Most Commonly Used Modes of Transportation
You need to get to work. You need to go to the grocery store. Your kids need to go to the doctor, and you sure feel like you need a vacation. If you’re like most people, you feel like you spend all day, every day running from here to there to do everything you need to get accomplished. However, you’ve probably thought frequently about the impact all this running is having on the planet. Isn’t there a better way to get from point A to point B? Should you take your car? The bus? Should you carpool with a friend? What’s the most environmentally responsible way to get around?
We’re here to help ease your worries. In this guide, we’ll talk about the most eco-friendly transportation methods to help you get around. We certainly won’t tell you how to go about your day, but with this information you’ll be able to make more sound decisions regarding your daily, weekly or even your leisure transport. Here are the most commonly used modes of transport and how they rate, ecologically.
While public transportation covers a very broad range of modes of transport, we thought we’d start with this first. It should go without saying – using public transportation is more eco-friendly than driving your own car or truck. The carbon footprint left by driving an individual car is phenomenal. According to the EPA, a single passenger vehicle – that means your car, truck or SUV – emits 4.6 metric tons of CO2 each year. That varies, of course with the type of vehicle you drive and how frequently you maintain it. The distance traveled will make a difference as well. However, 4.6 tons is an average.
Throughout this guide, we’ll take a look at individual modes of transportation and their emissions. To put personal vehicles into perspective, though, for every 100 miles driven, a passenger car emits around 89 pounds of carbon dioxide. A bus that’s filled with passengers will emit only around 14 pounds. Imagine the good we could do for the planet if we all adopted a more public mode of transport!
It’s not just the CO2 emissions that we should consider when weighing forms of public transportation, though. Switching to public methods of transportation can change the climate in many positive ways.
Public transportation can help improve the air quality in areas of high congestion. Usually these are urban areas.
Most public transportation operates on a set route, meaning fewer instances of multiple trips by passenger vehicles.
A switch to public transportation allows for compact development. That means more room on the planet for natural areas and wildlife habitats.
Public transport saves fuel, which includes the energy used to produce it.
In short, switching to public transportation can greatly impact – and improve – the earth’s climate. Even if you can’t use public transport every day, even occasional trips on the subway, train or trolley can make a big difference. Let’s take a look at each of the most common forms of transportation so you may be better able to decide which is the best option for you.
As mentioned previously, a bus will emit around 14 pounds of carbon dioxide gas per one hundred miles travelled. However, this is an average as different buses have different fuel efficiency. Additionally, maintenance on buses plays a role in their emissions; a poorly maintained bus will have a bigger carbon footprint than one that is cared for.
In addition to the carbon footprint of a bus, it’s important to consider the noise pollution produced by passenger buses. Now, it may be tempting to dismiss noise pollution as simply a fact of life that comes with living in an urban or suburban area. However, noise pollution has been shown to cause health problems in humans, including:
Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
Cognitive impairment in kids
Stress and anxiety
Fortunately, around the world more and more major cities are implementing programs to integrate eco-friendly buses into their transport systems. Clean air buses are being rolled out in locations around the globe. These buses may boast lower emissions or some may even be electric or hybrid vehicles.
An example of global governments making the switch to more earth-friendly transport can be seen in California. The California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) committed in 2018 to put 285 zero-emissions buses on the road by the year 2025. This is just one example of eco-friendly initiatives; check with your local city government to see if green or clean-air buses are available in your area, and rest assured: riding a bus home to try out your new Avocado Green Mattress is more sustainable than driving your car, guaranteed.
Subways are global; many major cities employ the systems as a means of public transportation. You’ll find subway systems in New York, Beijing, Paris, Moscow, Mexico City and many other locales. If you’re a regular subway rider, you may be curious as to the environmental impact you’re commute creates. Subways have long been thought of as eco-friendly alternatives to passenger cars. After all, they have relatively low emissions – much less than a car. Generally speaking, most subway systems are run primarily on electricity – while this isn’t the most eco-friendly option it’s possible that one day subways could be converted to solar or even wind power.
The problem with subways, however, isn’t the emissions caused in transit. Instead, it’s the phenomenal amount of resources and subsequent carbon impact required to build the system in the first place. There have been many studies in many major cities such as Toronto that show that the environmental cost of building a subways system may take as much as two decades to “repay.” That is to say, we won’t see the environmental benefit of a new subway system for a very, very long time. In addition to the carbon footprint left by construction of subways, it’s important to consider air pollution. As we go back to Toronto we find that a study showed air pollution levels below ground in the subway systems were 10 times greater than those above ground. This is an extreme case but as a rule of thumb air pollution will be higher in the subway systems than it will above them.
In summary, riding the subway system is healthier for the planet than driving your SUV. However, it’s important for decision makers to consider the eco-cost of constructing the systems before giving the green light.
For the sake of this article, we’ll consider the environmental impact of passenger trains as opposed to those that carry freight. There are simply too many methods of train transport to cover in just one guide. For the most part, trains aren’t really people’s first choice when it comes to daily transportation. Others are much more convenient, including subways, trolleys and even bicycles. That’s why when you research the eco footprint of passenger trains, the mode of transport is generally compared to that of a plane. Trains are primarily used for long distance travel as opposed to a daily commute.
There are two main types of fuel for trains: diesel and electric. As you might assume, diesel powered trains leave a much bigger footprint on the planet than electric trains do. These trains were developed to replace steam engines and were rolled out in the 1920s. Surprisingly, developments in science have allowed the carbon footprint of a diesel train to be the same today as it was almost 100 years ago, despite more frequent stops, heavier loads and more idling. Electric trains have, in theory, zero emissions at the point of use. By point of use, we mean that we’re discounting the materials and resources used to create the train and system. It goes without saying that if you have the option of riding an electric train, it’s the safest for the planet.
However, a third option for train travel is becoming more and more prevalent around the world: hybrid trains. Just as hybrid vehicles can lessen the impact commuters have on the environment, hybrid trains can reduce a person’s carbon footprint as well. With all this having been said, the carbon footprint and eco-impact of trains will vary. The type of train is obviously a factor. You’ll also need to consider the length of the journey, the amount of time spent idling and the number of stops. With all three factors, the higher the number, the higher the footprint.
You won’t find trolleys everywhere. In fact, they’re considered quaint tourist attractions by some people because they’re so rarely seen in use for normal commuting and public transportation. However, there are a select few cities that still have these methods of transport. San Francisco is famous for them but you’ll also find streetcars in Dallas, Toronto, New Orleans and Philadelphia. As it happens, these five cities may be on to the right track, if you’ll excuse the pun. Street cars are powered by electricity, making them extremely eco-friendly. In fact, trolleys can generate their own energy; it’s called regenerative braking. The electric motors found in trolleys last for years – much longer than diesel or other engines. Furthermore, trolleys are extremely quiet, giving off little noise pollution. This creates a better solution for those who live in the areas the trolleys serve.
It would be wonderful if we could implement trolley systems in every city. However, there are factors that prevent this. First, they’re extremely expensive, particularly when you consider that we’d have to modify the existing infrastructures. Secondly, in large cities trolley lines may be obstructed by large buildings and even traffic signs. That said, there are hybrid trolleys in existence. These buses can be run either with an overhead track or without. These trolleys obviously require fewer overhead tracks and may be a future option that could be rolled out in urban and suburban areas in the future.
To make a long story short, if you’re fortunate enough to live in a city with a trolley system, take advantage! Trolleys are some of the most eco-friendly modes of public transportation in existence.
The last of our public transportation methods that carry large groups of passengers are planes. Planes have been criticized for a very long time for the huge carbon footprint just one flight leaves. The biggest complaint about planes is that their emissions are released right into the upper environment. The greenhouse gases they emit are in large quantities, too. According to the New York Times, one round trip flight from New York to California generates an entire fifth of the gases emitted by a passenger vehicle over the course of a year.
Does that mean you should fly? Not necessarily. There are certainly more eco-friendly modes of transportation. For instance, it’s more responsible to take a Greyhound bus across the country than it is to fly. However, let’s take a look at fuel usage. A Boeing 747 carries an average of around 450 passengers, depending on the specific plane. According to the manufacturing giant, a trip of 4,000 miles would require around 20,000 gallons of fuel. Shared between 450 passengers, it would require just over 44 gallons of fuel per passenger to travel those 4,000 miles.
Now, imagine you’ve got a relatively efficient vehicle that gets around 25 miles per gallon, and you and a friend are taking a road trip. It’s just over 3,200 miles from Bangor Maine to San Diego. For the sake of argument we’ll take a few detours and drive exactly 4,000 miles. Your car would require 160 gallons of gas, which is 80 gallons per person for the trip. In this instance, the plane is more fuel efficient. However, before you take your next trip you’ll have to consider other factors, such as the number of people traveling, the noise pollution, the destination (ferries are extremely eco-unfriendly) and more. In a nutshell, planes can be unhealthy for the environment, yes. However, if you do your research and the math, and if you commit to carbon offsets sometimes planes are a more eco-friendly option than some other vehicles.
There are obviously forms of public transportation we haven’t covered. Taxis, carpooling and ferries that carry automobiles overseas are just a few examples. Inclines that run up and down mountains are another, albeit necessary, form of transport. When you plan your next trip, whether it be a short commute or a long distance journey, be sure to do your research and consider each aspect of the transport’s impact on the planet. Air quality, noise pollution, fuel efficiency and emissions are examples of the type of research you’ll need to look into. With public transportation covered, let’s take a look at alternative forms of transportation you can use for your day to day travel and commuting.
Motorcycles get ridiculously good gas mileage when you consider only the gas mileage. Bike owners report anywhere from 30 to 55 miles per gallon on a motorcycle. Some models advertise that a motorbike may get up to 64 miles per gallon, though that may be rare. For arguments’ sake, let’s split the difference and consider a motorcycle that gets 45 miles per gallon. Now we’re going to take that same 4,000 mile trip on a motorbike. You’d need 88 gallons of fuel to keep your bike running for the duration. However, there’s a problem with this. In most instances that 88 gallons is only going to transport one person.
Let’s assume you want to take a friend along with you. You have two options. You can both ride together or you can use a sidecar. Either option (a sidecar being the most obvious) will increase your drag and lower your fuel economy. The extra weight is a factor as well. Reports suggest that a second rider will reduce your fuel economy by about 20%. That said, it would require around 110 gallons of gas to make that same trip with a second rider, or 55 gallons per person. Granted, that’s still better than a passenger vehicle but much worse than a plane, train or bus.
Now, it’s true. Motorcycles do release fewer CO2 emissions than passenger cars. However, there are other problems with motorbikes you may not have considered. It’s been shown that motorcycles emit:
416% more hydrocarbons
3,220% more nitrous oxides
8,065% more carbon monoxide
When compared to vehicles, motorcycles certainly do not come out ahead in emissions tests. So while some people are switching to motorcycles in the belief that they’re more earth-conscious, that’s simply not the case – you’d do better for the planet to carpool with a friend in a passenger vehicle due to the greenhouse gas emissions alone.
Not long ago, hybrid and electric vehicles used to be inaccessible; they were simply too expensive for the everyday driver to afford. However, as happens with most inventions, manufacturers have begun to find ways to make these cars affordable to more people, meaning that more hybrid and electric vehicles are now on our highways. As we’ve mentioned, there are hybrid modes of public transportation available – in fact, the technology has existed since the beginning of the 20th century. Now that manufacturers are able to introduce this tech to passenger vehicles, we’re presented with a more earth-friendly alternative to the traditional gas-powered engine.
Just how eco-friendly are hybrid and electric vehicles? Hybrids have what’s called a twin-powered engine which is fueled both by electricity and gas. On average, a hybrid car will get around 50 miles per gallon of fuel, though some get as much as 60. Let’s take that 4,000 mile trip again, split between two passengers. You’d need 80 gallons of fuel to make the trip, or 40 gallons per person. That, of course, is better fuel economy than a motorcycle and a regular passenger vehicle. Hybrid cars also emit fewer greenhouse gases than other vehicles. Electric vehicles require zero fuel to cross 4,000 miles which is, as you’d imagine, the lowest for a passenger vehicle.
Hybrid and electric vehicles do have an impact on the environment, though. First, the production of these vehicles produces more emissions than the production of a standard vehicle. This is true for hybrids, plug-ins and battery-electric cars. Secondly, the batteries used to power hybrid and electric vehicles are more toxic to the environment – and more dangerous to you – than the lead batteries used in traditional cars. They’re difficult to recycle, and more energy is used in manufacture because they’re also more difficult to construct.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that electric, hybrid and traditional vehicles all have an equal impact on the environment. However, while the fuel economy of a hybrid or electric car is much better than that of a gas-powered vehicle, the emissions during use and production are nearly the same – or sometimes more, in the case of battery-powered vehicles – as that of a traditional car.
Diesel and Biodiesel Cars
As you may know, diesel engines are extremely harmful to the environment, as well as to the health of humans and animals. This engine type has been linked to cancer, respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease. Diesel fuel has also directly contributed to climate change, water pollution, air pollution and soil pollution. We’re not going to take a 4,000 mile trip in a diesel-powered vehicle. Frankly, it’s just too devastating to the planet. Suffice to say that diesel-run cars do get slightly better gas mileage than gas-powered cars, but the impact this fuel has on the planet essentially cancels this out.
Biodiesel, however, is a relatively new development that may offer a promising outlook for diesel engines. Biodiesel is made from vegetable oils most commonly, though sometimes animal fats are used. This fuel can produce as much as 60 percent less CO2 than petroleum diesel – and it’s biodegradable! We love that biodiesel may possibly be sustainably sourced from soy, corn and palm oils. However, there’s a downside to this. As the demand for biodiesel grows, more and more land is being cleared to plant crops. As you’d imagine, this is having a negative impact on the environment, and scientists still have not developed a way to make the process more sustainable.
With that said, it’s possible to make biodiesel fuels from restaurant waste. As restaurants fry food and cook with oils, they can collect and recycle that oil to more sustainable fuel our biodiesel cars. The fuel economy of a biodiesel vehicle is higher than that of a gas-powered engine, but slightly lower than that of a petro-diesel engine. At this point in time, we’re not sure that the eco-benefits of biodiesel are great enough to outweigh the harm done in sourcing the fuel. Until scientists can develop a way to more sustainably produce the fuel, biodiesel may not be the most eco-friendly option.
Walking and Running
These last two sections will remain short and sweet. As you’d imagine, walking and running to your destination are two of the healthiest ways to get around – both for you and for our Earth. However, there are always ways you can become a more eco-friendly walker or runner.
Choose clothing and footwear brands from manufacturers with sustainable, fair trade business practices.
Care for your clothing in a way that is both friendly to the planet and good for the longevity of your garments
Carry a BPA-free reusable plastic or stainless steel water bottle with you – opt to skip the disposable plastic bottles for good
Don’t litter, plain and simple
Of course, it’s not possible to walk or jog everywhere but you can make a huge difference in your carbon footprint if you choose to travel by foot where possible.
Biking and Skateboarding
As with walking and running, biking and skateboarding are zero-emission forms of transportation. If possible, choose human-powered wheels over electric or gas powered wheels! Again, you’ll want to be an earth-conscious cyclist or skateboarder. You can:
Buy your gear from companies that give back to the global community
Recycle your tubes and tires when they’re no longer usable
Wash your bike and board with biodegradable, cruelty-free soap – use grey water if possible
Use environmentally friendly grease and lubricants
Just a few small steps can help you become a more conscious rider, making your cycling and skateboarding that much more green.
Decide On The Best Socially Responsible Options For Transportation
We have to get from place to place, and some of us may not feel as if we have many transport options. However, even people in the most rural areas may have more eco-friendly transport options than they think! Use this guide to help you decide what’s best for your family, your conscience and the planet. Every situation is different – choose the option that’s best for the unique circumstance.
Shana Thompson is a full time professional writer and editor. Shana has worked extensively in the fields of content marketing, on-page and off-page SEO (guest posts, backlink acquisition), and creative writing. As an experienced pro content writer, Shana has worked on several magazines, publishing companies and marketing agencies. Many recent projects have included everything from nutrition and health services, where a lot of research and citations were needed, to writing about health, sustainable, eco-friendly products.
Follow Shana at Shana Thompson | @STx3Content / shanathompson.com