Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Car-Free Day

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski has put together an ambitious legislative package to promote renewable energy sources, as detailed in the Sunday Oregonian (February 11th). For the first time since his election in 2002, he has a Democratic legislature that seems open to innovation in this, and many other, areas.

So far energy conservation hasn't been a major focus of the discussion here in Oregon. But a statewide conservation program, designed to significantly reduce consumption of fossil fuels, would easily and inexpensively complement the proposals that have been offered. There has been little recognition of the value of energy conservation at the federal level, leaving it up to the states, in the spirit of creative federalism, to develop their own approaches to overcoming the “national addiction” to oil.

My modest proposal is to encourage each Oregon household to select a voluntary “Car-Free Day” which could potentially reduce statewide gasoline consumption and pollution by anywhere from 5-15% (1). The Car-Free Day would emphasize the following:

  1. Encouraging Oregonians to refrain from driving their cars one day per week.

Families could plan their weeks so that travel by car would be unnecessary during whichever day they choose as their Car-Free Day. For most of us, it would be easiest to begin on weekends, though the Car-Free Day would then provide less relief from heavy volumes of urban traffic on weekdays. As the concept gains currency, though, increasing numbers of drivers could explore alternative ways to commute to work by bus, carpool, bicycle, streetcar, train or foot.

  1. Encouraging Oregonians to exercise more and explore their own communities on their Car-Free Day.

Everyone would benefit from more exercise, but the Car-Free Day would offer a less obvious advantage: relief from the growing stress of driving, especially with the increasing volumes of traffic here in the Portland region (as also described in the Sunday Oregonian article headlined "Car-choked highways certain to get worse"). Walkers and bikers could explore their own communities, re-acquaint themselves with their neighbors and perhaps get involved in various projects that would improve their town. (Examples: litter and graffiti cleanups, tree plantings, sports.) Even a subtle change in lifestyle, with less emphasis on the automobile, could offer long-term benefits to American families and their communities.

  1. The plan would be voluntary, informal and flexible, with no government supervision at any level. It could begin with a simple proclamation by the governor or legislative resolution followed by a press release and appropriate publicity (2).

The voluntary Car-Free Day could be implemented at no cost to taxpayers and without negative impacts on Oregon’s economy. Some participating Oregonians might not go grocery shopping on Saturday, but their need for groceries (or clothing or electronics or anything else) would not be affected. Owners of trucks and other commercial vehicles could also participate, of course.

But wouldn't people just drive more on the six other days? Not necessarily, since the long-term goal of the program is to promote consciousness of automobile use and ways to reduce it. A fringe benefit might be reduced use of second (or third) cars, which would have similar benefits.

The economic advantages of even a modest conservation program could prove substantial. Consider, for example, that the U.S. consumes about 21 million barrels of oil per day at a current price of $60 per barrel (February 9th). Two-thirds of that oil is imported. American automobiles consume more than 8.2 million barrels of oil per day, an amount roughly equal to Saudi Arabia’s daily production. If all our automobiles were in a separate country, only three other countries would produce more carbon dioxide emissions per year.

A national Car-Free Day each week could potentially reduce oil consumption by 14%, or about 1.23 million barrels a day. Annualized, the savings would be enormous: 420 million barrels or $25.2 billion. Even if the program at its inception reduced consumption by only 5%, the economy would save $15 billion, with proportionate benefits to Oregon and states.

The environmental benefits would be even more impressive, though it’s difficult to place an economic value on air made more breathable though reduced emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, benzene, particulates and other pollutants. A study by the National Academy of Sciences showed that a reduction in oil consumption of 1.2 million barrels a day, similar to what I’m proposing, would reduce pollutants associated with global warming by 50 million metric tons by 2015.

Surveys show that Americans are eager to support efforts to achieve energy independence, but they have been given little sense of direction by the current administration. The weekly Car-Free Day would strengthen Oregon’s reputation for national leadership and nicely complement the state's efforts to diversify its energy portfolio.


(1) The "Car-Free Day" has been proposed in places like Canada and the EU. For the most part, as in Canada and the International Car-Free Day (September 22nd), that "day" is an annual, rather than weekly, event. While this approach has symbolic value, its practical impact is nil.

(2) No, this program would never be mandatory, with the government deciding who can or can't drive and on what day. Years ago I adopted my own Car-Free Day (usually Sundays), and it has yielded unexpected benefits on many levels. But that's the subject for a future blog.

CIA World Factbook: United States (2006)
Online at:

Putting the brakes on U.S. oil demand (2003)
Environmental Defense
John DeCicco with Rod Griffin
and Steve Ertel
Online at:

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