The Most Eco-Friendly Travel for Your Needs

Park your car and consider these alternative modes of transportation.


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It’s summer. It’s time to hit the road. Or the rails. Or even the friendly skies. But how do you know which choice is not only the most economical in days and dollars but the most ecological as well?

Driving is America’s favorite form of transportation, particularly in the summer months when the days are blissfully long and invite adventure. And besides, right now, gas is cheap. Yet spending lots of time in your car may bring about pangs of eco-conscience. Most of the oil consumed in the United States is used for transportation, and 1998 brought about record-high oil imports. Although there may be plenty of the black stuff to go around, it’s not a sustainable resource. Moreover, world leaders are currently reviewing an international agreement to protect the planet’s climate from greenhouse gases produced by the combustion of fossil fuels used by most forms of transportation. The EPA also has done its part in 1999 by strengthening federal air-quality standards.

Knowing this, should you leave your car in the garage, cancel your plane, train, or bus reservations, and simply ride your bike to your summer-vacation destination? It obviously depends on how far you’re going. Realistic travel decisions depend on the time you have, the vacation you want, and your individual concerns about convenience, safety, and cost. If you’re traveling a short distance—from New York to Boston, for example—it may be less expensive, have less impact on the environment, and be nearly as fast to jump on a bus or a train.

Energy and Emissions

The most apparent environmental impact of transportation in any form is air pol­lution, which can contribute to stratospheric ozone depletion, smog, acid rain, and asthma. Highway vehicles use the most transportation energy and account for 94 percent of all carbon released in transportation-sector emissions. This isn’t because automobile engines burn less cleanly than airplane engines; at similar load factors, planes actually require more energy per passenger mile and emit more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than ground transportation. Cars wreak more eco-damage because they’re our favorite mode of travel.

As improving technology and stricter emissions laws impact transportation, buses and trains may become clean, ­energy-efficient alternatives to cars and planes. For now, however, buses are not held to the same emission standards as cars. Many fleet buses are powered by diesel engines that emit exhaust containing 40 chemicals considered toxic air contaminants by the state of California, where diesel exhaust has been listed as a known carcinogen. Moreover, buses emit particulates, one of the most dangerous types of air pollution to human health. So while you may help save fuel by opting to travel by bus, you won’t prevent environmental damage.

Trains are powered by relatively clean-burning hybrid electric diesel engines, and they have a much greater load factor than any other form of ­transportation. This makes them extremely energy-efficient, and the potential of train travel to cut down energy use and emissions, particularly along densely populated corridors, is great. So far, however, train companies have not been able to offer the same cost and time savings as major airlines.

Safety and Convenience

Many Americans feel that air travel is dangerous. It’s not. Our favorite mode of transport, the automobile, is much more dangerous. We’re willing to risk a lot for the freedom and independence of steering our own destiny. Motor vehicle crashes account for 95 percent of all transportation fatalities and most injuries. Over a ten-year period there were 1,905 fatalities, injuries, and accidents involving planes and 6,842,000 such incidents involving automobiles.

As for convenience, figures indicate that flying, while safer and more popular, is losing ground. Between 1995 and 1996, late air arrivals, involuntary boarding denials, and baggage mishandling increased. In 1996, 75 percent of all flights arrived on time—down from 79 percent in 1995 and 83 percent in 1991. In comparison, on-time performance of Amtrak trains since 1987 has been between 70 and 80 percent.

Hidden Environmental Impact

If you’ve ever crossed a street where a bus is idling at a stoplight, you know that vehicle emissions are hard to ignore. But harmful emissions are only one piece of the eco-travel puzzle. The environmental impacts of any form of transportation include increases in noise and solid waste and the deterioration of groundwater quality. Transportation infrastructure such as highways, railways, and airports gobbles up land, contributes to urban sprawl, and disrupts or damages wildlife habitats. A recent EPA study concluded that Federal Aid Highway Program road construction contributed to the loss of 310,000 to 570,000 acres of wetlands between 1980 and 1995. Here are a few more environmental impacts of our transportation system.

- Leaking underground storage tanks from retail gas stations are one of the most common sources of groundwater contamination.

- Approximately 250 million scrap tires are generated annually in this country; many are discarded as a regular part of vehicle maintenance and end up in landfills or stockpiles, or are illegally dumped.

- Most glycols—the deicing chemicals that lower the freezing point of water on the exterior of airplanes—end up in surface waters near airports. A report for the EPA estimated that the seventeen busiest airports in the northern United States release, per year, 58 million pounds of glycol, which is acutely toxic to mammals at relatively low concentrations.

- Fuel emissions from airport service vehicles and vehicles traveling to and from airports represent an often-uncalculated part of the eco-impact of plane travel.

Alternative Transportation

If you’re planning on traveling less than thirty miles a day, or if your vacation objective is being somewhere rather than getting there, you might ride a bike. The low environmental impact of biking is both obvious and indisputably superior to any other form of transportation, except, perhaps, for walking—which together account for nearly 8 percent of all trips made. nNH

Unless otherwise noted, facts and figures come from 1998 studies and ­surveys conducted by the United States Department of Transportation.