Going the Extra Mile

The Green Alternative to AAA Road Service

Most Americans have love-hate relationships with their automobiles. While cars do offer mobility, the open road is full of potholes—the literal ones and the environmental reckoning of congestion, global warming and declining air quality. Membership in an automobile club is one time-honored way motorists can gain some security and support. But few people are aware that their auto club, in addition to providing valuable services, from travelers" insurance and checks to roadside assistance, can also be a powerful political force working for social and environmental change—for better or for worse.

© Elizabeth Prager

AAA (formerly called the American Automobile Association) is a virtual synonym for "auto club." With 45 million members and 85 regional clubs, the century-old AAA is one of the largest membership organizations in the U.S. The group was founded in part as an "advocacy organization" for motorists, and stated goals include "support of adequate highways and elimination of burdensome taxes and restrictions."

But as Ralph Nader wrote in his syndicated column, "Beneath its benign image as a "travel club," AAA has become a big-time lobbyist that mimics the agenda of the nation’s giant automobile manufacturers. Travelers who pay dues to AAA find themselves supporting lobbyists who fight the Clean Air Act, public transportation, stronger safety standards and even bike paths." AAA argues that such regulations will "threaten personal mobility." The club also maintains that—in defiance of smart growth advocates and recent transportation studies—building more roads is the best way to alleviate both congestion and air pollution.

Green Alternative

Environmentally minded drivers now have another option, thanks to Portland, Oregon-based entrepreneurs Mitch Rofsky and Todd Silberman. The duo formed the for-profit Better World Travelers Club in 2002 to offer the full services of a national auto club tempered with a strong commitment to environmental responsibility.

In addition to offering such services as nationwide emergency roadside assistance, travel guidance and insurance, the Better World Travelers Club provides substantial discounts on eco-friendly tours and lodging, as well as a 20 percent discount on electric and hybrid car rentals. Members can also get reduced rates on new bicycles and electric vehicles. The travel club explicitly supports such environmental policies as increases in mass transit funding and the strengthening of clean air regulations. One percent of club revenues are donated to environmental restoration projects.

As Rofsky explains, "To decrease the substantial environmental footprint of transportation, we created a program called Travel Cool." Funds raised through Travel Cool are used to offset the carbon dioxide produced by travelers. "The credits are certified by the Oregon-based Climate Neutral Network, and have so far been earmarked to make efficiency improvements in the heating systems of Portland public schools," says Rofsky.

With each round-trip domestic flight booked through Better World Travel, the company donates $11 to the offset program, rendering the trip effectively emissions neutral. For international flights, the company splits the $22 cost with the traveler. Better World also accepts tax-deductible donations from people who book their flights through any other means, converting the money into emissions offset projects. A complementary program is in place for motorists.

Basic membership in the Better World Travelers Club costs $49.95 a year. More extensive plans are also available. In a policy that has been praised by the gay and lesbian community, the club became the first in the industry to recognize domestic partners in membership plans.

Rofsky points out that, unlike other auto clubs, Better World also offers an even greener option for minimalists and two-wheel aficionados: Full service bicycle memberships starting at $39.95. As club literature explains, "We"ll take you and your bike to the nearest repair facility, or home, within 30 miles." There are options for combined car and bike memberships as well.

"Of course, an ecologically minded auto club is not a panacea for all the environmental ills associated with driving," admits Dave Tilford of the Center for a New American Dream, which is leading a campaign to improve AAA’s environmental record. "But it is a step in the right direction."

BRIAN HOWARD is Managing Editor of E.