July 27 2011|08.00 AM UTC

Samantha Eckles

How Americans Get Around

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Americans love our cars. We write songs about them, “pimp” them out to reflect our personalities and spend more than $25 billion a year washing them. With the rising cost of oil, though, and fears about carbon emissions, more Americans are seeking alternative forms of transportation. According to The Economist, 63% claim to be driving less because of rising gas prices. If this is true, how are we getting around these days?

Amtrak

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Despite decades of sluggish ridership and spotty political support, government-owned Amtrak’s ridership actually rose over 6.0% in the past year. This year, the rail system has even announced an ambitious expansion into New Jersey at a cost of $13.5 billion. With Vice President Joe Biden vocally supporting a greater commitment to high-speed rail, Amtrak should continue to become a more efficient and convenient form of transportation.

One advantage of train travel is comfort, especially for long distances. Amtrak features dining cars and lounge seats for longer trips, to help make your travel more relaxing and convenient. Even in coach, the seats have ample legroom, akin to first-class airline seats, and sleeping cars are available. For comfort, train travel is second to none.

A clear disadvantage, though, is speed. Longer train rides can take days versus hours and delays are common. A trip on Amtrak from Chicago to New York City, for instance, takes over 20 hours. High-speed rail, reaching speeds of over 200 miles per hour, is popular in countries like China and Japan, but still a non-starter in the United States despite Biden’s endorsement. Until high-speed rail gains more political support, slow rail lines will remain the norm in this country.

Buses

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While busing in New York City has fallen over the last decade, likely because of the city’s comprehensive subway system, bus ridership has risen in other large cities. San Francisco, for instance, was able to increase ridership by 10% with “free ride” days. Los Angeles is also working to boost bus ridership by 30%.

While busing is a viable alternative to cars and cheaper, with monthly bus passes usually under $100, they are often crowded and spew the same pollutants as cars. To help with this, some cities are exploring natural gas, electric and hybrid buses, but these programs are still in their pilot stages.

Bicycles

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Biking is a carbon-free, healthy alternative to driving. Cities like Portland, Oregon have led the charge in biking. Portland has instituted innovative bike options like designated bike areas at traffic lights and free bike lights. Other bike friendly cities include Minneapolis, Minnesota, with over 120 miles of bike roads and trails, and Seattle, Washington, which plans to spend $240 million over the next ten years to add 450 miles of bike paths.

However, biking is only possible for short commutes, leaving suburban and rural commuters out of the loop. There are safety concerns, as well, as bikes try to navigate on the same roads with cars. With a greater commitment to bike paths, though, biking looks to be a burgeoning form of transportation within America’s cities.

These are just three ways that can be used to mitigate the rising cost of gasoline, but there are many options out there that may work better for you. Carpooling has become more popular in recent years and some people do not even need to go into work anymore. As telecommuting sweeps many industries, many people are working from home offices. While cars are not set to disappear anytime soon, like the horse and buggy, convenient alternatives are emerging that can help both the environment and our pocketbooks.

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