Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What's greener: Planes, trains, automobiles...or buses?

Feeling virtuous because you drove from Ottawa to New York instead of flying? Patting yourself on the back for driving a hybrid car on vacation instead of taking the bus? 

Don't be so hasty.

According to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the greenest choice isn't always the most obvious one. It all depends on where you're going, what route you're taking and how many people are travelling with you.

For instance, if three or more people are travelling together, driving may be more eco-friendly than flying, depending on the type of car (think Prius, not Hummer). However, if you're travelling alone or with just one other person, a non-stop flight in economy class may be the greenest choice, particularly if you're travelling farther than 500 miles (800 kilometres). 

As for trains, those in the Northeast Corridor (which run on electricity) have lower carbon emissions than their diesel cousins in the rest of the Amtrak system. Both are greener choices for single travellers and couples than the average car.

But here's one of the most intriguing findings, from my point of view: intercity buses (or motor coaches, to use the more elegant term the UCS panellists preferred) are often the greenest options for people travelling alone or in pairs. They emit just 0.17 pounds per passenger mile (0.05 kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre), compared to 0.37 pounds for electric trains, 0.45 pounds for electric trains, and 1.08 pounds for an average car with one passenger. (The figures for planes vary quite a bit, depending on route and plane type, so I won't get into them here. But they're higher than bus emissions.)

Yes, the lowly bus--maligned by many as the "loser cruiser"--suddenly has something going for it. 

Travel agent Bonnie Lee, one of the news conference panellists, pointed out that intercity buses have upgraded their offerings in recent years. These days, you may find anything from movies to wi-fi on board, at least in the U.S.

So what does all this have to do with travelling like a local? It highlights yet another benefit of bus travel--one of the best ways to immerse yourself in local life.

In 2006, my husband and I travelled by bus over the Andes from Santiago to Buenos Aires. As well as taking us through some spectacular scenery, the 22-hour trip (which included a couple of hours in Mendoza, while we waited to change buses) featured free food and wine served at our seat, along with a selection of movies on suspended TV screens. All for the princely sum of US$55 per person, one way. As a bonus, we spent the Santiago-to-Mendoza leg surrounded by a bunch of teenaged Argentinean water polo players. To a man, they were eager to practise their English and help us practise our Spanish. It was a blast. 

But will North Americans be queuing up in the months and years to come to board their local Greyhound bus? That remains to be seen. That South American bus by far surpassed any scheduled intercity bus I've seen on Ontario's roads. To be honest, I far prefer VIA Rail when travelling in Canada. But if Canadian buses came with wi-fi, iPod jacks and food service, I might reconsider. Hey, Greyhound...are you listening?

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