Trains… Because We Have No Choice

OK…ok. I admit it, I’m a crank on the subject of global-warming. I’ve lived for 10 of the last 12 years without a car, and yet a constant criticism directed toward me often goes like this: “Sure Kvatch. You live in a city with good public-transit, but I don’t…” …as if, somehow, this arrangement involves no sacrifice. But let me be clear: I spend a more time commuting than most people can conceive of, and I have to turn down plenty of work—work that pays much better than what I get paid now—because I simply have no way of getting to where the work is.

Simply put, I’ve made significant adjustments to my lifestyle to cut the biggest carbon emitter out of my life. So what’s left? Unfortunately…air travel, and damnit I love to travel!

Though estimates vary, flying creates more greenhouse emissions per passenger mile than almost any other form of transport. The Eurostar Consortium, for example, estimates that their emissions per passenger mile are 1/10 that of an equivalent plane flight. Now, the Eurostar runs at near capacity, but no matter how you slice it, air travel is problematic. Check out this chart:

Per Passenger Mile Emissions

Pretty sobering huh? You could do better in a car (assuming you’re not by yourself), much better going by train, and much, much better by bus. But that’s not even the whole story. Jet aircraft emit greenhouse gases—not just CO2, but NOx and water vapor—directly into the upper atmosphere where they do more damage and are less likely to be absorbed.

So where does this leave countries like the US, countries that lack well developed alternatives to air travel? Unfortunately in the position of playing catch up. We need to begin upgrading our rail systems, and we need to do it right-f*cking-now! More high-speed corridors? Yes. Infrastructure to support work and life during longer cross-country trips? Hell yes! I want to cut that last big carbon emitter (roughly 1/3 of my total footprint, and…yes…I did calculate it) out of my life.

This is something that we all need to be agitating for, because if we don’t a latter-day Era of the Zeppelins may be the only way to drastically reduce emissions from long distance transport. Though, I have to admit that I love the idea of traveling by zeppelin.

9 thoughts on “Trains… Because We Have No Choice”

  1. Dude! Zeppelin rules!

    I’m glad we have a functioning (sometimes, you bastards) bus system here. There’s such a stigma attached to public transportation in this country; only poor people and effete Europeans would ever go for it.

  2. Ah, a subject near to my heart. I would kill for a national rail system on par with Eurostar, and maybe with a larger Democratic majority after 2008 we can start working on it. Even the crappy intercity rail in Italy would be good, because at least they run throughout the day.

    Even air travel for regional trips around here (like between Seattle and Portland) still seems better only because the comparison is with Amtrak, with only two daily runs — and one is a bus.

    However when considering urban transportation alternatives, you can’t only look at CO2, you have to consider the amount of energy used as well. In terms of energy consumption, light & heavy rail is only a 21% improvement over SOVs.

    From the current DOE Transportation Energy Databook 26th Ed. (2004 data):

    Mode BTU per passenger mile
    Dispatched demand response 14,301
    Personal trucks 4,329
    Transit Buses 4,318
    Air (Certificated route) 3,959
    Cars 3,496
    Motorcycles 2,272
    Rail 2,978
    * Intercity (Amtrak) 2,760
    * Transit (light & heavy) 2,750
    * Commuter 2,569
    Vanpool 1,294

    I know, it’s an improvement, but not as much savings as one would have thought. Notice that air travel rates better than buses – my guess is because planes usually fly full, while buses have to run even if no one is on board.

    Getting more people on transit can improve its BTU scores, but that’s a huge job. Where I am, the county transit agency recently announced a 7% increase in bus ridership. I added up all the regional data I could find, and found that the total transit ridership in the central and south Puget Sound area is 158 millionish a year. Which sounds great, until you realize that there are that many car trips in the region every 13-15 days.

    The billions of microeconomic decisions Americans make every day lead to the reasons we need to travel. That socioeconomic context is what leads to all those people driving by themselves, even along corridors well-served by transit.

    The “solution” means juggling factors of emissions, energy consumption, zoning, growth, and more. Plus, R&D into renewable clean non-food energy sources.

    Then there’s Smart Growth. Love the Smart Growth, it’s part of the solution. But it’s not going to be practical to tell people, effectively, Thou Shalt Live Thy Life Only Within Walk/Bike Distance of Thine Home. No one is talking about vacating areas not near a transit station. If you live in a big city, there are going to be reasons for you to travel all around it. This is why I am working with groups that are trying to introduce transit technologies that would use automation to lower costs and increase availability. The goal: every location in a city should be within walking distance of conventional or automated transit. If you’d like to learn more about these new systems, visit Wiseline Institute NW and click on the PRT tab.

  3. Well the air traffic controllers will be way more mellow if all they have to deal with is Zeppelin traffic. Imagine what near collisions would look like, “Oops, sorry old chap. Pardon me, but do you have any grey poupon?”

  4. I agree there is a personal cost to choosing not to drive. Most communities are now designed for auto access and discourage pedestrians.
    Where I’m living now, if I cannot walk to an assignment I can’t commit to it. Public transport is simply not good enough.

  5. The answer is pogo sticks, ones with strong springs! Humans might look like kangaroos but what the heck. Imagine how well-built women would look as they bounce along? It warms my fluttering heart to think of it.

    Pogohontas would be proud of us, I’m sure. It would put a spring in every step. Ready…set…bounce…bounce…!

  6. I would love to have a national rail system, especially the fast trains like they have in France and other European countries. We’re lucky enough to live in the Northeast corridor so when my husband has to go to Washington for business he takes the train. But one issue is that a lot of places, even if they have train service, fall short once you get there. My husband actually commutes to Philadelphia but it’s a 25-minute read from the train station to where he works outside the city and there is no mass transit to get there. So he has to drive. But he does drive our old Saab and gets 33 miles to the gallon, which could be worse. Next car has to be higher mileage though.

  7. A trip on the Orient Express is one of my all time dream vacations. I looked into luxury train travel this year and it is amazing but far from inexpensive.

  8. I’d like to make a suggestion? I think that you have got something good in this article. But imagine if you included a few links to a website that backs up what you’re saying? Or maybe you might give us a little something to take a look at, something that would associate what you’re expressing to something real? Just a suggestion.

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