Wednesday's plan: Commute creatively and breathe easier

Wednesday will be glorious for Alan Giles if:

On the way to work, he finds people walking, or riding bikes to their jobs.

Or they're standing in the aisles of CATS buses and the Lynx blue line cars.

Or sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the back seat of cars or vans – or simply working from home.

Giles is overseer of the Charlotte region's air quality. He and air quality colleagues have proclaimed Wednesday as “Don't Drive Day,” a day they hope residents will leave cars parked in the driveway, or at least offer someone a ride.

“We're asking everyone to try something different – instead of driving to work alone,” said Giles, Mecklenburg's senior air quality specialist. “Anytime you can take a bunch of cars off the road, you know the air's going to be cleaner.

“You might like the alternative transportation better and it'll save you money, too.”

To sweeten the pot, they're offering prizes for the most compelling stories of trying another way to work.

Veteran commuter Katherine Melton of Charlotte entered last week.

She's been riding CATS, then Lynx, for years – mostly to cut expenses.

“I was paying $125 a month for parking alone,” said Melton, a Wachovia executive assistant.

Now, she commutes by Lynx to save money and make a statement: “The only way we're going to be independent of foreign oil is to use less of it. Public transportation is one way to do that – and it if helps our air, then so much the better.”

Banker Ken McCarter of Huntersville has been riding to work uptown on the CATS 48X express bus since the first day it started rolling about eight years ago.

Before then, he drove alone to work for more than 20 years.

At first, he tried the bus strictly for convenience.

“You didn't have to go downtown and find a place to park and pay for it,” said McCarter, who submitted a poem to enter the contest. “Now I can see how it helps the environment, and with gas prices where they are, it's a money saver.”

Charlotte's not known for clean air. So far this summer, the region has violated federal ozone standards for 24 days – 21 were “code orange” days, or days unhealthy for sensitive groups. Three were unhealthy “code red” days.

“It's been a tough summer,” Giles said.

It will be hard to improve as the federal Environmental Protection Agency toughens standards and the region continues to put more cars on the road.

Unless more people start using alternative transportation.

“Trying something different – walking, riding a bike, taking a bus or light rail – is our best chance to improve our air quality,” said Megan Green, Charlotte area coordinator for N.C. Air Awareness.

It's the reason for Don't Drive Day, sponsored by the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, N.C. Air Awareness and Clean Air Works!

“We're hoping if that we can raise awareness and get people to try something different, maybe they'll continue,” Green said. “On Wednesday, I'm taking the bus and would love it if I had to stand.”