How Much Environmental Impact Do Different Forms of Transportation Have?
It will probably surprise you to know that environmentally it’s about the same or maybe better to fly than take a bus in Costa Rica. Amazingly flying burns less fuel per person transported, creates less pollutants and carbon dioxide (see calculations*), and has lower impacts in many other ways as well.
For example, you have to count the environmental impact of the road itself against traveling by road. Bulldozing the trees, eroding the hillsides and laying down all that petroleum based asphalt aren’t necessary if you fly.
Another factor that is frequently ignored in environmental “friendliness” estimates is the manufacturing impact. There’s very roughly the same amount of raw materials and energy used to make a small plane and a bus but planes typically last four times as long. This is because planes get to their destination 5-10 times faster so they aren’t running as much and wearing out parts and they also have significantly better maintenance programs.
A rarely considered cost of road travel – when tires wear out, where is out? Mostly it’s into the atmosphere as micro-fine, carcinogenic, toxic dust released as the tires rub against the road. Another strike against the bus.
Noise pollution is probably about a toss up. Turboprops aren’t nearly as loud as jets, but still, a bus is much quieter. However, the bus trip takes more than eight times longer and the noise is much closer to both the human and rainforest residents along the way.
You’ve probably heard how horribly inefficient air travel is from an environmental perspective and are wondering who to believe CNN News or this crackpot claiming flying is better.
The answer is believe both, and there’s a simple explanation. In general air travel is less efficient but in Costa Rica the roads are so inefficient they more than make up the difference. You have to drive more than twice as far on roads compared to a straight line flight to get many places in Costa Rica.
In the example calculation it’s 113 miles between San José and Puerto Jiménez on the Osa peninsula by air but 249 miles on the road.
The direct environmental cost comparison of the 113 mile flight or 249 mile drive from San José to Puerto Jiménez on the Osa. Assuming they are full of passengers and the amount of pollutants produced is roughly proportional to the amount of fuel burned and time of travel planes are more efficient.
Air – The twin engine de Havilland Otter turboprop airplane carries 20 passengers and burns 64 gallons of fuel per hour. It takes 50 minutes to cover the 113 air miles so –
2.66 gallons per person.
Bus – A 38 passenger Volvo 9500 diesel coach gets 2.4 miles to the gallon takes eight hours to cover the 249 miles (via the Caldera and Costanera Sur) using –
2.73 gallons per person.
SUV – A 6 passenger Toyota Prado gets 10 miles to the gallon takes seven hours to drive the 249 miles burning –
4.15 gallons per person.
Traveling to the Corcovado Park entrance near Carate around the southern tip of the peninsula makes an even more dramatic example. By air it’s about 11 miles and 8-10 minutes compared to 30 miles and almost two hours on the ground. Buses cannot travel the rugged road and an SUV or truck gets about half the mpg (5 miles to the gallon) when traveling rugged terrain in 4WD.
Flying requires about 0.25 gallons of fuel per person while ground transportation will eat up almost four times as much per passenger (0.95 gallons).
Flying is Not Always the Best
If you were to put the above calculated 2.66 gallons of fuel per person in an airplane and 2.73 gallons of fuel per person in a bus and started them both off in a straight line the plane would have to make an emergency landing about 120 miles short of where the bus ran out of fuel.
When traveling on straighter roads, say between the beaches of Guanacaste (Liberia Airport) and San José a bus is more efficient than an airplane while an SUV is still about the same as a plane.
We’ve done a bunch of calculations and figured out when taking a domestic flight makes sense from not only an environmental perspective but also considering travel time, convenience and cost.
*The Disclaimer – I don’t work for any airline and don’t have any hidden motivation to try to make air travel sound “better”. In fact I co-own a small company that produces roadmaps of Costa Rica and would, if anything, have a bias towards promoting ground transportation.
Mostly I’m just interested in people taking a more realistic view of the world around them – don’t even get me started on the evils of electric cars (did you know that the majority of them secretly burn coal and cause up to double the pollution as just hanging on to your gasoline car).
I apologize to anyone in Costa Rica for using gallons and miles calculations when Costa Rica is liters and kilometers but most tourists are from the U.S. where the imperial units are more familiar.