What’s the best way to get from here to there?

HighwayThis past weekend, I drove up to Wisconsin by way of Chicago to participate in PlayExpo 2008. It’s too late now, but in the car I got to wondering what the most environmental way to travel up there would be. There were three of us in the car through Chicago and then four from Chicago to Whitewater, so we’d reduce the carbon emissions per person that way. The best would probably have been to run veggie oil from Maggie’s car, but none of us drive shift. A car with better miles per gallon (like a Prius) would also have been good, but we were stuck with Ian’s car, which gets about 30 mpg highway.

With Ian’s car as a base, I used the Native Energy CO2 emissions calculator to figure out how much pollution each mode of transportation would produce.

There were three main legs to the trip: Bloomington to Indy (50 miles), Indy to Chicago (186 miles), and Chicago to Whitewater (106 miles). The first and last had to be done by car (either our own or in a rented taxi sort of situation which would be worse in terms of pollution). The drive from Bloomington to Indy produced 32 lbs of CO2, while the Chicago to Whitewater leg produced 70 lbs, or 102 lbs overall. The car emissions are computed per vehicle though, while plane, train, and bus are computed per passenger. There were three of us going from Bloomington to Chicago and four from Chicago to Whitewater, so the per-person numbers are 10.6 lbs and 17.5 lbs or 28 lbs total.

Those 28 lbs of carbon would be produced no matter how we got from Indy to Chicago, so we’ll ignore them for now. Our drive between Indy and Chicago (186 miles) put 70 lbs of CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s 23 lbs per person.

The flying distance from Indy to Chicago is about 25 miles less than the driving distance. However, planes create a lot of CO2 and they create it in the upper atmosphere, which multiplies its impact. A plane ride would have create 212 lbs of CO2 per person. That’s almost ten times as much as driving!

Okay, conventional wisdom is upheld. Planes are bad. Surely trains are better.

Sure enough, trains are better. Travelling from Indy to Chicago by train produces 108 lbs. per passenger. The travel distance is slightly less with the train than when driving, which helps. If we’d had to take the train as far as we drove, the train would have produced 122 lbs. per passenger.

Even the smaller amount is 5 times as much as driving.

There’s a cool European bus company, Megabus that now services Indy to Chicago. If you order far enough in advance, you can get your tickets for $2.50 (that’s $1 plus their $1.50 service fee)! Unfortunately for us, we didn’t know we were going until the las minute, so the tickets would have cost us $20 each.

But enough of cost. How much CO2 does the bus produce? Travelling over the same mileage as the car, the bus produces 68 lbs. of CO2 per person. That’s a lot better than even the train, but it’s still 3 times as much as driving. Hmm… 3 times. That sounds familiar. In fact, that’s how much I divided the driving portion up because there were three of us in the car. It seems like it would have produced about as much CO2 for a single person to drive as to take the bus.

I have to admit that I’m pretty astonished with these results. I knew flying would be bad, but not that bad. The train was also worse than I’d expected. The big shock was that the bus was almost as bad as driving by yourself! Apparently, the average mpg in the US is about 23, which would adjust things in favor of the bus. If you have a decent car, or a hybrid, you’re better off driving even if you’re by yourself! And if you’re sharing the ride, driving is by far the best option.

Here are the final results, including travel to Indy and Whitewater:

Plane: 240 lbs. of CO2
Train: 150 lbs. of CO2
Bus: 96 lbs of CO2
Car: 51 lbs. of CO2

Overall, the trip would have produced twice as much CO2 if we’d taken the bus rather than the car, three times as much if we’d taken the train, and five times as much if we’d flown.

This really underscores the idea that protecting the environment is a many-faceted concept. Even if cars produce less CO2 for a trip like this, there are other problems connected to them like all that wasted space used for parking lots and garages. Even worse is all the frustration and wasted time caused by gridlock, which would be alleviated by reducing the number of cars on the road.

Of course, I’m aware that these are all estimates. A plane, train, or bus isn’t going to produce that much less CO2 just because we’re not riding. Still, the concept is useful when trying to decide what sort of long-range travel options we should support!

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7 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    arduous said,

    April 9, 2008 @ 11:05 pm

    This is really interesting, but what I’ve been struggling a lot with is that last paragraph: GIVEN that the plane, train, and bus are all going to travel regardless of whether or not you are on them, how do we fairly calculate the cost in terms of carbon emissions? Had you taken the bus/train/plane, wouldn’t the ACTUAL TOTAL carbon emissions produced that day be less (even in a carbon emitting plane) because there would have been one less car on the road?

    To me there’s a logical fallacy that we eco-types ignore here. And I don’t really know how to remedy that.

  2. 2

    arduous said,

    April 10, 2008 @ 12:22 am

    Will, I hope you don’t mind, I wrote a long post on this on my blog. I just want to let you know, I loved your post, and I loved how thought provoking it was. It just made me start to wonder if we’re calculating carbon emissions all wrong.

  3. 3

    Will said,

    April 10, 2008 @ 3:42 am

    Not at all, arduous! I think your post touches on a really important point. What are these carbon calculators actually telling us? How should we change our behavior based on that?

    I think some of it comes down to the tension between what’s best for individuals and what’s best for community, but I have enough thoughts on your post that I’ll probably write them up as another post.

    And the cycle continues. 🙂

  4. 4

    arduous said,

    April 10, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

    Great! I can’t wait to read your next post!!

  5. 5

    Communal travel decisions | GreenCouple.com said,

    April 11, 2008 @ 2:44 am

    […] my last post, I wrote about carbon emissions for different modes of travel on my trip to WI. Arduous picked up on my last paragraph about how these are potentially unreliable […]

  6. 6

    Running the numbers on dishwashing | GreenCouple.com said,

    April 16, 2008 @ 3:05 am

    […] guess I have numbers on the brain after thinking about travel (in specific and more generally), because the last time I hand washed, I decided to measure how much water I […]

  7. 7

    Driving to NC | GreenCouple.com said,

    May 27, 2008 @ 11:58 pm

    […] while back, I talked about driving from Bloomington to Chicago (and beyond) compared to a similar train or plane ride. Driving to Raleigh, NC last week gives me […]

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