Planes, Trains, And Automobiles: Is There A Way To Travel Sustainably?

I’ll never forget the first thing my political theory professor shouted out to us students as we schlepped our way into class. “What the hell are you all doing here? You should be traveling the world!” Interestingly enough, the bizarre comment rang true to me, and more importantly, kept me in the class.

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Travel, as the professor went on to say, is something necessary in the world today. Maybe 50 or 60 years ago you could get away with never leaving your home town, but in the modern, globalized world we now live in, it’s impossible to ignore other cultures and ways of life.

Besides the importance of acknowledging the world in its entirety, travel can really help you become a well-rounded individual. Some would even say a more complete person.

Like everything, however, travel has hidden costs. Besides the obvious economic impact it can have on a person, it directly affects the world we so whimsically seek to explore. Interested in learning more?


Without a doubt, if you’re traveling a far distance, this is the most convenient and quickest way to travel. Planes send you flying at approximately 600 MPH through the air toward your destination: over oceans, over deserts, over mountains.

Planes are also unbelievable polluters. For illustration sake, one international flight a year (let’s say from LA to London) in an average plane is like leaving a 1 kW (kilowatt) electric fire on, non-stop, for 24 hours a day all year round.

If that doesn’t do it for you, conceptualize this: that same internationally flight can be averaged out at 30 kWh daily, per year. On average, driving amounts to something around 40 kWh daily, per year. So that one trip can pollute almost as much as driving all year.

Why are planes so bad for the air? The answer is found in the fuel; jet fuel produces not only carbon dioxide, but also nitrous CHK oxide, which has a global warming potential “about 300 times” worse than carbon dioxide, according to Damon Honnery, a Monash University expert on alternative fuel.

It isn’t all bad though. There have been a number of breakthroughs in the technology behind planes. Virgin Atlantic, for example, has developed the world's first planes compatible with biofuel (a mix of coconut and babassu oil). Anyone interested in flying green should visit SeatGuru, a website that offers detailed information on picking the most environmentally friendly airlines.


Don't let the bad news about planes bring you down. Trains, as a matter of fact, are an excellent choice for travel. While they are vastly underdeveloped in the Americas, trains offer an interesting option for the weary, environment-minded traveler.

According to railroad association president and CEO Edward R. Hamberger, the railroads of 2007 were able to move a ton of freight an average of 436 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel. In other words, “It's like moving a ton from Boston to Baltimore or Eugene, OR., to San Francisco on a gallon of fuel.”

Despite the method of transit being incredibly fuel efficient, there are a few problems. First, infrastructure development can be costly and take a toll on the environment. It takes tremendous resources to build rail networks and stations, and clearing away sections of forest is an unfortunate side effect of developing routes across the nation.

In addition, noise pollution is something everyone dislikes. Trains are loud, shake the ground like an earthquake, and are overall unpleasant when you get partially deafened by their blow horn.

Despite these downsides, many environmental groups are pushing for more train systems. More trains means less drivers, which means less out-of-tailpipe pollution. So, while it may cost a bit to start up, trains are a much better long-term investment.


What about driving across country? Not only are cars fun to travel in, but they also give you a level of mobility not offered by trains or planes. Some people even say that traveling across country in a car is best because you develop the most intimate relationship with the places and people you come across.

But, as we know, there are some downsides to cars: they average out to 40kWh daily, and are the biggest out-of-tailpipe polluters. Cars release about 14,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year and any cross country trip is going to exponentially add you your yearly commute.

Luckily, there have been some amazing advancements in curbing car pollution. Hybrids or all-electric cars drastically reduce the carbon footprint of a vehicle. But for those ofPin It us who don’t have eco-friendly cars, there are some techniques for making your car more fuel efficient and easier on the environment.

Remembering The Importance Of Travel

Okay, so while we’ve made travel look pretty atrocious in respect to the environment, we shouldn’t forget its upside. Traveling is a luxury of the modern era, and because of the technology available to us, we can expand our horizons and reach out and help people all over the world.

That said, we should all do some traveling in our life. Go somewhere you never thought you’d go, and meet people you never thought you’d meet. It will definitely open your eyes, and may even change your world.

Oh, and for anyone still curious, schlepped is a real word.

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