On a personal level, using only sustainable transportation can be difficult. There’s no more bus to Albany. Taking a train to Los Angeles just isn’t reasonable. However, there are some concrete steps you can take to make your daily travel and longer trips more sustainable. Moreover, on the scale of your personal ecological footprint, these can be some pretty big ticket items. Many of us focus on the small things—turning out the lights, recycling, taking shorter showers—that we recognize the impact of, but we ignore some of the more harmful actions that we take because the impacts are less visible. Hopefully, these tips can help you change that.
Understanding Transportation Emissions
The transportation sector’s carbon emissions can be both hard to track and hard to understand. For the former, MapMyEmissions, developed at the New York City Environmental Law Leadership institute with help from Columbia University, is a great website for calculating the emissions from a certain trip—it can show you the difference between driving and taking public transportation. Flight emissions are harder to calculate, and you can see a big difference depending on which calculation method you use. The ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) has a calculator on its website that is very comprehensive but tends to produce low estimates, while the calculator from Atmosfair, a German non-profit, gives higher estimates. See the flights section for a discussion of the reason behind the discrepancy.
For the latter, this EPA applet can make it easier to contextualize the raw emissions values you may encounter, although it works best for large scale emissions such as flights. Here’s a concrete example, which hopefully can make it easier to see how big of an impact transportation makes:
- Driving in a medium-sized gasoline car one-way to Boston emits about 50 kg of CO2e. Take the bus, and you cut your footprint in half to 25 kg of CO2e. That 25 kg difference is the same as turning off an LED lightbulb for 5 months.
- Flying from Albany to DC emits about 120 kg of CO2e per passenger. Take the train and you’re only responsible for about 12 kg of CO2e. That 108 kg difference is about the same as an average American household’s electricity use for a full week.
Walking and Biking
Walking and biking are two entirely carbon-free transportation methods (well, biking does involve some embodied carbon, but it’s almost carbon-free). Let’s say you drive just one mile to work every weekday. Over the course of a year, your commuting is still emitting over 200 kg of CO2; replacing your drive with biking or walking cuts all of that out. Plus, it’s healthy and fun.
Generally speaking, public transportation is more sustainable than driving personal cars. It releases a smaller amount of greenhouse gases and it contributes less to congestion and traffic. Subways and trains tend to be more environmentally friendly than buses, but each has its advantages. Click here to see a comprehensive overview of American public transportation’s carbon footprint.
Ridesharing and Carpooling
Especially in rural areas like Williamstown where large-scale public transportation is next to impossible, ridesharing and carpooling are fantastic methods to become more sustainable. Adding a passenger to a car barely increases its carbon footprint, so you can get two (or even three or four or more) for the price of one. Ask your friends, peers, and colleagues, or, even better, ask the entire Williams community!
There are two main places to post and/or ask for rides: WSO receives a little bit more use from students, while Switchboard has many active members from around the community. Don’t forget to offer to contribute to gas costs!
If you already have a car, the choice of whether or not to buy a new, efficient car is a tough one from a sustainability perspective. Because the manufacturing of new cars results in emissions as well, sometimes it may be better to continue to drive your older, less efficient car. Here are a few articles from Scientific American and Grist discussing the matter.
Once you’ve decided to purchase a new car, it is better from a sustainability perspective to buy a hybrid or all-electric vehicle. They are a little more carbon-intensive to make, but the fuel savings closes the gap quickly. On average, in Massachusetts, purchasing an all-electric vehicle saves about 4 metric tons of carbon emissions per year versus an average gasoline car. If you want context for that, read the “Understanding Transportation Emissions” section above.
The technology is changing rapidly, so you probably want to do some research to find the best option for you. Many states, including Massachusetts, also offer rebates for electric vehicles (though they are sometimes baked right in to the sticker price).
The way you drive can also have a surprising impact on how much fuel you use, which in turn contributes to how much pollution your car produces. Obviously, using less fuel also saves you gas money! Check out this page to learn about all of the ways your driving can become more environmentally friendly, including:
- Avoiding high speeds. Most cars’ fuel efficiency begins to drop off above 60 mph and drops even more at higher speeds.
- Maintaining a steady speed. This can help improve your fuel economy by an astonishing 20%.
Flying is one of the more carbon-intensive activities in the world. Airplanes emit a lot of greenhouse gases from burning fuel, but because of their altitude those emissions also produce an effect called radiative forcing. Research is ongoing on this topic, and is the chief reason for disagreement among different calculations of aircraft emissions, but some studies suggest that “aviation emissions produce about 2.7 times the warming effects of CO2 alone.”
And yet, part of the reason that flying emits so much carbon is that it takes an enormous amount of energy to move people such long distances. For instance, flying across the country may be more efficient than driving depending on the circumstances. So the solution is not necessarily to replace all air travel with ground travel.
There are a few things you can do to make your flights more environmentally friendly. Perhaps chief among them is to fly nonstop. Takeoff and landing are responsible for much of the fuel used on a flight; cruising is much less energy-intensive. Thus, in addition to being less of a hassle, flying nonstop is cleaner. One of the main problems we face at Williams in this regard is that you can only fly so many places from directly from Albany, the nearest major airport. However, it is worth noting that Bradley Int’l Airport and airports in New York and Boston are not that much farther, and you can fly directly to more places. Here is a list of the different nonstop destinations from each airport to help you choose your next flight.
Especially in the transportation sector, our personal decisions can only have so much of an influence. You just can’t take a bus to Albany if one doesn’t exist. However, this article provides a great explanation on how you can (and should) expand your definition of personal actions and have an impact by supporting and acting on behalf of sustainable policies.
Policies that might promote sustainable transportation include fuel economy standards, incentives for purchasing electric vehicles, and focusing on sustainability in urban planning. If you’re a policy wonk and you want to read more, the Transportation section of Hal Harvey’s book Designing Climate Solutions provides a great overview of some key policies (and is available at Schow Library).
Updated Summer 2019 by Samuel Gilman ’21