bicyclists riding in bike lane of city street

Whether traveling by train, plane, ship, or automobile, getting from one place to another produces carbon emissions. In fact, the transportation sector accounted for the largest portion — 29% percent — of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

Here are some strategies to help you lower your emissions while getting from point A to point B.

Carefully Select Your Transportation Mode

Although there are many variables to consider, including distance and the number of people in your group, certain modes of transportation generally have lower associated emissions. For example, traveling by bus and train is almost always a carbon bargain, emitting far fewer greenhouse gasses. Unlike air travel, buses and trains often bring riders to the city center, making it less necessary to rent a car upon arrival.

young man seated in airport terminal, watching plane take off
Did you know that flying first class is one of the most polluting ways to travel? Image: JESHOOTScom at Pixabay

Fly Coach Class

To lower your carbon footprint, downgrade your tickets, especially on longer flights where the emissions add up more. Your wallet will thank you too!

We all know that travelers in first class have more legroom and tastier menu options. But did you know that flying first class is one of the most polluting ways to travel? The World Bank studied carbon impacts in each cabin of an airliner in 2013. Based on the amount of space allocated to each seat, they calculated the fuel and emissions to move that seat — and its passenger — to the destination. Not surprisingly, the emissions associated with passengers flying first class are greater than those in coach.

The Union of Concerned Scientists published a useful study in 2008, Getting There Greener, that found just one first-class vacation for a family of four produced almost twice the carbon emissions of that family’s full year of commuting. With more than 124 million Americans taking a vacation each year, the impacts are immense.

Maybe you’re wondering why anyone would want to downgrade a first-class seat. Aside from reducing your personal carbon footprint, it’s a way to send a message to the airlines that you insist they be as efficient as possible. Let the airline know your priorities and maybe coach seats will become a little more comfortable.

Choose Nonstop Flights

To reduce your emissions, select nonstop flights whenever possible. Lots of greenhouse gas emissions are related to the takeoff, landing, and ground operations of a plane. Your own time is valuable, too, so flying nonstop is a bargain ecologically and saves you time. If a nonstop flight isn’t an option or it’s too expensive, try to avoid out-of-the-way layovers to minimize the distance traveled.

Drive During Off-Peak Times

The fuel consumption rates of vehicles can double on congested roads because fuel economy rapidly declines at lower speeds. Frequent braking and acceleration consumes more gas than cruising at highway speeds.

Studies also show that traffic jams are bad for your health because you inhale more auto fumes, and the stress of driving during rush hour is associated with high blood pressure.

using navigation app in car
Use a traffic app to avoid congested traffic. Image: Foundry on Pixabay

Use Traffic Updates

If you must travel during rush hour or in high-traffic areas, use a GPS with traffic updates or an app such as Waze or Apple Maps to steer clear of congested construction zones, collisions, and bottlenecks. As a bonus, this also reduces the wear and tear on your vehicle wear as well as fuel costs.

Feature image: Timelynx on Pixabay

Editor’s note: Originally published on May 8, 2015, this article was updated in October 2018.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.