new rail links from Duluth to Chicago - Minnesotans still overwhelmingly depend on their cars. 

Ninety percent of us use them to commute, mostly solo. Changing that car culture is a key component to achieving a reduction in carbon emissions.

University of Minnesota urban studies and geography professor Judith Martin said two main factors influence our transportation carbon footprint.

"One is the place that we live and the other is the way that we move to and from the place that we live," Martin said.

Let's start with the latter -- how we get around. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American drives 12,000 miles each year. If your car gets the average of 22.1 miles per gallon, every year you're producing more than 10,000 pounds of CO2 - the main greenhouse gas. 

How can you knock 17 percent off that portion of your carbon footprint? That average driver could trade in for a vehicle that gets a little better than 26 miles per gallon - that would do it.

Or you could shift some of those miles to other vehicles. Car pooling one day a week could, depending on weekend driving habits, reduce emissions enough to hit that 17 percent goal. Shifting a quarter of those miles driven to bus would hit the goal. Rail is a little less efficient, according to the EPA, so it would take a little more shifting; about a one-third of the 12,000 miles would have to rail miles.

But therein lies the challenge, say critics of voluntary greenhouse gas reductions. To use transit - for instance - you have to live near a transit line, and U.S policies don't create the kinds of incentives to get people to do that.

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The U's Judith Martin said you only need to look to the site of this week's global warming summit to understand the mindset necessary to make lasting changes to our carbon footprint.

"If you're talking about a difference between what and how people live with respect to environmental issues in Minnesota and in Denmark, that's it. It's cultural," Martin said.

Comparing Denmark and the U.S.

Michelle Cumming Lokkegaard, is a former Minnesotan who moved to a Copenhagen suburb seven years ago. There she discovered how Danish policies force consumers to think twice about driving, starting with the decision about whether to own a vehicle at all. 

"The government taxes new cars at the rate of 180 percent," Lokkegaard said.

Malene Houmaae
Malene Houmaae is a Dane living in Chanhassen. She's lived in the U.S. for 16 years but has retained her Danish perspective on energy use. She calls the Volvo sedan she uses for her work as a realtor 'big and splurgy' and says it could be afforded only by the richest people in Denmark.
Malene Houmaae

That would be a $36,000 tax on the $20,000 car for which a Minnesotan would pay about $1,600 in taxes and fees. If you can afford that premium, Lokkegaard said you better make sure you have enough left over for gas.

"It costs about $8 a gallon," she said.

More than half of that is tax. You can guess the result. 

A lot of Copenhagen commuters find options. More than a one-third of the Danes who commute to Copenhagen for work or for school ride a bike. Less than half, by one estimate, use a car.

Ditching the car is easier if you live closer to work or to a transportation option. And that requires a philosophy of development planning that encourages compact cities and supplies an extensive transit network, which Michelle says the Danes employ.

Malene Houmaae's house
With the investments they made in energy-saving building, Malene says their combined electric and gas bills never exceed $130 a month, and they cut their use by half. She says they will have paid off their investment in six or seven years.
Malene Houmaae

"It's pretty regulated. It's not just houses sprawling all over the place," she said. "It's carefully planned, there's transportation planned into the new developments, the lot sizes are kept at a certain level."

Back in Minnesota, the last word on how Minnesotans can adapt belongs to a Dane, in this case Malene Houmaae.

Malene and her husband were born and raised in Denmark and have lived here 16 years and like it a lot. She calls the Volvo S80 sedan she drives big and "splurgy," and could be afforded by only the richest people back in Denmark.

Houmaee enjoys her new 2,600-square-foot suburban home, much larger than many homes back in her homeland. 

Houmaee measures her words carefully when she talks to her friends and neighbors about energy because coming from Denmark, a country essentially light years ahead of most of the rest of the world in energy savings, she doesn't want to sound condescending.

"We have always felt that the Americans have quite an awakening coming because the gas prices here; we are a little spoiled over here," Houmaee said. "We have motors on everything from the lawn mower to the hedge clipper to the nose hair clipper; there's motors on everything in the U. S., and it is extremely convenient. But there's a price to that and that of course is our carbon imprint on this world."

European-style land regulation that Malene Houmaee grew up with and that Michelle Cumming Lokkegaard is living with now isn't built in to greenhouse gas legislation moving through Congress. 

It may not be necessary to meet the 17 percent reduction goal for 2020, but the legislation also calls for steeper reductions over the next 40 years. Achieving that may take more profound shifts in thinking about not just how we get around, but where we're going to and from.