There’s no place like home for the holidays, and for many of us, celebrating with family and friends means traveling. Whether that calls for hopping in a car, getting on a plane, or choosing another mode of transportation, each holiday travel method has an impact on the environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the modes by which people travel—and how frequently, too. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Holiday Travel Survey, 42% of Americans plan to travel between Thanksgiving and mid-January, taking an average of at least two trips.
Across the board, the holiday season is known for its traffic. This holds true if you’re on the street in a car, bus, ride-share, or braving the crowds before taking to the skies. 2021 is projected to be a rebound from the quieter 2020 holiday season that most people had. Vaccine availability, desires to visit family or travel for leisure this winter, and favorable prices are among the factors building up demand.
In general, transportation generates harmful emissions, degrades air quality and water resources, and also exacerbates the effects of climate change. Globally, transportation makes up between 15-20% of annual emissions. So when it comes to holiday travel, are all travel methods created equal? What’s the most sustainable way to get from point A to point B?
The Brightly team compared five different travel methods to see how each ranked in terms of its sustainability. We looked at fuel usage, carbon emissions, and energy efficiency to rank each one by its impact.
Travel Methods We Ranked:
- Ride-Hailing and Ride-Sharing
Each holiday travel method was given a rating out of 15 points based on fuel usage, carbon emissions, and energy efficiency. Each category is scored from 1 to 5, with 1 being the least eco-friendly and 5 being the most eco-friendly.
Holiday Travel Methods, Ranked
Total Score: 12/15
- Fuel Usage: 4/5
- Carbon Emissions: 4/5
- Energy Efficiency: 4/5
Traveling by train is usually a more sustainable option than traveling by plane or car. For starters, it’s the ultimate “carpooling” system, and as a general rule, any mode of transportation that transports people in bulk is better for the environment.
Most passenger trains consume about 3.2 liters of fuel per kilometer traveled. Nowadays, most trains are also outfitted with fuel optimization and energy management technology.
Similar to a cruise control function on a car, many locomotives use GE’s Trip Optimizer or New York Air Brake’s Locomotive Engineer Assist Display and Event Recorder (LEADER) to consider the land’s topography and the train’s length and weight to apply the appropriate amount of power and speed. The energy management systems also take advantage of the throttle, coasting, and braking. And the results are impressive. For example, GE’s Trip Optimizer can save between 3-17% of fuel and emissions.
Some high-speed railways even have trains that are powered by electricity. For example, Amtrak’s Northeast corridor has been converted to electric rail lines. Electric trains generally use less fuel and emit significantly less carbon dioxide than the standard diesel train.
Generally, domestic railways emit less carbon dioxide than planes with 41 grams (0.1 pounds) of carbon dioxide (CO₂) per kilometer traveled, according to data from EcoPassenger. So, a train ride from London to Madrid would emit about 95 pounds of CO₂ per passenger, while the same trip by plane would emit roughly 250 pounds of CO₂ per passenger.
Railway travel is also more popular in Europe, but Amtrak offers over 30 routes in major cities across the United States and Canada. With stations in 46 states and 500 destinations, there might be a route for you! However, if you live in a more rural area, driving (or even flying) could be a better option for your trip.
Another factor affecting the sustainability of a train trip is how full the passenger cars are. When the train is full of passengers, the trip is significantly more eco-friendly than when most cars are empty. Of course, as a passenger, the amount of other passengers on the train is out of your control. To reduce your carbon footprint, you can choose to travel during peak times.
Total Score: 11/15
- Fuel Usage: 4/5
- Carbon Emissions: 4/5
- Energy Efficiency: 3/5
The bus is another sustainable public transportation option. Because buses can transport many people at once, each person’s carbon footprint ends up being significantly less.
According to National Express Transit, one study found even a bus “with as few as seven passengers is more fuel-efficient than the average single-occupant auto used for commuting.” Traveling by bus reduces the number of vehicles on the road, which in general, is good for the environment. Fewer vehicles mean fewer emissions. Bus travel also helps reduce traffic noise. If more people choose bus travel, smog will decrease and air quality will improve.
Buses also produce less carbon monoxide and fewer hydrocarbons per passenger mile in comparison to single-occupancy cars. This kind of travel can be more efficient, with the American Public Transportation Association pointing out that in 2011, public transportation “saved 865 million hours in travel time and 450 million gallons of fuel” in almost 500 cities.
Every vehicle emits greenhouse gases, but some emit more than others. In this case, a public transportation bus that’s only 25% full emits 33% fewer greenhouse gases per mile per passenger than the average single-occupancy car. A typical diesel bus with 40 passengers decreases comparative emissions by 82%.
But how do buses fare when it comes to energy efficiency? Surprisingly well! Most bus companies are looking to integrate more electric buses in their fleets, or even switch to alternative fuels. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced it will increase the number of electric buses on the road throughout 2021 from 45 to 60. The MTA also has goals to have zero-emission bus fleets by 2040.
Most buses operate in a designated bus lane, which increases a bus’ operating efficiency and makes loading and unloading passengers easier. Transit buses are generally considered to be more fuel-efficient and energy-efficient in large cities on urban routes. If you live in a city that has a convenient bus route, take advantage of it!
3. Ride-Sharing and Ride-Hailing (Using Lyft or Uber)
Total Score: 10/15
- Fuel Usage: 3/5
- Carbon Emissions: 4/5
- Energy Efficiency: 3/5
Ride-sharing is a carpool option offered by transportation services like Lyft or Uber. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), carpooling with companies like Uber and Lyft has the power to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, decreasing overall traffic congestion and pollution. So when it comes to the environment, the more people in a rideshare car, the better.
One study found that implementing accessible ride-share services via apps or websites could save fuel, reducing annual fuel consumption by about 240 million liters. Ride-shares are becoming increasingly popular, and the number of people using these services could also increase by 30% if the services are accessible.
Ride-shares also decrease individual carbon footprints because carpooling allows multiple people to use the same transportation method. Your carbon footprint would be much higher if you drove one car alone. Carpoolers reduce their emissions by 4 and 5%, which may not seem so significant, but consider the number of people carpooling instead of traveling alone. The percent of emissions saved increases with the number of people who use ride-shares.
The biggest downside to these services is a phenomenon called deadheading—the miles driven without a passenger(s) occupying the vehicle. It’s something Uber and Lyft drivers experience a lot of between waiting for new passengers and driving to and from passengers. A 2021 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found ride-hailing creates a “20% increase in fuel consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions” than driving one’s own car.
One thing that helps? Ride-sharing in an electric vehicle (EV). Some ride-hailing apps already have EV options available in certain areas. If you see the opportunity, it’s worth taking. For example, Uber offers Uber Green, which allows riders to choose a hybrid or EV car that produces at least 25% fewer carbon emissions than your standard Uber ride.
Ride-share companies aren’t shy about sharing their environmental commitments. Uber has a relatively robust sustainability plan, with goals to become a zero-emission mobility platform by 2040. Hundreds of thousands of drivers are expected to transition to EVs by 2030, and by 2040, Uber hopes to operate as a zero-emission platform in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Similarly, Lyft releases an annual sustainability report. Its 2021 report reveals plans to fully transition to EVs vehicles by 2030.
Overall, the environmental impact of using a ride-hailing service is dependent on the number of people traveling in one vehicle and the type of vehicle being driven. If you’re traveling by yourself, it’s not the most sustainable option. But if you’re carpooling with others and/or riding in an EVs vehicle, the trip becomes much more eco-friendly.
Finally, it’s important to note that many ride-share services, like UberPool, are temporarily unavailable as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. You and your loved ones may have to make your own carpool or ride-share arrangements instead of using pooled services.
Total Score: 7/15
- Fuel Usage: 2/5
- Carbon Emissions: 3/5
- Energy Efficiency: 2/5
Ranking holiday travel by car outside of ride-shares or ride-hailing services is more complex than the other methods on this list. The environmental impact of car travel depends on the distance traveled, how many people are in the car, and the type of car driven. In general, cars with only one passenger have a higher environmental impact than both trains and buses.
The environmental impact of driving also depends on which kind of car you drive. Traveling by EV, or even a hybrid, is much more sustainable than a car that takes gas. And, of course, a smaller car with more energy and fuel payoff will have a significantly lower impact on the environment than an SUV or a van.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a typical passenger vehicle emits roughly 4.6 metric tons of CO₂ per year. That metric includes holiday travel. To frame this differently, the average passenger vehicle emits about 0.9 pounds of CO₂ per mile. So if you drive 50 miles to your holiday destination, your car will emit 45 pounds of CO₂—and that’s just one way.
As of 2020, there were 1.8 million EVs on the road in the U.S. Overall, the U.S. EV market is in earlier stages than its European counterparts, whose consumers see lower prices because the products are more widely adopted. As the U.S. progresses on its own EV transition, driving cars in aggregate can become a more eco-friendly travel method. This also considers the narrowing price gap between combustion vehicles and EVs in the U.S.
Now, let’s talk about energy efficiency, which is how much gasoline is converted into power that propels the vehicle. Most cars aren’t exactly energy efficient, though EVs convert power more effectively. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, just 12-30% of the energy a gasoline vehicle harnesses from fuel is used to move it. So, where does the rest go? The bulk of the energy goes toward “engine and driveline efficiencies,” which includes powering the radiator, exhaust heat, combustion, and other power accessories.
Nonetheless, there are scenarios in which driving is a better option. A car can be a more practical choice if you’re not traveling too far—but far enough that a walk or a bike ride is out of the question—or if you’re traveling with others. Driving is also the preferred option if you have an EV or a hybrid car, or if you don’t have access to public transportation. You can even check out eco-friendly routes using Google Maps.
Finally, similar to carpooling with Uber or Lyft, travelers can carpool with friends and family. Many expressways across the U.S. have high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes designated for carpoolers to reduce travel time.
Total Score: 5/15
- Fuel Usage: 1/5
- Carbon Emissions: 1/5
- Energy Efficiency: 3/5
As you can guess, the airplane is one of the least sustainable travel methods. Planes require an abundance of fuel, they give off an unbelievable amount of emissions, and they don’t exactly qualify as “energy efficient.” But, they do move many people at a time (like taking the train, bus, or carpooling).
According to Smithsonian, one flight burns 8,255 gallons of fuel. If there are around 87,000 flights per day, about 718 million gallons of fuel get burned. In terms of carbon dioxide, jet fuel produces about 21 pounds of CO₂ per gallon. Comparatively, gasoline (which fuels most standard passenger vehicles), produces roughly 19 pounds of CO₂ per gallon burned. All in all, air travel creates about 1 gigaton of CO₂ to the Earth’s atmosphere annually.
Carbon isn’t the only byproduct of air travel, though. Contrails may be nice to look at against a blue sky, but the science behind them is less pleasing. When soot from the plane hits the air, water vapor is attracted to it, condensing and then quickly freezing to form the high cloud forms. These cloud forms are man-made and can trap heat. More soot from planes means more contrails, which increase the amount of clouds trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Airlines are getting more fuel-efficient, but it still takes a lot of energy to power a jet. Even climate change activist Greta Thunberg gave up air travel to reduce her carbon footprint. She chooses to travel by train or boat whenever possible.
Like other modes of transportation we’ve covered, the efficiency of flying can be analyzed on an “emissions per person” basis. Higher amounts of people traveling the same route effectively lowers the emissions per person of the trip. Solo travelers are better off flying than driving a long distance independently in a car.
With this in mind, one of the biggest variables for the environmental impact of air travel is the length of the flight. Airplane manufacturers have successfully lowered the energy intensity of a flight below that of cars. Ongoing innovations related to biofuels and more accurate GPS routing hope to continue to lower emissions associated with air travel. However, short flights are more energy-intensive than traveling the same distance by car; in other words, the efficiency gains of air travel are best seen across longer flight lengths.
Additionally, your individual emissions contribution from air travel depends on how much you fly and where you sit when you do. Are you only flying once a year for the holidays, or do you consider yourself to be a frequent flyer? The miles and corresponding emissions can add up quickly. Sitting in higher class seats has a higher carbon footprint because the seat takes up more of the plane’s space than its counterparts in the economy.
If traveling by plane is necessary this holiday season, there are a few ways you can decrease your carbon footprint. For example, consider picking flights with fewer emissions. Google Flights tracks carbon emissions for each flight, allowing you to choose the most sustainable option. You can also opt for nonstop flights instead of ones with a layover, choose a larger commercial airline that accommodates more people, and/or book a flight that’s almost full rather than mostly empty.
The Top Takeaway for Holiday Travelers
Choosing how to get home for the holidays generally depends on your personal preference and what’s easiest for you. No matter which method you choose—be it by car, plane, or train!—there are plenty of simple steps you can take to better the planet while you’re on the road.
If you’re buying new luggage, consider options from sustainable brands. As you’re packing, avoid single-use products whenever possible, like travel-size plastic toiletries. You can also bring a reusable water bottle and cutlery along, reducing waste during your trip. Even the smallest steps can make an impact this holiday season.
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