Reasons for changing commute habits

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Jianzhi Tan, C+S ’16

How much energy does an average American consume in a year? According to statistics, total energy use per person in the U.S. was about 313 million British thermal units in 2011. You might be confused about this number and unit. To make things straightforward and easy to understand, let’s think about life in light bulbs. After transferring the units, imagine 120 100-watt light bulbs burning permanently. That makes it a bit easier to understand, doesn’t it?



Energy consumption is made up of four sectors. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration Monthly Energy Review, the largest two sectors of energy consumption in the U.S. are electric power and transportation.

Facing the challenge of climate change, it is important to reframe our energy system and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are many plans and projects regarding electric power, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, and new technologies. Therefore, I’ve been wondering what we could do with transportation.

This summer I got the chance to find an answer. I did my summer internship at City Atlas, an organization that focuses on sustainability plans for New York. I participated in activities, worked on projects, and attend meetings. In June, we are invited to a meeting about an NYU Wagner capstone project, for the MTA.

The project is about the greenhouse emissions reductions that can be achieved by taking public transit rather than a private vehicle. From my perspective, it was interesting to learn how to calculate carbon emission reductions.

It was personally eye opening, too. As a graduate student, I take MTA transit every day. From the meeting I know that every single trip via MTA can save around 10.4 lbs of greenhouse gases. You might think it is not a big number, but actually, it equals to the carbon emissions required to make about 30 disposable coffee cups.

And if I take MTA for 2 unique trips per day, I would save 7,592lbs GHG emission savings annually. That’s a lot of coffee cups.

It really surprised me. The calculation is simple and I think people would be motivated to use public transit once they see the difference they could make. According to the statistics, there are currently over 3.5 billion unique passenger trips per year, which means a 19 million metric tons of less greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Therefore, we could make a big difference by simply changing our transit habit. In this case, the New York subway is actually the greenest piece of infrastructure in the U.S.



Besides ground transportation, flights also make up a large part of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. After attending the meeting in NYU, I was thinking about how we can reduce the energy consumptions and greenhouse gas emissions from flights. To find answers to this question, my colleagues and I did some interesting calculations.

First, we thought of solar power and were curious about how big a solar refinery would be needed to fuel JFK airport for a day. JFK airport requires about 166 billion kWh of energy a day according to the JFK airport fuel inventory report. The average raw power of sunshine in New York is 125W/m2. Since the supply must meet the demand, we calculated the answer by making the supply equal to the demand. The result indicates that we would need an area of 55,600 acres, which is as around 11 times the size of the airport itself. Obviously, the required area is way too large and not practical. However, this calculation gives us a sense of the huge area requirement of solar power for meeting large demand. We might still need technical innovation to deal with this issue.

After that, much bolder ideas occurred to us. Can we get across the Atlantic without burning fossil fuels? Nuclear powered ships? Wind-powered ships? So we did research on these crazy ideas. We found that there are several plans and projects regarding zero emission trips. Nevertheless, most of them are working on offsetting carbon footprint by funding renewable energy and forestry projects rather than achieving actual zero emission. Thus, the realization of zero emission trips needs the improvements of technology, the changes in people’s attitude, and policy support.

To sum up, transportation takes up a large part in the total energy consumption. Every small change counts and we could make a big difference by altering our commute habits. New technologies, new concepts, and new commute habits can lead to a better future.

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