Dear Umbra,

You have told us, in no uncertain terms, that traveling by train is better ecologically than traveling by car. Several members of my family plan to carpool to an upcoming family reunion 600 miles away. I have considered trying to talk them into taking the train instead, but face the following problem: It would cost about $130 each, round-trip, and involve inconvenient hours guaranteed to annoy the elder generation. The car will cost about $40 each, round-trip. I myself, having a very tight budget, am considerably swayed by this, and have no doubt they will be also. Consequently, I am feeling angst of conscience. Have you words of wisdom or advice?

Nicole Montesano
Dundee, Ore.

Dearest Nicole,

I admire your concern and conscientiousness, but the dilemma you present is actually not a bad one. Yes, I did endorse trains over cars. However, carpooling is always a good choice.

Rediscover your roots in the carpool lane.

It’s not all that surprising that your nearest and dearest prefer the comfort of their car for this trip. After all, we’re a car-obsessed culture. Did you know that here in the U.S. we travel 56 percent of our long-distance trip miles in a personal vehicle? Guess how much we travel long-distance by train: 1 percent. (Also, there’s the mysterious 1 percent that’s traveled by “other” conveyance — camel? wagon? hovercraft? Who knows.)

So if we’re going to remain car-obsessed, the least we can do is carpool. We love carpooling! Think about this: the average U.S. commuter travels approximately 15 miles one way to get to work each day. If you share a ride with someone, that’s 7,500 miles a year the second car doesn’t have to go — saving about 300 gallons of gas. At today’s prices, that’s no small shakes. Of course, you are not going to commute daily with your relatives, and for that you can be thankful. But still, cramming yourself into a Caravan with your aunts and uncles for one trip is a far, far better thing than each of you driving by yourself.

If you agree to go this route, you can lessen the impact by taking the most efficient vehicle possible. When it comes down to grandma’s Prius or your brother’s Hummer, I think you know which one is best. If no one in your family owns an efficient car, consider renting a hybrid or other efficient car. And whatever you drive, try to keep your speed to 55-ish if you safely can — that will help you save gas. And Aunt Bertie’s hairdo.

Let’s see, what else could you do? If you’re stuck on using public transportation but the train is too expensive, you might investigate the bus — though that still presents the scheduling issues, and is probably slower than the train. You could save very small additional amounts of fossil fuels in the car by making sure everyone brings as little luggage as possible, reducing the weight. You could even turn it into a game by pretending you’re going backpacking and have to carry it all on your backs. Or — here’s an idea — leave several days ahead of time and do exactly that. It’s free if you camp on the side of the road, and you’ll get fit as you go. Think what the cousins will say.

A final energy-saving option for you, Nicole, and it may look more and more tempting as this argument heats up between you and your loved ones: you could always stay home.

Family,
Umbra