Driving to NC

PriusA 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 the opportunity to see if the results are similar with a different car, number of people, and destination. This time, I also plan to compare costs, which I ignored in my last analysis.

The numbers produced by the carbon calculator and my estimates were off by quite a bit, so I used my calculations and their estimate of CO2 per person-mile. I believe the difference is that I use exact mileage (as provided by the transportation company) and I’m not using a multiplier for the plane to represent that fact that its CO2 is released in the upper atmosphere.

The driving distance from Bloomington to Raleigh is about 670 miles. At 49 mpg, that’s almost two tanks of gas (8 gallons each) at $3.40/gallon. That makes the out-of-pocket cost about $50. According to Consumer Reports (subscription required), a Prius has maintenance costs of $2,971 per 75,000 miles. That’s an amortized rate of $26.54 for our trip for a total cost of $76.54. Using the same carbon calculator as before, the trip also produced 274 pounds of CO2 (19.56 lbs per gallon burned). Since we’re also travelling back, that would double the results but that’s negated by the fact that there are two of us in the car.

Driving the Prius: $76.54, 274 pounds of CO2, and 26 hours.

There are direct flights from Indianapolis to Raleigh, but Indianapolis is further away from Raleigh than Bloomington is. The total distance is about 990 miles. A round-trip flight for one of us would be 436 pounds of CO2 (0.44 lbs/person-mile for a medium-length flight) and $245 (assuming we get tickets a month out). The flight itself is 2 hours but it would require another hour to make sure that we’d be able to get through security on time. We’d also have to drive to Indy from Bloomington, which would produce 39.12 pounds of CO2, cost $6.80, and take 2 hours round-trip.

Flying: $252, 475 pounds of CO2, and 8 hours

The Amtrak website is pretty hard to navigate (it kept timing out and giving me errors). The biggest problem is that if you’re switching zones (Midwest to South in this case), it won’t suggest routes for you. You have to figure out what the connecting city is on your own. Going from Indianapolis to Raleigh requires a stop in Washington, DC (which actually might have worked out well, since Maggie is making an extra trip up there to visit a friend). The Indy to DC leg would cost $82 and take 18 hours. Going from DC to Raleigh is $43 and 6 hours. Ignoring any layover time, that’s $125 and 24 hours for one person going one-way. The trip is over 720 miles each way, which is 302 pounds of CO2 (0.42 lbs/person-mile). That makes the round-trip train ride cost $250, produce 604 pounds of CO2, and take 48 hours. We also have to add in the additional travel time up to Indy (39 lbs of CO2, $6.80, 2 hours).

Train: $257, 643 pounds of CO2, and 50 hours

As with the train and plane, we’d have to head up to Indy to take a Greyhound bus. There are 2-3 transfers and it’s about 700 miles. Those 700 miles would produce 462 pounds of CO2 (0.66 lbs/person-mile). Depending on when we left, it could take anywhere from 16.5 to 22 hours. All of the routes are the same price ($222), so I’ll assume we’d pick the shorter one. Once again, we add in the trip to Indy (39 lbs of CO2, $6.80, 2 hours).

Bus: $229, 501 pounds of CO2, and 35 hours

It’s table time!

Cost lbs CO2 Time (hours)
Car $77 274 26
Plane $252 475 8
Train $257 643 50
Bus $229 501 35

Once again, the car seems to be the best choice. It costs about a third less than the next cheapest alternative and produces almost half as much CO2. Even though the car is better in all categories than the train and bus, the plane is much, much faster (over three times as fast!).

It’s pretty obvious why Amtrak makes such a dismal showing. Going all the way to DC before going south adds a whole lot of distance, which increases everything else. While doing some research after my last post, I found out that inter-city buses average less than 7 mpg! With two of us in the Prius, the effective person-mpg is about 100. For a bus to do that well, it’d have to have 15 passengers, assuming that it goes the same distance. Unfortunately, the buses have further to go as well, since Indianapolis is further from Raleigh than Bloomington and they make some detours for stops. I’d guess that a bus would have to have around 20 people in it to match our person-mpg. Based on its CO2 production, it looks like the expected number for a trip like that is more like 11. I haven’t actually ridden from Raleigh to Indianapolis, so I don’t know if this is accurate for that trip, but it seems plausible based on the size of the bus.

Running the numbers again really makes it hit home why people in the US prefer their cars (and occasionally planes). Trains cost way more and take much longer. Buses are a little better, but aren’t as comfortable and still require you to get to a station somehow. Airplanes cost a lot and produce a lot of CO2, but at least they get you there faster. In fact, if you look at cost as a proportion of time, the airplane costs almost exactly as much as the car ($78), so you’re basically just extrapolating the cost of the car. That is, if you could pay to increase the speed of the car, you’d have to pay as much for it to get there in 8 hours as you’d pay for a plane ticket.

That doesn’t even begin to account for the convenience. Since we were driving, we were able to carry a bunch of boxes for Maggie’s friend Laura and Maggie was able to take a short side-trip to DC to visit her.

Basically, if you care about cost and have at least one passenger, it makes more sense to drive than anything else. I wish it were otherwise, but until they get some zeppelins up and running, I think we’re stuck with it.

  del.icio.us this!

3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Andy said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    The only other factor, which is difficult to estimate, is that if you did not own a car (effectively not using 3,500 pounds of resources) how much energy would be used. For instance, while a bus may be more efficient if 20+ people are in it, it is used all the time, and serves a necessary function for many people who do not have the capitol to own cars. By owning a car, you used those resources, which then only get used once in a while, being much less effective on resources/use, if that makes sense.

  2. 2

    arduous said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

    I love these posts!! I am fascinated that besides the car, the plane was the most carbon friendly choice. It seems so against all conventional wisdom that the plane outdoes the train.

    I think Andy makes a good point though we have already had a discussion about the bus and how it is already being used. I do agree with him that, in my opinion, communal transport is generally more resource effective, but you made a good counter-argument that if the bus has fewer than 15 passengers, it’s not an effective use of resources either.

  3. 3

    Jessica said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

    I think building more train tracks so the trains can travel more efficiently, directly and quickly makes more sense than a zeppelin, but I’d sure like to ride in a zeppelin anyway.
    I’ve taken a more than a few trips by blackhawk. I wonder what their carbon footprint is …

Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Speak your piece