Fly, Drive, Bus or Carpool

Flying is a cherished, relatively inexpensive convenience, (unless you’re the pup in this picture) but what are the long term environmental impacts relative to other transportation options?   What’s the best mode to reduce your carbon footprint?Dog looking out car window

Believe it or not, taking a solo five day cross-country trip in your SUV or car is more detrimental for the environment and trumps  every other form of travel from the perspective of greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions.

It’s not always a straightforward calculation to reduce your carbon footprint but the key factors are typically (1) are your traveling party size – the more the merrier, (2) distance, and (3) type of transporting vehicle.

Sightline Institute in Seattle Washington put together this comparison of transportation options and the environmental impact in terms of pound of CO2 per passenger mile.

The two worst means of travel are riding alone in either a SUV or a regular car.  Surprisingly, air travel comes in third.  Interesting enough, Amtrak, carpooling, rail, vans, buses beat out the pious solo Prius driver (like me).

Green Tip – Rule of Thumb: Nothing beats sharing a ride or taking any form of mass transit, no matter how empty or full.   Leave the cars at home, in the Zip Car parking spot, or on the car dealer’s sales lot. Start reducing your carbon footprint.

Overall, airplanes contribute between 2-3% of the overall carbon emissions, but that’s really a significant amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases considering that only a small percentage of the population actually flies.

Unfortunately for Americans, the long distance mass transit options are somewhat limited and not highly attractive.  Trains and buses are the best options, but only if you have considerably more time to spend making the trip.  Beyond the East Coast and other high population corridors,  most American cities are spread out and have benefited from our long term government subsidy of improving the interstate highway system.  Unlike Europe and parts of Asia, the U.S. rail system has not enjoyed this same benefit.

Looking across Europe and Asia, one can see the benefits of trains and the huge CO2 savings they realize from this train infrastructure. For instance, in Britain, rail travelers emit less than half the carbon compared to plane travel.  Yet in France, its even less because their electric trains are powered nuclear energy whereas in Britain uses more coal, so France per capita mass transit emissions are significantly less than that of the British.  The point is that train options in  both countries are remarkably better for the environment than flying. Here’s a website that highlights the difference in carbon emissions for trips within Europe.

Generally speaking, there aren’t many scenarios in which flying is better than driving, especially if you factor in driving to the airport and adding that to your flight’s carbon output. In addition, there is what is known as radiative forcing, which is caused by the plane’s pollution that is emitted at higher altitudes where it more dramatically impacts the ozone layer and heat trapping effects.  Carbon emissions aren’t the only thing to consider when taking a flight – its our continued dependence on imported oil.  Currently there are no real alternatives to petroleum based jet fuels or even hybrid planes options on the horizon.

So for now, reduce and consolidate you travel and jump on the bus, subway, train, or inter-city bus as often as you can fit it into your schedule.  It’s one of the smartest ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Also, there’s a new iPhone App, Carticipate, that connect you up to a social network of folks who want to share rides. With this app, you can plug in where you’re going and find others in your social network who are headed in the same direction. You can hitch a ride with them, or open up your vehicle to share a ride. While limited right now to the small number of users, it is growing and will hopefully soon be a catch-all for ride-sharing.   We’ll be writing about it in our app of the month column, very soon.

Sustainable Living writer John Garnett
Be sure to check out our green lifestyle store Green Blizzard Store. Check out these related Green Blizzard articles: Seafood Watch, Are We Eating Fish Into Extinction, Carbon Impact of Meats, Local Produce, Sun Tea, or Growing Basil.

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About the author

John R. Garnet

John's work in the energy market fostered his interest in the environment. He recently completed his graduate work at George Mason University, But more interestingly, John has a passion for food and cooking and to provides some light-hearted tips to make people's lives greener while enjoy the good life with everyday practical tips from brewing tea, growing basil, or drinking raw milk.