Category Archives: transportation

Could Zipcar Actually Be Bad for the Environment?

Zipcar, the popular car sharing service, and others like it are often lauded for their environmental benefits. After all, if you can borrow a car when you need one, then maybe you won’t buy one. And if fewer people buy cars, that’s good for the environment, right?

It might be, but it depends. It depends on how car sharing affects driving behavior. Some studies have shown that just one quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with passenger vehicles are produced in the manufacturing process. Most of the emissions occur in the process of driving it. Even if Zipcar reduces vehicle ownership a bit, it might actually increase the amount of driving people do. After all, if you can borrow a car whenever you need to, you might drive more. If this is the case, the environmental impact of Zipcar could easily be negative.

I’ve not seen any really good research on what Zipcar’s impact has really been. Zipcar recently commissioned a survey in which it asked consumers about their attitudes about driving and the environment. For some reason, it completely missed the opportunity to ask the simple question: “With Zipcar, do you drive more or less than you did before?” The closest the survey came was a question worded this way:

To what extent have transportation apps (i.e. taxi apps, car rental reservations, public transportation info, car sharing, ride sharing, etc.) reduced your driving frequency?

That’s just too broad to reveal the impact of car sharing. An earlier study commissioned by Zipcar showed that 18 percent new Zipcar members sold their cars within a year of joining the service. That’s likely because most rarely used their cars to begin with: only 38 percent took five or more trips a month before they joined Zipcar. It did show that the already small number of frequent drivers dropped further, to 12 percent.

But these surveys don’t capture a potentially important effect of car sharing services: increasing demand for cars among non-car owners, because they are cheap and easy to borrow when needed.

It is quite possible that car sharing services like Zipcar actually increase driving, by making it easier for people who don’t own cars to drive one. Anecdotally, that seems to be the impact in New York City, at least among some people I know.

If you know of a proper study on the impact of car sharing on driving, please let me know. If you would like to commission one, I can get it done for you.

What do you think?

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Filed under transportation, Uncategorized

Sustainability in the Auto Industry: BMW vs. Ford

Last week’s Sustainable Brands conference was stimulating and inspiring as usual. I hope I will come around to posting a series of observations from the conference, but I’ll  start with this one: the contrast between how BMW and Ford presented their green product strategies.

BMW was represented by Uwe Dreher, the global head of marketing for BMW i, the company’s new electric-vehicle sub-brand. Dreher opened his presentation by sharing some findings from BMW’s ethnographic research that the company found troubling. In the affluent neighborhoods around the San Francisco Bay Area it is not uncommon to find a Toyota Prius in the driveway of a $5 million home. If affluent consumers, who could afford a BMW, were buying the relatively affordable Prius instead because of its environmental caché, this presented a threat to BMW. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, the company found young people are no longer enthusiastic about getting a driver’s license and less keen to drive than youngsters of prior generations. (General Motors has found something similar in the U.S.) The streets of Tokyo are too congested, said Dreher; it’s no longer fun to drive there. And public transportation presents far less hassle. If the young no longer saw driving as fun, what did this say for the future of BMW in Japan?

These threats were an impetus behind BMW’s electric vehicle strategy, which is intended to appeal to the affluent and the young, by combining the sex appeal and prestige of a BMW with the superior environmental performance of a next-generation all-electric vehicle. The strategy is a sound response to what the company’s research turned up, except for one detail: the company’s green strategy is intended to increase consumption, from the moderately priced Prius to the luxury-priced BMW i8 and from parsimonious and efficient public transportation to the sexy BMW i3. Is this in fact a green strategy?

As a mass-market automaker, Ford has taken a different course, embracing a more populist and inclusive strategy. John Viera, Ford’s global director of sustainability and vehicle environmental matters, described the company’s broad line of electric and hybrid vehicles, which will include seven models by early 2013. Then Viera acknowledged that the migration to electric vehicles is not going to happen overnight. For quite some time people are going to buy internal combustion engine vehicles. Ford’s strategic response: a commitment to offer the most fuel-efficient vehicle (or one tied for most fuel efficient) in every automotive category. The idea being: no matter what kind of car you need, you can have the most fuel-efficient one if you buy a Ford. That’s an impressive brand promise, one that requires a significant commitment.

The paths chosen by BMW and Ford will be more significant for the impact they have on the industry today and in the future than for the vehicles that roll off their assembly lines over the next couple of years. BMW produced just 1.7 million cars in 2011, less than 3 percent of global car production; the BMW i brand will likely account for tiny fraction of its sales in 2013-14. But the BMW i series may help popularize the use of ultra-light-weight materials–such as the carbon composite to be used in the new line’s passenger cabs–in production vehicles, which will help the industry improve fuel efficiency over time. Ford, meanwhile, sold about 5.7 million vehicles in 2011. Its competitive positioning around fuel efficiency should help spur innovation among automakers as well.

What are your thoughts?

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Filed under marketing, transportation

The Most Interesting Things Today

One of the most interesting things for me at today’s New York Times conference on the future of energy was a comment that U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu made.

Thomas Friedman asked Secretary Chu what he would want to work on if he were just coming out of school today, a freshly minted Ph.D. Rather than choose a particular scientific or technological focus, his choice was “systems.” He cited the Toyota Prius as innovative system created from existing technologies.

That’s a pretty interesting answer.

Systems thinking is the key to unraveling some of our toughest challenges, particularly those related to energy and environmental sustainability. Everyone from scientists and technologists to individuals to corporate managers to policy makers ought to beef up their systems thinking skills.

The other interesting thing was a brief, low-key but mind-blowing presentation by Mitja Hinderks in which he explained how his little organization is going to cut global CO2 emissions by 25% with an innovative new design for an uncooled internal combustion engine that, compared to today’s engines, will have a fraction of the parts, a multiple of the efficiency, and could be swapped in and out of vehicles like a cartridge.

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Filed under carbon, efficiency, emissions, transportation

Is Clean Water Vs. Dirty Air a Good Trade-Off?

Do you need to put 5,000 more cars to the road to get clean drinking water?

I find the trade-offs that arise in energy development, environmental protection and human health fascinating. Over the years I’ve written on this topic a few times:

Energy Technologies and Unintended Consequences

Unintended Consequences, Part II: Air vs. Water

Unintended Consequences, Part III: Electricity vs. Water

Today I want to talk about a 160,000 square-foot new water treatment facility in New York that will be going online this year, and how it’s giving us safer water at the cost of a hefty increase in greenhouse gas emissions. I’m referring to the Catskill/Delaware Ultraviolet Light Disinfection Facility, which is in the final stages of construction just north of New York City. The facility will use ultraviolet light to disinfect an average of 1.3 billion gallons of water per day. It’s also going to use a lot of electricity and, as a result, increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Source: NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection

The consequences of this project are neither unintended nor unforeseen. The project was required by Federal and State regulations to maintain the safety of New York City’s water supply, which is one of only a handful of major water supplies in the U.S. that remain unfiltered, according to civil engineer Robert Osborne, who is very into water. Having an unfiltered water supply is a kind of badge of honor. It means your water is exceptionally pure. But Federal and state regulations require water supplies to be protected by other means if filtration is not used. (The New York Times reported that a filtration system for this water supply would have cost up to $8 billion to build millions of dollars a year to operate.)

A project of this magnitude, whose costs are estimated at $1.6 billion, undergoes detailed analysis and planning, including an the creation of an environmental impact statement. The environmental impact statement says that the plant will draw an average of 4.45 megawatts of electric power. By my calculations (4.45MW X 24 hours X 365.25 days X 1000), that will equal about 39 million KWh of electricity annually.

You can calculate the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to provide 39M KWh of electricity in New York using EPA’s eGRID methodology (available via a cool tool on amee.com). Using my assumption, it comes to over 25,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. Taking the EPA’s estimate of the average annual greenhouse gas emissions of an average automobile (5.1 metric tons of CO2E per year) you find that these emissions are the equivalent of putting about 5,000 more cars on the road.

I have no doubt that this particular trade-off (cleaner water for dirtier air) is worth it. The project protects over 8 million people who depend on this water supply from the risk of water-borne contaminants that could cause a significant public health crisis. I point it out not to criticize this project but rather to illustrate the kinds of trade-offs policy makers face all the time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Filed under climate change, emissions, grid, transportation, utilities, water

Is Your Company Ready to Go Zero Waste to Landfill?

By Anna Munie, CHMM

Companies that divert solid waste from landfills are not only protecting the environment. Many are saving substantial amounts of money. Subaru now reaps yearly savings in the millions from its waste diversion programs, for instance. Some are improving manufacturing efficiency. And others are even developing new products: Interface created its entire line of modular re-usable flooring out of a desire to keep waste carpet from landfills.

Getting to zero waste can be a long journey, however. Here are some key steps along the way.

First, a company must perform a detailed audit of its current processes and materials. This includes determining each type of waste that is currently being generated, and then researching alternative options for every single item (recycling, re-use, re-sale, etc.). This may require literal “Dumpster diving” to see first-hand what is going into landfill Dumpsters, as well as time spent performing detailed reviews of both material purchase and waste disposal records. If a material you are purchasing can only be thrown away, switch to a product that has recycling options. (For example, in areas where number 6 plastics cannot be recycled, recycling may be available for number 2 plastics.) Have departments such as purchasing, operations and R&D make a list of all the materials they currently throw away. Then explore alternative options for disposal for each.

Finding solutions by working with suppliers can help a company down the path to zero waste to landfill. Many of the most successful zero waste to landfill companies utilize supplier take-back programs as a significant part of their waste reduction tactics. For example, the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana ships all of its pre-formed Styrofoam casings back to its Japanese supplier for re-use with new engine parts. These closed loop systems can have a huge impact on reducing solid waste to landfill, but they also require additional logistics on both ends, so a company must have a good working relationship with their suppliers. (More on zero-waste car plants here.)

Finally, going  100 percent zero waste to landfill is a long-term goal. It has taken Honda 10 years to achieve zero waste to landfill at its 14 North American manufacturing plants. Set realistic goals and deadlines for waste diversion, including taking into account the type of business you operate. Production and assembly based companies can often get to zero landfill goals faster because they already incorporate lean manufacturing and other structured processes. Retail and service organizations, on the other hand, may see a rougher road initially due to a larger number of locations, variety of goods, and wide range of operations. These companies may need to take more step-by-step reductions such as 25 percent or 50 percent before going for the ultimate goal of 100 percent diversion.

Whether your business is a manufacturer, fabricator, retailer, or service provider, zero waste to landfill is a lofty but worthwhile goal. Follow the right steps and you could see significant business and environmental benefits.

Do you have any waste management success stores or questions to share? Please consider leaving a comment.


Anna Munie is a freelance writer currently working within the fields of sustainability and environmental health and safety management. She has 10 years of experience in hazardous waste management and is a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). When not developing sustainability programs and making sure the Ph.D.’s in her research department don’t blow themselves up, she competes nationally with her horse Lucky in the sport of reining.

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Filed under transportation, waste management

Technology Makes Bridge Simile Obsolete

A week’s holiday in the U.K. drew my attention to a recent news story over there: how a much-loved simile featuring a much-loved engineering marvel, is about to become obsolete.

Scotland’s Forth Railway Bridge, a 2.5 kilometer steel bridge, was completed in 1890. Because it is so big and so complicated to paint, it was said (not entirely accurately) that as soon as it was painted, painting needed to start all over again. This gave rise to the expression “like painting the Forth Bridge,” meaning a never-ending task.

But Network Rail announced last week that a new paint job may render that expression obsolete. A new paint job using glass flake epoxy paint is nearing completion. That type of paint is used in the offshore oil industry and is intended to last 25 years or more. Network Rail says, “After 10 years and an investment of over £130m, the bridge will finally be free of scaffolding, with a full paint job unlikely to be required again for over twenty years.”

This is good news for the many admirers of this early engineering marvel. But a conundrum for lovers of the “Forth Bridge” simile.

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New-Vehicle Stickers and Nits

The U.S. federal government yesterday revealed the new window stickers that will be required on vehicles starting in the 2013 model year. The new labels provide more information about fuel economy, CO2 emissions and smog impacts and are intended help consumers consider those factors in their purchase decisions.  Coverage of the news by the New York Times cites some controversy over the selection of this label versus alternatives championed by NRDC and others. But what struck me was how the Times characterized the new label.

The Times said the new labels “for the first time include estimated annual fuel costs and the vehicle’s overall environmental impact.” (Italics mine.) But the labels only count emissions produced while driving, not during the entire vehicle life cycle. While it’s true that driving the vehicle accounts for the majority its CO2 emissions, other life cycle phases can account for well over 20 percent of them, as these results from a life cycle assessment published by automaker Nissan show.

I hope we can gradually raise public awareness of the concept of life cycle thinking by using more precise language when we talk about environmental impacts.

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Filed under emissions, Life Cycle Assessment, transportation