Caution: Back to school carbon bump!


Ah, labor day. The end of the summer, and the end of many parents’ blissful summer commutes. Mom walked. Dad took the bus. Now they’re both back in their (family-size) cars shuttling the kids around.

EPA reports (pdf) show that morning drive time traffic jumps up 30% at the beginning of the school year. The report put this in historical perspective:

In 2001, less than 15 percent of students between the ages of five and 15 walked to or from school, and 1 percent biked. In 1969, 48 percent of students walked or biked to school.

There are lot of reasons for the change: the layout of our cities, the amount of stuff kids now take to schools, and the kid-friendliness of local streets (or at least our estimation of their kid-friendliness).

So what exactly is the carbon footprint of our back-to-school commute? For an answer, check out our new handy tool for calculating the carbon footprint from commutes.

The average one-way commute to school is 15 4.2 miles, but often means that mom and data change the mode of their commute, at an average of 15 miles (see update below). Even in a Prius that means 1,900 lbs of CO2 per year. You’d have to replace 18 incandescent light bulbs with CFLs or hang dry a load of clothes every day of the year to balance the impact. A tall order for most.

Add to this equation all the new stuff we’re supposed to buy at the beginning of the school year. We’re already getting bombarded for back-to-school shopping, but we thought we’d get a bit of back-to-school re-thinking done instead. Here are five fun ideas for ways to make your children’s school year a bit greener:

  • Carpool. Stuff the the entire neighborhood’s rascals in the minivan crossover, and resume your own low-carbon walking or public transport routine at least a few days a week.
  • Get kids a water bottle. Not driving related, but a simple way to reduce your footprint.
  • Get a reusable lunch bag. Ditch the paper bags and get something sustainable. Avoid faddish or super cute designs that will age badly for a longer “kid compatible” life.
  • Rally kids to the cause! Are they old enough to walk or bike to school?
  • TerraPass. OK, you’ve done everything else. Now TerraPass the rest.

Got other good ideas for the new school year? Give a shout out in the comments and let’s get a little greener before school starts.

Update: Sorry for the confusion on distances. 4.2 miles is the average trip length to school, 15 miles is the average commute. How much carbon emissions increase depends on how much the back to school schedule shift changes parent’s commuting behavior.

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  1. Jake - August 15, 2007

    The average one-way commute to school is 15 miles.
    Are you sure about that? I think it’s more like 2-3 miles, maximum, for the average 1-way commute. Sure, folks in the country live further away, but we’re an urban society for the most part, and lots of people live less than a mile from their school. Further, if 15 the average commute was 15 miles each way, that would surely explain why no one walks to school!
    Honestly, that number defies common sense. Please check that you haven’t misplaced a decimal point. It seems very central to the story, and you guys should really be certain before publishing something that looks obviously false. Do you have a source?

  2. Lee Leffler - August 15, 2007

    I am relieved that my Kindergartener will be eligible to take the school bus in September, and her new school is just 1.5 miles away. Even though her preschool was just 3 miles away, there was no bus. Those two years of pickup’n’dropoff put 2,000 miles on our car, generating around 1,500 lbs of CO2. Since the bus carries many passengers, it will be more efficient for the group. And when she’s bigger, maybe I can walk her to school – there is a shortcut on foot only.
    A Upper Canada Village this summer, I learned that in Ontario in the 1800’s, most of the rural schools were very small. This was because they had a mandate that no student should have to travel more than 1.5 miles to school. And instead of playing their hand-held videogame in the car, they usually walked it!

  3. Jamie - August 15, 2007

    I like the fact that Jake, above, is so disturbed by this report. It is true that it “defies common sense,” to build our schools so far from our homes so that on average they are 15 miles away. It seems ridiculous. But it is also true that, especially in the thousands of “bedroom communities” across the country, people are certainly and without a doubt commuting long distances just to go to school. We aren’t an “urban” society these days so much as a “suburban” society, at least outside the very dense centers of cities like New York or San Francisco.
    The lack of logic or common sense underscores the importance (and dearth) of good planning and good choices. Every new development should have a school nearby as a rule of thumb – as well as local shopping, civic institutions and other things people need in their daily lives. Unfortunately, most local governments around the country, stunned by quick growth in the last 50 years, have not created adequate incentives to require more sustainable development. Also, people do make choices to live in these suburban developments so they continue to be built. It is a long chain reaction as to why some people actually drive 15 miles or more to drop their kids at school.

  4. jennifer hagstrom - August 15, 2007

    While we’re on the subject, how many parents do you know who individually drive their children to school, even though a school bus service is available? I know many, and they don’t seem to get that preventing their children from being “inconvenienced” by having to wait for the bus or get up a little earlier may mean they’re seriously “inconvenienced” later on when we really start paying the global-warming and oil-dependence dues!

  5. Gee - August 15, 2007

    No, Jake didn’t mean that the conclusions he drew from the statistic defied common sense, he meant that the validity of the statistic was questionable. I agree completely.

    But that’s not my issue…

    I think we need to put this in perspective. While the morning drive time may increase, what about the overall gasoline usage. We’re told that gas usage increases in the summer months because people are traveling more (via car). This must ring true because the extra demand for gas makes the price spike. It would be interesting to know over all how much gas usage declines when school starts…

  6. David - August 15, 2007

    I can only speak for myself but I do agree that the 15 mile statistic seems questionable. I live in an “inner ring” suburb 5 miles from downtown, and my child is 1 mile from his preschool, his future gradeschool is 3 blocks away and no school buses will be involved. In passing by the gradeschool it is common to see minivans parked everywhere as school lets out. No doubt future consequences will be coming from such wastefulness. I’m guessing about 15 percent of the kids around me walk or bike to school, usually accompanied by a parent.
    My wife has been hauling our son to school via bike and trailer, in good weather. I bike to work instead of driving (bus in bad weather). There are realistic choices each of us can make to be sustainable in this way, beginning on where we choose to make our home. Ours could be considered “smaller” by some standards but it has character that is lacking in the new vinyl-sided exurban bedroom community cul-de-sacs. Our urban neighborhood is safe by our standards, has an interesting life of its own all day long (with retired folks and telecommuters in the mix), and my household isn’t saddled with two mandatory incomes right now since we’ve chosen to live somewhat modestly. Choices, but realistic options (Terrapass is correctly part of the mix, at the end of the line after reducing our consumption through measures such as stated above).

  7. Carey - August 15, 2007

    Yellow school bus service is so expensive for strapped school districts that it is usually cut to save room in the budget for actually educating children.

    Want to help get kids walking, biking and/or carpooling to school more often? Get active and pursue a formal Safe Routes to Schools (SRTS) Program at your local school. Contests, education, planning for capital improvement projects and getting all parties together to discuss issues and prioritize solutions are key to the SRTS Program. It works and has resulted in a tremendous mode shift away from the single-occupant vehicle where I live. Plus, it starts our new generation off on the right foot towards awareness of their own health and how their actions affect the world around them.

  8. Tom Arnold - August 15, 2007

    Thanks for the good comments and shout out for SRTS.

    A clarification on the numbers, which I have updated in the main post:

    1) According to NHTS The actual school-related average trip length is 4.18 miles.

    2) The broader point I was trying to make is that because of that five miles, mom and dad end up changing the mode of their commute once the school year starts (unless they are trailer toting rock stars like David). The average commute is 15 miles.

    Sorry for the confusion.

  9. Tom H - August 15, 2007

    Having kids walk to school takes planning. We live in a town outside of Boston. We moved here 10 years ago because the house was close to the elementary school and walkable to the high school (and library, town, drug store, and liquor store).
    My son has walked every day (regardless of weather) for the last three of his 5 years at the school; my daughter starts kindergarten in a few weeks and will walk with him.
    Everything is stacked against walking to school. All of our neighbors worry that a child molester will confront their child. Given our neighborhood, and how close the school is, that’s kind of a crazy thing to be worried about — I am far more worried that one of those parents will not be able to see my children and hit them with their massive SUV.
    We have a lot of undoing of structural things to be undone. Partly it’s attitudes and beliefs, but part of it is the physical layout of the urban sprawl we have built in the last 50 to 100 years that are at the root of our great dependence upon cars.

  10. Adam Stein - August 15, 2007

    I admire anyone who chooses a home based on whether its within walking distance of a liquor store :)

  11. MNWalleye - August 15, 2007

    I’m with Tom H, we choose where to live based largely on where we wanted our kids to attend private school. Even though we could’ve moved to the suburbs to enjoy a larger house with a lower tax base, we felt the schools were the central issue. This is the way I was brought up, we ALWAYS walked to school. Now that my kids have grown up and moved out, I could move closer to work, the 38 mile bike commute gets a little tough to do everyday. There’s no shortage of good housing that I see.

  12. Tom Arnold - August 15, 2007

    38 Miles! Holy commitment batman.
    I had a 19 mile (one-way) bike commute before grad school and the most I could manage was one to two days a week.
    Now we know just how you got that carbon footprint down to 5mT…

  13. Jake - August 16, 2007

    I like the fact that Jake, above, is so disturbed by this report. It is true that it “defies common sense,” to build our schools so far from our homes so that on average they are 15 miles away.
    Sometimes common sense is right on the money, Jamie. Better to question data that looks odd than just accept it. Even that 4.18 mile number is the extra distance caused by a (or a couple) trips to school, suggesting that the average distance to school is 1-2 miles. Is there a source for that data anywhere? I’d like to know if it is to & from or just one way. The way Terrablog has presented makes it difficult for your readers to re-do the calculations.
    Please provide a source for your data.

  14. Tom Arnold - August 16, 2007

    Sorry forgot to link the nifty NTHS has a nifty data tool:

  15. karol - August 22, 2007

    I practically live within *crawling* distance of the liquor store…which also carries bread from a local bakery, and frozen pasta products and cheeses from local producers…one-stop shopping, between the bus stop and home, for quick Friday night dinners.

  16. Anonymous - October 3, 2007

    You mentioned to use something other than a paper bag for a lunch container. Something more sustaiable.
    What can be more sustainable than paper. People need to start realizing that paper and wood products are one of the most sustainable items on the planet (trees).

  17. Anonymous - February 13, 2008

    trees are sustainable if people plant more. but millions of trees are chopped down every day without being replaced.
    recycled paper’s great though.

  18. Black - July 22, 2009

    I am fasanated by – 4.2 miles, but often means that mom and data change the mode of their commute, at an average of 15 miles (see update below). Even in a Prius that means 1,900 lbs of CO2 per year- How do you work out tha figure for 1,9000 CO2