Eliminate 4,000 Burners’ Worth of Emissions by Slowing Down

By Morgan “Morganism” Fleming and Sarah “Picky” Williamson

How can we eliminate 4,000 Burners’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions by barely doing anything? It’s simple, even easy! All you (and maybe the other 59,000 people driving to the Burn in 2018) have to do is this one, easy thing:


If all we do is get an average of 1 more mile per gallon of fuel economy out of every vehicle driving to the Burn, then we would carve 1,100 to 1,300 tons of CO2 emissions off the total, or about 3,850 Burners’ worth of vehicle emissions![i]

“Cool! But, um, how do you know that?”

Every year, the Black Rock City Census collects transportation data from respondents. Data from 2017 show that 86 percent of attendees arrived on the playa[ii] via a land-based vehicle— cars, trucks, SUVs, and so on. We used that data, along with location data from Google Maps and vehicle fuel economy data from the EPA, to build a weighted model of attendees’ carbon dioxide emissions from driving to the Burn. From there, we used the model to predict what would happen if fuel economy improved by 1 MPG.[iii] This also means Census researchers produced a full emissions estimate for people driving to the 2017 Burn; but we want to check with other researchers working in this area (pssst, Black Rock Labs… Want to come get nerdy with us over at Census?) before releasing that work. Look for more on that sometime after the 2018 event. The other thing to look for right after the Burn is the 2018 Census, which will be at census.burningman.org Tuesday after the Man burns. The more people who take the time to complete the survey, the more accurate our work will be!

So how does slowing down actually make a difference? Here’s the thing: speed reduces fuel economy. Around 70 MPH, the ratio is about 1:1, as in driving 1% faster costs you 1% of your fuel economy.[iv] Just by slowing to 68 MPH from 72 (6% slower), your car will be 6% more fuel efficient. Six percent might not sound like much for an individual vehicle, but it adds up across the whole community and over the long distances attendees drive to get to Burning Man. It can also make a huge difference for vehicles with lower fuel economies. The table below uses some simple math to illustrate the point. For example, if all cars were to slow down 4 MPH on the way from Reno and back, they would collectively save 3,625 gallons of gas. If all cars, SUVs, and RVs were to do the environmental thing, we could save 12,325 gallons of fuel as a community![v]

Vehicle Type Average MPG at 72 MPH Average MPG at 68 MPH Gallons Saved Round Trip Number of Burner Vehicles of This Type Gallons Saved Across All Vehicles
Cars 28.2 29.9 0.5 7,250 3,625
SUVs 21.7 23.6 0.6 5,500 3,300
RVs 11.1 11.8 1.2 4,500 5,400
TOTAL: 12,325

Note: Based on the 250 miles from Reno to BRC and back.

Now let’s get real for a moment. We are talking about you slowing down to help protect the planet. There is a financial benefit, yes, but it would be admittedly small for most Burners. So what is the cost to you of slowing down? What are you giving up to give ol’ Mother Nature a little break? Naturally, it is your time. If you are driving 6% slower, you may be getting better fuel economy, but it also means you will take 6% longer to get to idling away on Gate Road or taking that sweet, sweet first post-Burn shower…

But how much time is that, really? In our Reno example, 4 MPH slower means maybe six minutes more car time one way. From San Francisco, it adds about 15 minutes to a one-way drive. From New York City, it adds about two hours and 15 minutes to the one-way drive, but it also saves about $17.50 in gas for a car and $50 in gas for an RV — that’s like paying yourself between $8 and $22 an hour to just sit and enjoy the scenery a little longer. I’ll take that job! (No, seriously, I need a job.)

The BRC Census has been asking participants about their relationship to the 10 Principles since 2015, and “Leaving No Trace” consistently ranks among Burners’ list of the most important of the Ten Principles[vi] — and among the hardest to practice. And, Burners, y’all are smart folks. Many of us understand that although picking up MOOP, recycling our whiskey bottles, and packing out gray water are all noble endeavors toward a cleaner playa, there is still plenty we can be doing to make the event greener. As a community, we have been working hard these last few years to understand the impact of the event on the playa and the planet, as well as ways we can minimize or mitigate the environmental impact of Burning Man.

While it may not be possible to drastically reduce the number of people traveling to and from the event in private vehicles (though, really, have you seen how cheap the Burner Express is? And you don’t have to clean it afterwards!), we can all still think about small ways we can make a big difference in the footprint of the event. It doesn’t take much! Slowing down 2-4 MPH is one more tool, like purchasing a carbon offset, that could have a big effect if the entire community participates.

These small actions are easy things to add to your to-do list of Burning Man prep tasks! If you do, you will get credit for three of the Ten Principles: 1) Civic Responsibility, for being responsible citizens of Earth and of Black Rock City; 2) Communal Effort, as this impact requires all of us; and, of course, 3) Leave No Trace (or less of a trace, anyways).

(Photo by REVELLRAY)


[i]  Okay, yes, that’s not quite 4,000 Burners. I was rounding for dramatic effect. So sue me!

[ii] Through the Gate. Excludes arrivals through Point One.

[iii] This involved a complex ritual that saw one of our Data Shamans take great risks (and caffeinated sacraments) to commune with the Spirits of the Silicon.

[iv] However, the faster you go beyond 70 MPH, the steeper the penalty to your fuel economy becomes relative to your extra speed. The relationship is exponential.[a] Further, in many situations, the benefits of slowing down are likely greater than shown here. These include a) if you are driving a car with a small engine (e.g. less than 120 HP, or most subcompacts); b) anything like a large SUV, RV, box-truck, or van; c) towing a trailer; or d) driving 80 MPH or faster.

[v] Based on the average miles per gallon as reported in the 2013–2017 Population Analysis produced by BRC Census.

[vi] Surveys prior to 2016 asked respondents to say which three principles were “most important” while the 2016 and 2017 surveys asked respondents to say which three principles they practiced most frequently in their everyday lives.

End-ish notes

[a] Things also get worse if you are driving into a headwind. In that case, the headwind’s impact on your efficiency will also increases exponentially with your speed. The best solution for this is to stop your vehicle, turn around, and then continue driving in reverse. [1]

For real, the ENDnote.

[1] Don’t actually do this, please.

About the author: Census Team

Census Team

The Census Lab is a volunteer team of information geeks, academic researchers, students, and general data nerds who have surveyed Black Rock City (BRC) residents since 2002.

One comment on “Eliminate 4,000 Burners’ Worth of Emissions by Slowing Down

  • HANS ROOS says:

    I’m for this and I’ve done it. However, I say fix gate. It takes me a casual 11 hours from Santa Cruz to Gerlach. Driving mellow, stopping for food and gas, seeing friends etc. This yeah it took me 7 hours to get from gerlach through the damn GATE! Which I refer to as Hate. No dust storms, no closures just waiting. Sometimes an hour to move 75’. Starting, stopping, idling – wasting gas and burning fuel. This was Friday, pre event. I’ve been going to BM for the past 21 years and I’d say wait to get through gate for at least the past 5-6 years for me has been between 6-8 hours. Do your math there for the amount of cars starting and stopping and burning fuel…

    Don’t mean to bitch at you but man, this subject gets me going.

    I’m really not too much of a jerk, just a frustrated, crusty old Burner.

    Hugs to you,

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