Trip Footprint: See the Greenest Way to Travel

What produces less carbon emissions: Driving from Los Angeles to Chicago, or making the same trip by train? That depends — on how many people are in your car. Drive alone, and even moving in an ultra-green hybrid will be less green than taking the train. But carpool with 3 other friends and your per-person carbon footprint will actually be less than a train rider’s — even if you and your friends are in a gas guzzling SUV!

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That handy number crunching comes courtesy of Trip Footprint, a new website that lets you easily compare the environmental impact of various modes of travel. Just plug in your start and end cities and the number of travelers to get the numbers displayed in an easy-to-read graph. Above are the L.A.-to-Chicago results for a solo traveler; below are the same results for four travel buddies that stick together.

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Trip Footprint gets its numbers from a Union of Concerned Scientists study called Getting There Greener: The Guide to Your Lower-Carbon Vacation, which curious number-crunchers can check out for details on the methodology behind the numbers. Beyond that, Anirvan Chatterjee, co-developer of Trip Footprint, says the site does its best to calculate actual travel distances: “For planes and trains, we try to use realistic airport and Amtrak routings, and take into account the type of plain and train models used on those routes.” In addition, Trip Footprint’s numbers try to take into account the non-CO2 carbon impacts of aviation — something most carbon calculators do, according to Anirvan, but Getting There Greener does not.

Of course, while Trip Footprint’s numbers certainly provide quick, understandable data, figuring out the best way to travel isn’t so cut and dry as Trip Footprint’s bottom-line statements like “You should definitely drive. Even a typical SUV is better than the best plane!” For one, Trip Footprint’s numbers look simply at the carbon cost of the trips themselves, without taking into account the total lifetime costs of each mode of travel.

This means that the travel comparisons don’t include the carbon emissions that are created by, say, building rail lines and stations, expanding airports, or putting in miles and miles of highways that have to be constantly repaved and upgraded. If Trip Footprint included the infrastructure costs of all modes of travel, the data would likely look significantly different.

A recent study, for example, revealed that when those sunk costs are taken into account,flying can actually be even more efficient than taking the train! That study also took into account the fact that in some places, train stations aren’t ideally located — and thus ended up being extra carbon intensive because people had to drive to get to the train station in the first place — and the station has to build large parking structures to accommodate these drivers.

And as advocates of new urbanism and walkable communities will point out, there’s more to consider than simple trip carbon emissions when taking a trip. Supporting a mass transit infrastructure that lets people get rid of their cars altogether will go a long way towards creating pedestrian-friendly communities that foster more neighborly interactions and fewer unsightly freeways and cul-de-sacs.

Still, Trip Footprint certainly gets us thinking more deeply about greening our travel. To me, the application shows exactly how wasteful single-passenger car trips are. I’m ever more determined to find a carpool partner to go anywhere that requires driving!

One thing I’d love to see in the Trip Footprint is the time and money required for each mode of travel. We know it would take a Kenyan runner a whopping 3 years to get from L.A. to Chicago — but the same details aren’t yet included for the more realistic modes of travel. Since the Obama administration’s put its money and support behind and expanded rail network, I’m hoping that we’ll see faster, cheaper train travel soon — which will get more people out of their cars and onto mass transit simply to save money, time, and stress — thus improving their quality of life while traveling green.

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