Alex Goldmark is a senior producer in the newsroom for New Tech City and Transportation Nation.
When consumers can see how much power they're using minute by minute with in-home "smart meters," they typically cut back on energy consumption -- at least a little. The Dutch are experimenting with in-car meters that tax miles driven on the theory that it will cut down on driving. Would that kind of information affect day-t0-day transportation decisions for transit riders too? Transit riders now have a new source of data on environmental impact: trip planning website HopStop now includes carbon emissions calculations in their travel directions.
HopStop CEO Joe Meyer said the company received thousands of user requests for a feature that quantified the environmental benefits of public transit. Now, right next to the estimated trip time, you'll see your CO2 savings compared to driving. "At the end of the day, we’re a source of information," Meyer said. "This is giving people additional context around the information they are already coming to us for."
HopStop is using a proprietary algorithm based on data from the EPA and the World Resources Institute to estimate the savings for each trip compared to driving solo. While there's no shortage of carbon calculators out there -- including several specifically about transportation and even public transit including one by New York's MTA -- HopStop is injecting this environmental information right in the moment when people are choosing how to travel.
But some are unsure that this will make a big impact. "I doubt if this one will have a substantial effect [on changing travel behavior]," says Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health Wealth and Happiness, which is about how people can be guided into better decisions without restricting choice. "There are lots of factors that go into the choice of a mode of transport -- time, expense, convenience, etc. -- and carbon emissions is just one, even for those who are sensitive to such things. So, [this new feature is] a good thing, but unlikely to shift much behavior, especially in the short run."
HopStop's Meyer says he isn't doing this to shift how people travel, he's providing what his customers want -- more information. “We’re just telling you it’s a more environmentally friendly way to travel… compared to driving, and here’s the saving."
According to New York's MTA, emissions from a single passenger car trip can be five times more than the alternative transit trip, and as much as 8.25 times more if you factor in dynamic effects. MTA research analyst Dana Coyle explains: "There are three components of the carbon savings of transit use as we see it. The first is mode shift... shifting from a vehicle to a different mode [like] transit or walking or biking. The second is congestion relief. By removing cars from the road, the vehicles that are left can drive more efficiently... so you are getting better gas mileage. The third part is a land use factor, this one is a little bit tricky." She explained that if transit allows for denser neighborhoods, then you can avoid carbon emissions by, say, walking to the grocery story on your way home instead of taking a separate car trip.
That's system wide. For each individual decision, the new HopStop feature is more like the Dutch in-car meter, or an in-home smart energy meter. When home electricity usage is presented in real time, it reduced energy consumption by 7 percent on average, according to a review of experimental studies of "smart meters." This kind of awareness matters on the margins: to shut off the A/C when a fan might do, or to remember to turn the lights out, or stop blow drying your hair. It was also tied to paying more for extra electricity used, which isn't the case with transit.
However, HopStop users clamoring for the carbon calculator may use the information in another way: to brag. This information may become the kind of data that lets people advocate for their already firm choices with more conviction. Look out, transit-accessible cocktail parties: straphangers can now boast about another way they're better. And, because the new feature will also compare the carbon emissions of biking/walking (which have zero carbon emissions in this calculator) with transit, it could make the eco-conscious bus rider hoof it a little more frequently.
Even if carbon isn't the top determinant between driving or riding, it can't be a factor at all unless it's measured.
HopStop is making this available on the website immediately, and on all mobile apps within the next two months.