The Great Race for Clean Air asks commuters to step out of the car

cyclist

An evening bicycle commuter in North Oakland, heading up Telegraph Avenue.

Thousands of Bay Area commuters will forego their solo morning drive in September and October after the 2011 Great Race for Clean Air kicks off this Thursday. For the next two months, employees will be encouraged to use bicycles, take public transit and carpool to get to work.

“Transportation makes up more than half of the air pollution in the Bay Area,” said Kristine Roselius, the public information officer at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the public regulatory agency sponsoring the race. “The challenge is to get people out of their cars and walking or biking to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases.”

Beginning September 1, participating employees will opt out of driving to work, instead using BART, buses, bicycles, carpools or walking to the office. They will log their daily commutes online, measuring how far they would have driven that day. Afterward, BAAQMD will calculate how much participants at each office have collectively reduced their carbon dioxide emissions.

This year’s Great Race will end on October 31, and one employer in each county will win the “race” by achieving the highest per capita carbon dioxide reduction. Additionally, three employers in each county will be recognized for the highest rates of employee participation. Three companies will also be chosen as the overall winners for the entire Bay Area. The winning organizations will be honored at their local Board of Supervisors meeting; some companies are offering their own incentives and prizes to participating employees.

“Really, it’s just fun, said Roselius. “People get excited when they think about how they can reduce their time on the road.”

This is the second Bay Area-wide competition. The first Great Race for Clean Air took place five years ago but was limited to the Tri-Valley region southeast of Oakland. Now, said Dawn Argula, chief of staff and operations for Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, it has evolved to include employers from all nine counties in this two-month challenge. Last year’s race involved 152 employers, but Roselius said a couple hundred companies have already registered this year, including Kaiser Permanente, Facebook, AT&T and Integral Group, a sustainable building design firm based in Oakland.

During last year’s competition, the 4,589 participating commuters saved 900 tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere by choosing not to drive, said Roselius. This is a small chunk of the total greenhouse gases produced by Bay Area transit each year; according to a 2010 BAAQMD report, in 2007 those levels totaled 35 million tons. “But it is a large amount of pollution saved,” said Roselius.

According to the agency’s report, Alameda County had the highest levels of transportation-caused emissions among the nine counties in 2007, about 8 million tons of carbon dioxide. The report also estimated that Alameda commuters traveled 38 million miles a day in cars or small trucks that year, the equivalent of commuting from Oakland to New York City and back over 6,000 times.

Roselius emphasized that the impact of the Great Race will be ongoing, because people often continue to use alternative forms of commuting after the contest is over.

“One of the great things that this race does is show people they don’t have to drive alone to work,” said Roselius. “They can take transit, they can walk or bike. A lot of times when people try alternate ways to commute they find that they enjoy them a lot more than driving. It is less stressful, it gives them time to read if they ride a bus or BART, it can save money.”

Opting instead for biking or walking provides exercise and keeps you fit said Linda Hofman, the operations specialist for national environmental health and safety at Kaiser Permanente. The company encourages its employees to participate in the Great Race—and choose alternative ways to commute year round—in order to promote a healthy lifestyle.

“As a healthcare organization, we see that promoting commuter alternatives is preventive medicine on a grand scale,” explained Hofman. “We can reduce the impact of employee vehicles coming to work while in turn reducing respiratory and lung diseases from these emissions.”

The Kaiser Permanente Oakland regional offices boasted the highest levels of employee participation among large organizations in Alameda County for the 2010 Great Race, said Hofman. “We would like to increase participation by at least 10 percent,” she said of last year’s competition, which involved 245 Kaiser Oakland employees. Together they saved nearly 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

The office of Supervisor Haggerty also won recognition last year, vying with three San Francisco-based employers for the highest participation rate among small organizations in the entire Bay Area. Argula, Haggerty’s chief of staff and operations, said that all seven employees in the office did their part. “We have offices in Pleasanton and in downtown Oakland,” said Argula. “When I have to go to the Oakland offices I always BART. It is rare that I drive a vehicle. I think that was the case for most of our folks.”

Haggerty—who is a member of the BAAQMD Board of Directors—has advocated for voluntary measures from residents and businesses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Alameda County. This includes encouraging residents to use public transit.

“We want to be role models,” said Argula. “So when the great race came about, we wanted to participate.”

Employers can sign up for the challenge through SparetheAir.org, an ongoing campaign by BAAQMD to reduce air pollution. Spare the Air publishes alerts online when air quality becomes unhealthy for Bay Area residents. In the summer the campaign focuses primarily on driving.

Roselius explained that when temperatures rise, tail pipe exhaust from cars gets “cooked into smog.” Roselius said there were Spare the Air alerts last year in mid-to-late August, and the warmer months of September and October, making this time of year especially important for efforts like the Great Race for Clean Air, which gets people out of cars and onto buses, trains and bicycles.

“A lot of our driving comes from going to and from work. The race is a wonderful way to reduce the number of cars on the road, because when employers encourage employees to take transit, we really see a lot of people heeding that call,” said Roselius. “It’s a feel good thing.”

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