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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How to Travel Sustainably

I have been contemplating a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit a couple of friends but am having trouble figuring out the greenest way to get there. At first I thought maybe I could combine it with a trip to Raleigh for Will’s brother’s wedding but it sounds like that’s not going to work out. (Will and I are planning to drive to Raleigh either in my mom’s Toyota Prius or in my greasecar and from there I would only be driving about five hours on my own.)

The other obvious option is flying, which has remained oddly affordable despite rising fuel prices. My gut feeling is that flying has a really bad environmental impact but I have read very mixed studies about it. Laura forwarded me a great article from Salon about air travel and their conclusion is that it’s probably a better environmental choice than driving but that the bottom line is that the world would be a better place if we traveled less. He did mention that it’s difficult to evaluate the full impact of jet exhaust since it is released very high in the atmosphere and is suspected to have different effects than, say, car exhaust.

He also suggested that train travel is the most efficient option but alas, it is a challenging proposition from Bloomington. The nearest train station is in Indianapolis and pretty much all the trains go to Chicago, except that mostly they have been replaced by buses. (I guess it’s become a pretty common trick for Amtrak but it always shocks me a little when I pull up a train schedule and it says “Bus.”) So I would need to drive to Indianapolis, take the train to Chicago, hang around for a few hours, then take the train overnight to D.C. with a total travel time of about 24 hours and a total cost of over $150 one-way. Not very encouraging.

So I’m continuing to weigh my options. Perhaps it would make sense to fly and purchase some carbon offset credits, or perhaps I could justify the trip by hauling some more of Laura’s furniture to her, or maybe I’ll just make my friends come to me (although that’s really just another way to pass the buck). I do feel pretty blessed that most of my friends and family are within biking distance so I can probably justify the odd plane trip or two a year. And maybe one of these years I’ll get really hardcore and buy myself a horse and buggy. Maybe.

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Greased Lightning – Driving on Vegetable Oil

Frozen GreasecarI don’t want to scare people away with my hardcore environmental tales but I do like to tell people about my greasecar.  It’s a 1997 VW Jetta with a turbo diesel engine that has been adapted to burn straight vegetable oil.  The idea is that I can burn waste vegetable oil (from all those French fry joints) instead of petroleum diesel which will achieve three goals: utilizing a waste product, reducing dependence on petroleum products, and reducing the amount of air pollution generated.  (The third one is debatable but at least it SMELLS a lot better.)  Oh, and I generally get my vegetable oil for free as opposed to paying $3.50/gallon for petroleum diesel.

The idea is simple.  The diesel engine was originally designed to burn vegetable oil so today’s diesels can also burn vegetable oil IF it is preheated to reduce the viscosity (make it thinner).  My car has a special tank in the trunk that I fill with filtered vegetable oil.  I start my car with petroleum diesel from the regular gas tank, use the heat from the engine to heat up the vegetable oil, and when it’s hot I push a button to start pumping from the vegetable oil tank instead.  At the end of my ride I switch back to petroleum diesel to purge all the lines.  This is so when my car cools down, the engine doesn’t gum up with vegetable oil.

Just to clarify, a straight vegetable oil (SVO) system is different than a biodiesel system.   Biodiesel is a product made by combining vegetable oil with lye and methanol to create a fuel that is very similar to petroleum biodiesel.  The cool part is that you can put it in the regular tank of any diesel vehicle and don’t need to modify the vehicle to use it.  (There are a couple of exceptions; biodiesel has a nasty habit of eating through certain types of rubber so there are some older cars that would need to have their gaskets switched out.)  The downside of biodiesel is that you have to make it, which generally involves some kind of processing system, and it generates some nasty byproducts.  This is not surprising since lye (drain cleaner) and methanol (antifreeze) are both pretty nasty to begin with.

I decided to go the straight vegetable oil route because I found biodiesel production to be intimidating.  There are definitely people out there who have awesome setups in their garages but they tend to be the tinkering types.  It’s also possible to buy biodiesel but most of that is made from new vegetable oil rather than waste vegetable oil.  I prefer to see new vegetable oil being used as people food instead of running my car. 

My greasecar has been pretty good but there was definitely a steep learning curve and I really feel like I haven’t done as well as I could have.  There are a few ongoing problems I have chosen not to deal with – for example, the gauge for the vegetable oil tank has never worked and my trunk has a permanent coating of grease from spills.  Filtering the waste oil is a HUGE pain and I still haven’t figured out a good system.  I also can only run on grease when the temperature is above about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Diesels don’t like cold weather and veggie oil only makes it worse.  In the end, it has been a little too easy to run on petroleum diesel instead of hassling with veggie oil but overall I’m glad I did the conversion. 

I have a lot more to say on the subject so expect future posts about the nitty gritty details of conversion, turf wars for used vegetable oil, my internal debate about whether or not running my car on grease can really be considered environmentally benign, and my frustration with the biofuels movement.

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Where is Your Dream Home?

I love looking at real estate. There is something immensely exciting about driving around town, checking out the “For Sale” signs and asking “Wow, what would it be like to live there?” Thanks to the Internet, I can even sit around in my pajamas and cruise the Bloomington listings.

It seems like there are hundreds of houses for sale right now and yet all the searching has not helped me figure out what my dream home looks like. In the end, it boils down to two simple options.

1. Buy a house in the country where we can grow our own food and live close to the land

2. Buy a house in the city where we can live car-free and share resources more easily

They both have their appeals. I’d love to have a big garden and a few fruit trees and some chickens. I might be able to do that in the city but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t also have my own stream and a little bit of forest and maybe a goat. Of course, living out in the country on a big piece of land would leave me isolated from my neighbors and dependent on my car to go grocery shopping or visit friends. How self-sufficient could I be out in the country and how enjoyable would it be? Living in the city, I’d have stores and friends close by and could arrange to bicycle or walk most places I wanted but it would be more crowded and less natural. I probably couldn’t put in a composting toilet (although Will isn’t too excited about the idea anyway).

I’ve spent some time searching for that happy medium, a small house on a bit of acreage that’s still bikeable from downtown. I haven’t found it yet and we probably can’t afford to buy a house just yet anyway so for next year, we’re looking for the perfect downtown spot. It will be the grand experiment to see if I really will put that bike to good use and get my feet used to pounding the pavement. I sure hope I’m up for it. And maybe with the right landlord we can smuggle in a couple of chickens.

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