A Vision for Sustainable Transportation

November 12, 2010

The first time I laid eyes on a Honda Element, I thought it was the ugliest car I’d ever seen. The second time I saw one fly past me on Michigan Avenue, I felt the curious urge to test drive one. Fast forward a few months and there I was, trying to map out a route to the suburbs for an early bird C2ER conference. 

Since moving to Chicago three years ago, I’d never felt the need to buy a car. The choice between affordable, convenient and eco-friendly public transit vs. the headache of traffic, tracking already high fuel prices, finding parking, and paying insurance and maintenance fees was clear. It was also clear that I was not a morning person. 

I had heard about I-GO from a friend and decided to dive deeper. The Chicago-based car sharing program had a pretty impressive track record of reducing carbon emissions and saving its members money (an average of $400 per month). I also liked the idea of supporting a local non-profit organization. Lastly, I have to be honest and say that my eyes immediately locked onto a bright green—you guessed it—Honda Element. It was the second car I test drove as an I-GO member (the first being the Toyota Prius). 

Not only was I was surprised by how quickly it changed my view of driving and transportation in general (Do I really need to drive? Can I carpool? How can I combine my errands?), it also gave me the opportunity to test out its diverse fleet of low-emission vehicles. If there ever comes a day when I have to buy a car, you better believe I’ll pick one of the eco-friendly models that I’ve already test driven and love. 

So how is the Chicago-based non-profit car sharing program faring these days? Not too shabby. I-GO estimates that it has taken 3,200 vehicles off the road and saved members a combined $25 million annually since its launch in 2002. That equates to the reduction of CO2 emissions by nearly 25,000 tons annually and more money in your pocket to (I hope) support local businesses

Could I give you some context? I thought you’d never ask. Since 1990, the population of the Chicago metro area has increased by nearly 1.5 million residents to over 9.6 million in 2010, according to Nielsen Claritas demographic and Census data. Estimates also show that 88% of the region’s 3.5 million households own at least one vehicle and over half own two or more. Combine those stats with the 327,000+ people who live outside the city and commute to the Central Business District (CBD) each day, and you get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not encouraging you to abandon public transit as an option. In fact, I-GO and the Chicago Transit Authority partnered in 2009 to create the Chicago Card Plus/I-GO Card — the nation’s first joint transit smart card that lets members access I-GO cars and CTA trains and buses, as well as suburban Pace buses.

Sponsored by WBC board member, The Boeing Company, the smart card was highlighted in a May 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine as one of the “12 bright ideas to build on in a feature article on progressive green cities.

Rod Shrader, Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago, blogged about I-GO in the Huffington Post citing I-GO as a leading example of “social entrepreneurship,” a significant trend he’s seen gathering speed among the business school students of today.

I-GO was also recently named a finalist for the 2010 GreenWorks Awards for innovation in green business, standing beside other sustainable Chicago businesses including Carbon Day AutomotiveGreen City Market, and Consolidated Printing Company. I’m no expert on innovation, but I sense some possible partnerships here…

Currently, 15,000+ members including individuals, businesses, government, local universities and non-profits have 24 hour access to I-GO’s fleet of 100% low-emission vehicles at over 200 locations in 35 Chicago area neighborhoods for as little as $6.75 an hour. Did I mention gas, maintenance and insurance is included? 

As you weigh your options, I’ll leave you with the interesting graphic above created by Martha Kang McGill that uses data from the 2008 American Community Surveyto illustrate commuting patterns in eight US cities including Chicago. Let’s turn those shades of red into green.

- Jennifer Xu
Research Associate
World Business Chicago 

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