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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Out of the Pool
distributed 6/2/06 - ©2006

Car pooling -- what a simple, practical, common-sense way to embody our environmental commitments! Except, of course, when it comes to actually doing it.

This week, I attended the regular meeting of an ecumenical organization. A few days in advance, I sent an email encouraging others who were coming to share rides, as a way "to save gas, reduce pollution and congestion -- and to be sociable." Just two of us, out of the 18 who attended, managed to work out the details. The other 16 all drove their own cars.

Now, that sounded pessimistic, didn't it? Let me be affirmative and enthusiastic! On fairly short notice, 11% of those attending the meeting were successful in arranging car pooling. We kept one car off the highways during rush hour congestion, eliminated about 40 miles of driving, and saved a gallon or two of gas. As a less tangible benefit, I had the opportunity to spend almost an hour getting to know Jim -- somebody that I had previously known only vaguely as a face across the table, and that I now know as a fascinating individual with whom I share many interests and commitments. Speaking personally, the car pooling was a great success.

So why didn't the other 89% of the meeting participants do similar things? If car pooling is so great, why did only two of us do it?

I'm aware of three specific problems with shared transportation for this meeting. There are rational and appropriate reasons why most of the board members came on their own.

  1. This was a start-of-the-day meeting. Most of the people coming to the meeting were leaving from home, and would be going to their offices afterward. That's an enormous complication in finding reasonable rides. Someone who lives in your neighborhood may work in a completely different part of the city, and/or not be able to coordinate transportation back home at the end of the day.
  2. Because the quarterly meetings of this board are held at churches all around the extended Denver area, the arrangements for this meeting would have to be unique. This gathering was held in the far southern suburbs of the city. The reasonable groupings for car pooling to that location would be completely different than for the previous meeting in central Denver, or the next one in the northwestern 'burbs. There are valid reasons to move the meetings around, but it means that it isn't efficient to invest a lot of time and energy in arranging car pooling details for any one location.
  3. A board with 25 members, scattered far and wide across a metropolitan area, probably is too small to do effective car pooling. A few of those people had to be there early to set up the meeting room and the refreshments, and would have to stay late -- nobody else would want to fit into their schedules! Others had obligations which required them to leave the meeting early. A third of the board members were not able to come at all. (In terms of energy efficiency, those who didn't drive 30 miles each way did a good thing!) Effectively, there were only a few of us who could even consider sharing rides.
Car pooling worked out easily for Jim and me. We live in roughly the same part of the city. He's retired, and my office is just a few blocks from his home. There was very little inconvenience, and lots of benefits, when the two of us shared a ride. For almost everyone else, though, the costs of car pooling were substantially higher than the benefits. That's true beyond personal time and convenience -- for many, sharing a ride actually might have involved more driving, more gas, and more pollution than going solo.

A large business, with hundreds of employees, can make reasonable efforts at reducing one-person-per-car transportation. Their large number of people, with consistent daily schedules, can find good matches for routine car pooling. But that sort of car pooling for everyday commuting becomes far more complicated in other contexts.

Many local churches have barriers for transportation efficiency that are quite similar to this week's ecumenical gathering.

  • People come from all over. The church members who come from the local neighborhood are close enough to the church that the inconveniences of sharing a ride will usually far outweigh the benefits. Those who come from farther away may have few others in their community who are going to that church.
  • As we combine several sorts of activities on a Sunday, we make transportation planning much harder. Some members need to come for choir practice or a class before church, while others have a committee meeting after the service. (Churches with several worship services on a Sunday morning add to the scheduling chaos, of course!) Going out to eat after church, or planning to do some errands before heading back home, makes it even more difficult to coordinate schedules. Look at the number of families in your church who arrive in two (or more!) cars. Sunday morning car pooling can be difficult even within a household.
For churches, car pooling can make sense among choir members, or with the members of long-term classes and fellowship groups with shared schedules. We'll do well to encourage such folk to share rides to church when they can. Both practically and morally, we need to insist on car pooling any time that a group from the church is taking a longer trips, such as a church retreat or mission project. We'll also do well to encourage our members to car pool (or use public transportation or walk or bike) to work, and for other parts of their daily and weekly routines. Car pooling is great, and should be vigorously affirmed in our churches -- even if it is hard for us to practice widely.

The distinctive dynamics of church life make it difficult for us to practice some of the environmentally responsible behaviors which are reasonable and sensible for businesses, schools, and other groups. That doesn't mean that we don't care, or that we're off the hook for doing what we can.

It is important for us to recognize the unique situations and constraints that churches face. We're not the same as businesses. Our choices about how to practice and affirm environmental stewardship need to be shaped by those distinctive realities, so that we can focus our energy and attention on projects that will be practical and effective.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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