Commuting Decathlon

By Stephen Hale

Biking to word

Commuting by land.

One day driving to work, I wondered how much nitrogen my car was contributing to Narragansett Bay—just down the street from my office in EPA’s Atlantic ecology lab. Deposition from vehicle emissions is a significant source of nitrogen to estuaries like Narragansett Bay and Chesapeake Bay. This line of thinking was sparked by a recent trip, and my current research studying the effects of nitrogen-driven eutrophication (too much organic matter) and the consequent hypoxia (too little dissolved oxygen) on the clams, crabs, and other animals living on and in the bottom sediments.

How could I reduce my commuting nitrogen footprint on the Bay?

Lucky enough to live close to the lab —1.6 miles by land, 1.0 mile by sea—I often bike or walk to work. Then last June, on a walking holiday, my wife and I passed through Land’s End, the southwestern-most point of the United Kingdom. An amusing exhibit highlighted the many different ways people have gotten from there to John o’Groats at the northern tip of Scotland—603 miles as the crow flies, 874 by road, 1,200 by off-road paths. Notable “end-to-enders” have done it by rolling a wheelchair, walking barefoot, running backwards, skateboarding, swimming, hitting a golf ball the entire way, and walking nude (with frequent delays due to getting arrested).

When I got home, I set out to commute to work using ten different “nitrogen-free” modes of transportation (without breaking any laws!): a commuting decathlon.

Here’s how I completed the decathalon:

  • By land: walked, ran, biked, rollerbladed, cross-country skied (last winter).
  • By sea: kayaked, rowed, swam, sailed, standup-paddleboarded.

My favorites were the ones that didn’t require strapping on or into specialized equipment, just the human body on its own—the “Paleo Commute.”

Paddle-boarding to work.

Commuting by sea.

Although most commuters don’t live close enough to work to do a decathlon, if the average worker avoided using their car to commute just one day a week, nitrogen and a lot of other emissions would be substantially reduced. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says that about 33% of the nitrogen pollution to the Bay comes from the air; of that, about 40% comes from motor vehicles. You can calculate your nitrogen footprint using their calculator: www.cbf.org/yourbayfootprint. A more comprehensive calculator is available on the N-Print website: www.n-print.org/. I learned that although the contribution from my car is less than from my sewage and electricity use, it is a significant amount.

Now I’m thinking, why stop at ten ways of commuting? Skateboarding? Snowshoeing? Do you have any other ideas? If so, please share them in the comments section below—but please don’t get arrested!

About the author: Stephen Hale is a research ecologist in EPA’s laboratory in Narragansett, Rhode Island. His favorite habitat is the mud at the bottom of Narragansett Bay.

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