Why did I decide to take the bus? Here’s the stats.
Update, Feb. 4, 2014: Here's some additional information about data sources in the comparison table. These calculations reflect only this specific trip, between Madison, Wis., and Atlanta, Ga., between Jan. 30 and Feb. 6. Other dates and destinations will change the numbers, but I think this trip is pretty representative. Flight cost and times are from Kayak, train travel is by Amtrak, and bus travel is by Megabus. Carbon emissions by transportation mode are via the Sightline Institute, using the exact distance traveled by the cheapest route for this specific trip. For my index, I used an equal weighting of cost, time, and carbon emissions, because I figured that was the easiest thing to do. Other people will of course have other weightings—which of course, is the crux of the issue.
From both a climate and financial standpoint, there’s a clear case to take the bus. From a butt-numbness standard, the bus isn’t quite there yet in the United States. However, the rise of limited-stop intercity operators like Megabus is helping the United States to quickly catch up to the rest of the world in terms of frequency and comfort on long-haul bus rides. In Chile, a spread-out country that has embraced long-distance buses, you can easily and cheaply snag a first-class quality experience with meals, Internet, live TV, and a lay-flat bed in every seat.
Buses are the most climate-friendly mode of transportation per passenger mile next to walking or riding a bike. This makes sense: There’s no need to accelerate hundreds of tons of aluminum to nearly the speed of sound, or to push thousands of tons of steel along 19th-century rail routes. Even a Prius is dragging along lots of extra weight just to move you down the road, especially if you’re solo, as most car trips are.
My bus ride would have been even cheaper if I hadn’t booked at the last minute. Two weeks prior to my departure, the Megabus fare between Madison, Wis., and Atlanta was $80 round trip.
Besides the baby crying across the aisle, the loud-talker a few rows behind me, and my seatmate who slept the last hour of the trip on my shoulder, my bus trip wasn't actually that bad. I wrote a piece for Slate on the bus, had an hour to walk around downtown Chicago, met two high-school students who were scouting colleges and a 74-year-old grandmother traveling to visit her 92-year-old mother, and otherwise enjoyed my window seat.
Once I arrived, my colleagues were a bit incredulous but generally supportive. But still, I heard the familiar refrain: “Kudos, but I just don’t think I could do that.”
Now, riding the bus is not for everyone. But I do think everyone can make a significant change to his or her leading source of personal emissions. That may be transportation, it may be your diet, it may be your source of electricity, or it may be something else. Nearly 25 years ago, when the Kyoto Protocol was implemented—the first international climate treaty, which the United States didn’t sign on to—there was still time to make incremental changes and have them add up gradually. That time is over. Now, we need to take bold action—in every aspect of our lives, to the extent possible.
What I’m doing works for me, but it might not work for everyone. Bold action (like refusing to fly) might pose undue stress on our families or get us fired. That’s when we should ask ourselves: If I’m worried about the future welfare of my children (or other people’s children), what’s the most I could reasonably do to make a difference? One person’s actions won’t make airlines revamp their schedules and fly fewer flights. And it’s true: The planes I would have taken to and from Atlanta took off whether or not I was on them. But 1 million people’s actions might make a difference. I’ve also been asked about whether the world economy would be in huge trouble if everyone stopped flying. Well, I doubt everyone will ever stop flying. Furthermore, my goal is to get people to think about the fact that if we continue on our current emissions path—aviation is the fastest-growing emissions source globally—climate change itself could decimate the economy.
Could riding the bus be a game-changer for the climate? Transportation is second only to coal-dominated power plants in terms of U.S. emissions. There’s a lot of room to improve. Now, we all know the United States doesn’t have a nationwide high-speed rail system like some countries in Europe or Asia (though one is theoretically in the works). We’ve instead chosen to focus on our interstate highway system, which is the most extensive in the world.
Given the pressing nature of climate change, and the decades it would take to spin up a reliably fast rail system in the United States, I think we’re better off embracing our current system (for now) and getting it to work for us.
For me, that means taking the bus. I head home to Wisconsin this week—which will be another 28 hours on the road. But it’s worth it.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.