Planes, Trains, and really big Automobiles…

November 1, 2007

Thanksgiving is quickly approaching. At my university, we’re lucky enough to get the entire week off, and I’ll be hitting up 3 different cities in order to see all my family. I have the transportation figured out, except how to get from Chicago to St. Louis. Being two large cities in relative proximity to one another, there are actually a few different options to consider. Southwest has several flights from Midway to Lambert, Amtrak offers trains, and Megabus has two daily runs. As I am now attempting to be more environmentally conscious, I thought I would try measuring the difference in carbon footprint as well as just looking at prices. Here’s how I did it:

Mapquest says the distance from Chicago to St. Louis is about 300 miles. I can take this and plug it into a carbon footprint calculator like the one found at carbonfootprint.com, which has separate calculations for both train and bus travel, and get:

Train- 26.5 lbs Carbon ($32, 5 1/2 hours)

Bus- 53 lbs Carbon ($33, 5 1/2 hours)

Wow, the bus produces double the carbon per person than the train! While I’m pretty sure the plane will surpass both of these, I’m curious to see by how much, so using terrapass‘s carbon flight calculator I can determine exactly what my footprint would be for a flight between the above two airports. The calculator likes to use round trips, so I divided it in half to get the one-way value:

Plane- 160 lbs Carbon ($75+, about 1 hour)

Over 3 times what the bus footprint is, and 6 times the train ride! One could argue that the shorter travel time is worth the carbon and money, but I find that air travel has a hard time being shorter than driving at these distances once check-in, security lines, and overall airport traffic are accounted for.

It seems that the best decision for both my wallet and my green karma is to take the train. However, I don’t consider this to be a sacrifice at all. Having used trains frequently during a semester in Europe, I found them to be a far more relaxing means of travel than flying. After all, I’m not being hurled 30,000 ft in the air, nor is there someone coming around confiscating my bottled water and telling me to turn off my cell phone lest the plane crash. Traffic won’t be a problem either. With the bus, a well-placed accident could easily turn that 5 1/2 hours into 7 or 8.

What do you think? Do your regular inter-city routes offer equally varied options? Are there any options at all? Which are most valuable to you?



  1. I love trains. For starters, trains cut my travel time in half; what would be a 1 hour trip becomes a half an hour trip. Plus, you can enjoy the view. In my city we have trains, buses, and trams. The buses don’t really experience any traffic because they have roads allocated to just them. Trams are networked throughout the intermediate CBD, and are very easy to use.

  2. That would be beautiful if buses here had their own roads, or even just a lane. I spent last summer relying on buses for my commute, and it’s amazing how much time is lost just fighting with cars for space on the road.

  3. […] last post, Planes, Trains, and really big Automobiles, found that a 300 mile flight released 160 lbs of carbon into the atmosphere per person, 6 times […]

  4. […] days, try using alternative transportation. If you’re deciding between bus, train, or plane, the difference in carbon emissions can be astonishing. My state even offers a special student bus service that runs direct from public […]

  5. i’m with juric i love the trains. i live outside chicago and commute daily via our regional trains system called metra. relatively cheap, very fast, low stress, time to work, and of course extremely sustainable when compared to driving alone as you’ve mentioned. it’s a shame though that the united states hasn’t invested more heavily (if at all) in improving intercity train lines like europe has. on a side note, i love the blog, keep up the good work.

  6. Thanks for the compliment, Geoff! I worked in Chicago over the summer and my coworkers that used the metra loved it, although it is a long commute. I’m wondering though, what’s the best way you’ve found to pass time on the train?

  7. […] way. I realized I should evaluate my trips this week based on my earlier advice in posts here and here. Here is the first installment of that […]

  8. […] was looking forward to my first Amtrak train ride that was the result of research into carbon emissions of different methods of transportation.  Picking up my ticket upon my arrival to Chicago instead of just before boarding made catching the […]

  9. […] was looking forward to my first Amtrak train ride that was the result of research into carbon emissions of different methods of transportation. Picking up my ticket upon my arrival to Chicago instead of just before boarding made catching the […]

  10. thanks for sharing your findings.

    am curious. have you found a single site/tool to run these calculations?

    I’d love to plug in a start and destination city and in one click see the carbon emissions and petroleum usage of a flight, train, bus and car all presented at once.

    anyone know of such a tool?

  11. carbonfootprint.com has a calculation for flights as well as bus and train, I just found terrapass’s to be more precise for this post. Unfortunately, car emissions vary greatly depending on make and model, so I don’t think it will ever be as easy as plugging in a start and destination, but it gets pretty close.

  12. […] questions about sustainability.  My favorite posts are still those where we actually got down to numbers and were able to effectively evaluate practices or […]

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