Summer is high time to hit the great American road. But in the age of climate change, how should the environmentally minded think about road trips?
Like many people, I’ve long been entranced by America’s liberation-by-asphalt leitmotif. America’s first transcontinental car journey—two dudes and a dog wearing goggles, today memorialized at the Smithsonian—took place in 1903. Since then the mythology of road trips has been fueled by Hollywood and gasoline, of course, but also by some of our highest-octane cultural themes: escape and discovery, the myth of emptiness and the beauty of the West, the idle conversations and contemplations that somehow depend on music, and miles of paved possibility running to a summer-blue horizon. Kerouac compared driving to sitting on a front porch—“only this is a moving porch and a porch to talk on at that.”
Whatever our final destination (Walley World, my fellow Griswolds?), what we yearn to see from the America’s moving porch is nature. As Paul Theroux wrote, “it is in our nature as Americans to want to drive everywhere, even into the wilderness.” For many of us, our first sense of our country’s aesthetic and geographic dimensions comes from a motorized journey across it. In college I was paid to move a car from sea to shining sea—3,100 miles down just one highway, just one number. Absurdly, perhaps, I recall the hours on the road—and not just the short hikes I did along it—as my first glimpse of the natural, physical fact of America.
The irony of this American perspective—that we come to nature through the machine-made ability to see a lot of it quickly—was apparent long before climate change became an everyday topic. Both Kerouac and Steinbeck, high priests of the American road trip, lamented the environmental impact of America’s automobile culture. But for a variety of reasons—the quickening drumbeat of dire news from climate scientists, greater popular awareness of vehicle fuel economy, and the impact of climate change on some of the American regions most associated with the mythology of the open road—the contradiction at the heart of road-tripping looks increasingly stark.
The simplest solution, of course, is not to road-trip at all. But road-trippers deliver cash and credibility to the parks, communities, and organizations that protect nature—and road-trippers, like all travelers, bring new sensibilities home from their travels. And it’s a big country. By definition, the better protected our grandest and most inspiring landscapes are, the more physically separated they are from the places we live.
Indeed, if we don’t come to nature in a car, most Americans won’t come to it at all. And neither will future nature-lovers and voters—i.e., kids. As Jesse Prentice-Dunn, a transportation analyst with the Sierra Club, put it to me, “We don’t want to discourage anyone from getting outside in nature, via car or any other means. That’s what makes folks want to protect it.”
Another option, then, is to accept the contradiction at the heart of motoring to nature, but do our best to make our road trip miles our greenest. Some of the ideas below on how to do that have clear environmental (and financial) payoffs. Others might raise your environmental consciousness more than your actual fuel economy. But what better souvenir to bring home from summer vacation?
Slow down. Every car has a “best,” or most efficient, speed. The fuel costs for exceeding this speed are severe—and a reminder that the purpose of the 1970s’ now-quaint 55 mph speed limit was to conserve fuel. (Some Western states even issued “energy wastage” fines for speeding.) The best speed varies by car, but one rule of thumb is to drive the slowest speed in the highest gear. A simpler rule, if you drive like I tend to on an empty highway, is to slow down. According to data from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, if you accelerate from 50 mph to 80 mph—so easily done on empty Western byways as the foot grows heavy and the playlist fast—fuel economy can drop by a whopping 36 percent. Another way to look at it: Every “5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas.” Of course, you shouldn't drive so slowly that you disrupt traffic. But if there isn’t much traffic—and that’s partly why you’re here, right?—then why not enjoy the scenery you came so far to see?
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