Mary Byrd: car-free Californian

G Magazine

The Santa Barbara woman inspiring car-loving Californians to leave their wheels at home

Mary Byrd

Mary Byrd aboard Santa Barbara's Electric Shuttle.

Credit: Santa Barbara Car Free

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Those who worry their stuffy job title will stifle creativity would do well to meet Mary Byrd.

As project manager with the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District in California, Byrd has the market on plain job titles cornered.

However, her innovative green tourism project, Santa Barbara Car Free, is anything but everyday.

It all began 10 years ago when she brought together regional transport operators and tourism providers to entice car-bound Californians to go car-free on their Santa Barbara holidays.

And today it's thriving.

True, she's working with great material - the beachside town of Santa Barbara boasts charming red-roofed colonial architecture, a near-perfect climate, and, only 140 km from Los Angeles, is a drawcard for the rich and famous.

Town planners are also strict about development, and transport links are good.

"We have a fairly pioneering transit service, [which was] one of the country's first users of electric buses," Byrd says.

There's also an electric shuttle trundling visitors along the main street and waterfront and a taxi operator running hybrids.

"We can sell Santa Barbara car-free because there are so many things like that."

Tourist emissions

But it was smog, not greenhouse emissions, that prompted the project, Byrd says.

"We began 10 years ago, so climate change wasn't focused on, like today. We were more looking at smog pollution. Although the tourists' contribution [is] relatively small, especially when you compare it to commuters, it's worst in the peak smog season, summer."

This is prime travel time in California, when tourists traipse up and down the west coast, enjoying the beachside offerings.

"Think about the (driving) pattern of a tourist. They drive somewhere, stop, the car cools off, they get back in and there's another cold start. This is when much of the pollution occurs; the car's catalytic converter is warming up, and not yet working effectively to clean the exhaust emissions."

Byrd drew together partners such as the bike coalition, the local transit authority and train service Amtrak, and together they won a grant to get started.

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