Planes, Trains or Automobiles: What’s Greener?

We all know face-to-face meetings are still invaluable in the business world, even with today’s super-fast electronic communications. But they come with a price tag, not just to your bottom line—but the planet.

Business travel is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2008 World Economic Forum report, travel accounts for an average 15% to 20% of a business’s total emissions, reaching as high as 80% for service businesses.

Businesses that want to truly embrace environmental sustainability need to understand the toll that travel takes on their environmental footprint and aim to reduce that toll. The mode of transport that employees use to get from point A to point B makes a big difference.

Air travel, especially “short-haul” regional flights of less than 300 miles, create the most carbon emissions per passenger mile of any mass transit option because of the high fuel consumption during takeoffs and landings. Planes also emit carbon dioxide directly into the earth’s upper atmosphere, making it especially harmful.

By comparison, trains can use 50% less fuel per passenger than planes for the same trips, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Bus travel is an even eco-friendlier alternative, emitting even less carbon dioxide than trains on short and long trips, according to the EPA.

Interestingly, on longer trips of more than 700 miles, train and plane emissions per passenger are comparable, the EPA found. Bus travel is still the greenest option. (Read this EPA report for a full comparison of emissions among various transportation options.)

Solo car travel is the biggest culprit when it comes to emissions, producing nearly twice that per passenger of trains and three to four times that of buses. Of course, auto emissions depend on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. And the emissions efficiency of planes, trains and buses depend on ridership numbers and other factors.

So, how can a business rein in the environmental toll of travel?

Here are four tips:

1. Steer clear of solo auto travel. It produces the most emissions per passenger mile than any transportation option. If unavoidable, at least make sure employees travel in fuel-efficient vehicles. (Check out for auto fuel efficiency ratings.) Many rental agencies now offer hybrids and electric cars.

2. Use trains and buses, when viable. Especially for trips of less than 700 miles, buses and trains produce far less emissions per passenger mile than airplanes and cars.

3. Reduce mileage. Though in-person meetings are still necessary in some cases, many businesses have successfully cut down on the number of trips using video conferencing and by combining trips to cut down on total mileage.

4. Track your travel footprint. Keeping tabs on your travel and the carbon emissions it creates can help you better control it. The Business Calculator on can help you quantify travel-based emissions. You might also consider buying offsets, which invest in projects such as tree planting that take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Does your business take steps to reduce the environmental impact of travel? If so, what do you do?

Bus Photo via Shutterstock


Kelly Spors Kelly Spors is a former small-business and entrepreneurship reporter and blogger for The Wall Street Journal who has also written for Yahoo!, Entrepreneur, NFIB's MyBusiness magazine and The New York Times. Kelly is now a freelance editor and writer based in Minneapolis and has previously managed communications for an environmental non-profit that helps businesses find ways to be greener.

3 Reactions
  1. Thanks a lot, Kelly.

    Buses, huh?

    Somehow, I can’t see a businessperson using a bus to get from place to place.

    It wouldn’t come across as very professional-looking, that’s for sure.

    Plus, buses emit smelly fumes, even though they are pretty energy-efficient.

    I understand why you brought up the use of buses, though.

    The Franchise King®

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