No Impact Week: A Few Thoughts on Getting from Here to There

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Visit NRDCs Switchboard Blog

It is now Day 3 of the No Impact experiment, and I've already broken one of my commitments!  My plan was to avoid buying any food item with a package this week, but when I went home last night to whip up a soup using the homemade broth I'd concocted the day before, I realized I was missing one of the main ingredients.  A pumpkin, to be exact.  And while you may ask me, "Molly, shouldn't it have been obvious to you that you didn't have a pumpkin lying around the house?" I would tell you -- well, yes.  But I thought I had some leftover pumpkin puree in the refrigerator that I wanted to use up (lest it go to waste!) and so I dove into the soup preparations with zeal.  Unfortunately, I was a little too zealous, and didn't check to make sure I had enough pumpkin puree.  Halfway through sautéing my onions with spices, I realized my mistake.  And that's when I caved -- I had to buy a can of pumpkin.

I'm considering this to be a lesson, though, and not a failure.  After all, I learned something important about making a true effort to live a low-impact lifestyle: it takes some advance planning.  It would be unfair if I gave myself a hard time for not having a spare pumpkin on hand, when I had no idea over the weekend (when I did my shopping) that I'd have the wacky idea to make pumpkin soup.  So, when I go home tonight, I'm going to take a few minutes to browse through my cookbooks (which is one of my favorite activities, anyway) and plan out a couple meals for the rest of the week.  I'll write down a list of ingredients and bring it to work tomorrow, and since we are lucky enough to have a farmers' market right outside the office door each Wednesday, I'll pick up the requisite veggies.  When I get started in the kitchen, maybe I'll make a double batch of the recipe so I'll have some leftovers to bring to work the next day.  See, this is getting easier already!

Enough about the past, though.  Let's move on to the Day 3 challenge -- transportation.  I've already written one Switchboard post describing my experience as a Los Angeles bus rider, so today I'd like to recount a little story about what I consider to be my backup mode of transportation -- my car.

Once upon a time (well, it was a few months ago), after returning home from a radiant and restful ten day getaway in the Alabama wilderness (it's beautiful there, if you didn't already know), I hopped into my old 1996 Subaru station wagon.  I needed to zip around town to a couple different locations in order to run some post-vacation errands.  With my old-school iPod plugged into the cantankerous cassette player, I tapped the wheel to the beat and smiled to myself as I blissfully rounded the curve of the Silver Lake Reservoir, gazing up at the dazzling colors of the summer sky as they slowly drained into the grey of dusk.  "Surely," I thought to myself, "LA is the best city in the world."  And that's when I saw it -- that tiny, nagging message glowing orange on the dashboard, just waiting to wreck my mood: the check engine light.

Turns out the problem was with the knock sensor, a part I'd never even heard of before.  My first reaction was to take charge and try to tackle it with DIY, but it turns out that even just getting to the knock sensor involved three pages of detailed instructions in the repair manual and dissembling ¾ of the engine.  I felt despondent.  I'd already poured over a thousand dollars' worth of repairs into this old -- or shall we say "vintage" -- automobile over the past year or so, and it probably wasn't even worth that much.  So I came to the decision that I needed to bite the bullet and buy a new car.

Shopping for a new car certainly was an alluring activity, at first.  As I browsed the internet, all the newest models seemed so shiny and fancy compared to The 'Ru (as I affectionately call my ride) and many of them offered a pretty decent MPG.  But as I stacked up my car dealership business cards and dove headfirst into the cells of a budget spreadsheet, trying to figure out the details of how I would afford the financing payments, registration fees, new insurance policy, and all the rest, my boyfriend broke in with a thought.

"Maybe we don't need a car," he said offhandedly.

I scoffed.  What was he talking about?  We live in Los Angeles, for goodness sake.  This city is practically synonymous with cars.  "How on earth," I asked him, "will we survive without a CAR?!"

But then I thought about it, and I realized he had a pretty darn good point.  We both take the bus to work every day, and we can do most of our shopping and errands during our breaks.  On weekends, we usually like to hang out around the neighborhood or relax at home, and when we do go out with friends, why couldn't we suggest carpooling, or ride our bikes instead?  Our monthly metro passes get us unlimited rides on the bus and subway systems, so there's nothing stopping us from riding public transportation whenever we need to.  And for those times when we really do need a car, we could always rent, or look into options like Zipcar.

Any Angeleno knows, however, that there are times when you just need to get somewhere quickly, without waiting for a bus or working up a sweat on a bike.  And let's face it -- Los Angeles is huge!  Sometimes you simply need to travel farther than a bus (or your legs) can carry you.  So as I considered my own transportation needs and options, I knew that if I was going to be realistic, I would have to admit that sometimes an engine is what I require to get myself from here to there.

So I decided to do something a bit...unusual.  Instead of buying a new car, I bought a Vespa.

And you know what?  It has turned out to be the perfect complement to my alternative transportation lifestyle.  Buying it and getting insured was far cheaper that what I was gearing up to pay with a new car.  Not only is it fun to ride, but it gets over 70 miles per gallon, making it the perfect way to get somewhere quickly without guzzling up an excessive amount of fossil fuels (Vespa talks about this on their own website).  Traveling the city by bus and scooter, I am also able to eliminate the headache of having to find a parking spot (my scooter is way smaller than a car, so parking it is a breeze), help to alleviate some of LA's notorious traffic, and minimize my share of emissions.  The gas tank holds a little over a gallon and a half, which lasts me more than a week for only about $5.  That's only the cost of, say, a burrito from the food court -- and that's an expense I'm already saving this week by bringing my own wrapper-free lunch to work!

I guess the moral of my story is that learning how to live a low-impact lifestyle has required some pragmatic brainstorming about what's really possible for my own routine on a day-to-day basis.  I have found that when I make a hasty decision to undertake some kind of valiant environmental effort without considering the reality of my situation, I only undermine my own ambition since I may be setting myself up to fail.  But by thinking the details through ahead of time -- whether it's something as simple as creating the week's menus on Sunday or something a little more complicated, like reimagining a commute -- I give myself a great head start.  Sometimes that makes all the difference in whether or not I succeed. 

I'll try to focus on that lesson a bit more as I face the challenges of the upcoming No Impact days: food and energy consumption.  If I want to make a quantifiable difference in those areas, I know I'll have to plan ahead.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.