What Is the Most Eco-Friendly Way to Travel?

Train - most sustainable modes of transportation
Credit: Amtrak

Over the past few years, the topic of climate change has become more and more popular, raising concerns about the future of our planet and eco system. And there’s a valid reason for that. As our everyday lives become more automated and mobile, our carbon footprint continues to increase leading to serious consequences for the environment and the health of our planet. Therefore, it’s more important now than ever before to understand what is causing our personal carbon footprint to grow and what we can do to reduce it.

What is carbon footprint?

Carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, consisting mainly of carbon dioxide, that an individual or an organization releases into the atmosphere through their actions.

Why is it important?

Carbon dioxide emissions have profound effects on the environment. Because of them, the temperature of our planet increases, causing the melting of ice caps and leading to the rise of sea levels. As a result, entire ecosystems and coastal cities could be completely submerged and irreversibly destroyed. 

It also causes great changes in temperature norms that could negatively affect the habitats of various wildlife, as well as the lives of millions of people around the world who rely on their food crops for sustenance.

In addition, the continuous warming of the planet’s oceans could lead to striking climate anomalies that threaten to destroy and wipe off entire communities. Most recently, a series of hurricanes of never-before-seen magnitudes swept through the southern United States and the Caribbean with deadly consequences. Unless we put a conscious effort to reduce the emissions of carbon of dioxide released into the atmosphere, these natural disasters will continue to become bigger and more frequent.

How can I reduce my carbon footprint?

You might not realize it but your personal carbon footprint is determined by a variety of everyday habits and activities such as your electricity usage, the amount of waste you generate, and even your diet. However, one of the most prominent (and obvious) factors that affect your potential green living is the way you travel.

Your travel habits and preferences are among the key elements that dictate your carbon footprint. In fact, you can drastically reduce (or increase) the amount of carbon dioxide emissions you’re responsible for by choosing a particular form of transportation over another.

What are the most sustainable modes of transportation?

If you’re determined to reduce your carbon footprint, you should be aware of the direct effects that every mode of transportation has on the environment. To help you figure that out, we examined the fuel efficiency and the average amount of CO2 emissions of the four most popular ways that people travel – bus, train, car, and airplane:

Fuel Efficiency

Bus 186.2 passenger miles/gallon
Train 189.7 passenger miles/gallon
Car 113 passenger miles/gallon
Airplane 53.6 passenger miles/gallon

Average CO2 Emissions

Bus 0.17 lbs/passenger mile
Train 0.41 lbs/passenger mile
Car 1.17 lbs/passenger mile
Airplane 1.83 lbs/passenger mile

Passenger mile = one mile traveled by one passenger, as a unit of traffic.

As you can see, traveling by bus or train is a lot more efficient and environmentally friendly than either driving or flying. Both buses and trains not only use a significant amount of fuel less, but they also release much lower amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In fact, traveling by bus rather than flying could decrease your carbon footprint by up to 13 times.

Another extremely important thing to keep in mind about different types of transportation is their capacity:

Average Maximum Capacity of Vehicles

Bus 55 people
Train 286 people
Car 5 people
Airplane 204 people

Bus capacity: based on the maximum capacity of an average Greyhound bus (https://www.greyhound.com/en/discover-greyhound/our-bus-fleet)
Train capacity: based on information provided by Amtrak; train sizes and capacity vary in different regions.
Car capacity: https://truecostblog.com/2010/05/27/fuel-efficiency-modes-of-transportation-ranked-by-mpg/
Airplane capacity: Based on avg. capacity of Airbus A320 and Boeing 727 (https://www.ponderweasel.com/how-many-people-can-fit-on-a-plane/)

An average inter-city bus can fit up to 55 people on board, while the average personal car can carry up to five passengers at a time. Unfortunately, it’s not very often that cars are filled to capacity. In fact, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average car carries only between one and two passengers. Therefore, one bus can take as many as 55 cars off the road!

While trains might be a little less efficient than buses, they are still light years ahead in terms of their carbon footprint compared to cars and airplanes. The average Amtrak train can carry more people than the average domestic jet plane and its carbon dioxide emissions are more than four times lower.

How would my carbon footprint differ on actual routes?

As we established above, choosing to travel by bus or train over flying or driving can have long-lasting positive effects on the environment. While you will probably still opt to fly if you’re going somewhere really far than sit on a bus or train for 12+ hours, you should definitely consider ground transportation for short-distance trips and spare our planet the extra fuel exhausts. Not only will Mother Nature be really thankful, but also your bank account will be happy as well, as bus and train travel is usually just a fraction of the cost of flying or driving.

To demonstrate the magnitude of the overall environmental benefits of traveling by ground using public transportation, we picked five popular short-distance routes from across the country and calculated what the carbon footprint of one traveler would be if they traveled by bus, train, car, or airplane.

We used CarbonFund.org’s calculator to determine a single traveler’s carbon footprint for a one-way trip for each of the popular routes below. Car stats are based on the fuel efficiency of 2016 Honda Accord, 26 MPG, 3.5 L 6 Cyl. with an automatic transmission.

For flights, we have included the amount of CO2 emissions when you take into consideration radiative forcing. According to CarbonFund.org, at high altitudes, the effect of greenhouse gases is considerably different than on the ground level. Aircrafts emit water vapor during flights which can cause the formation of ice clouds, called contrails, which can then lead to a net warming factor estimated to be 2.7 times the normal effect.

New York to Boston

New York - most sustainable type of transportation
Bus 28.66 lbs of CO2
Train 70.55 lbs of CO2
Car 160.94 lbs of CO2
Airplane 105.82 lbs of CO2 (284.4 lbs including radiative forcing)

Taking a bus from New York to Boston is the most sustainable way to travel between the two biggest cities in the Northeast. 

While flying will get you there in about 45 minutes, it can be almost 10 times more harmful to the environment when you take into consideration radiative forcing. In fact, it could take one tree more than two years to offset the amount of CO2 released from your brief flight from NYC to Boston.

New York to Philadelphia

New York - most sustainable type of transportation
Philadelphia - most sustainable type of transportation
Bus 13.23 lbs of CO2
Train 33.07 lbs of CO2
Car 72.75 lbs of CO2
Airplane 52.91 lbs of CO2 (141.1 lbs including radiative forcing)

When you take the bus from New York to Philadelphia, you are reducing your carbon footprint by more than five times compared to driving. Besides, with an average bus fare of around $10, leaving your car at home is a no-brainer. It will make you not only a conscious environmentalist but also a financially responsible adult.

San Diego to Los Angeles

San Diego - most sustainable type of transportation
Los Angeles - most sustainable type of transportation
Bus 15.43 lbs of CO2
Train 39.68 lbs of CO2
Car 90.39 lbs of CO2
Airplane 61.73 lbs of CO2 (165.35 lbs including radiative forcing)

Hopping on a bus or a train from San Diego to Los Angeles is not only eco-friendly but also a smart decision when it comes to transportation. Traffic in Southern California is notoriously bad and every opportunity there is to reduce the number of vehicles on the road should be embraced.

If enough people take the bus or the train instead of driving, that would get hundreds of cars off the road, easing traffic and significantly reducing harmful carbon dioxide emissions – it’s a win-win for everyone!

Los Angeles to Las Vegas

Las Vegas - most sustainable type of transportation
Bus 35.27 lbs of CO2
Train 90.39 lbs of CO2
Car 202.83 lbs of CO2
Airplane 132.28 lbs of CO2 (359.35 lbs including radiative forcing)

As you may have already guessed, traveling by bus from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is the most sustainable mode of transportation out of the four, with the train from LA to Vegas coming in second place.

Even though it makes for a longer journey, ground public transportation can be more than 10 times better for the environment than flying and it’s definitely cheaper, which means you will have more money to spend on all the fun that Sin City has to offer.

Boston to Providence

Boston - most sustainable type of transportation
Providence - most sustainable type of transportation
Bus 6.61 lbs of CO2
Train 17.64 lbs of CO2
Car 37.48 lbs of CO2
Airplane 28.66 lbs of CO2 (74.96 lbs including radiative forcing)

Similarly, if you travel from Boston to Providence by bus, you are doing a huge favor to the environment because your trip’s carbon footprint could be six times larger if you drive there, and a staggering 11 times larger if you fly when you include radiative forcing. Even if you take an Amtrak train, you will still be a lot more eco-friendly compared to driving or flying. Besides, it’s just a 40-minute trip, there’s really no need to fly there.

How can I further help offset my carbon footprint?

In addition to reducing your carbon footprint, you can also actively help offset the amount of carbon dioxide you do end up releasing into the atmosphere through your travels. CarbonFund.org has a wonderful initiative that allows you to contribute donations that go directly to planting trees across the globe. For just $1 per tree, you can help reduce climate change, improve air quality, and preserve biodiversity, among many other things.

While it would be naive to think that you can completely stop all activities and habits that affect your carbon footprint, there are many ways that you can consciously reduce it to a minimum. Yes, it might require you to make a few adjustments to your lifestyle here and there but, at the end of the day, you are prolonging the life of our planet and contributing to the continuous well-being of everyone who shares its resources. After all, is there anything more important than that?

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About the author
Staffo Dobrev

Staffo Dobrev

Having lived in some of the greatest cities in the world, Staffo has always had a soft spot for travel and adventures. Instead of hitting the usual tourist attractions, though, Staffo prefers to make friends with local people and check out fun places and activities that are not in the travel books.

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