Take the Bus! Good for the Environment, Your Wallet, and Your Wanderlust

And now for something a bit different!


We’ve been writing a lot in the past few weeks about life as a graduate student or some of the things we are learning while on our respective doctoral journeys.  However, if you will recall, we also love to go on journeys in general.  Meridith and I have always been avid travelers.  We have visited numerous other countries together (South Africa, Costa Rica, Panama, England, Aruba…) and separately (Kenya, Argentina, Ireland, Thailand…).  While traveling overseas is, literally, one of the best things ever, one of my favorite bar questions to ask people is, “What are the top 5 locations you want to visit in the United States?”  I think we spend a lot of time fantasizing about getting to far-off, exotic locations, and that can cause us to overlook the beauty in our own backyard (so to speak). (Editor’s Note: This is so true! One of my big epiphanies from my summer traveling Europe – by bus and train! – was that I had totally under appreciated all there is to see in the good ol’ U S of A.)  And while I might get to visit friends or make new friends when traveling overseas, getting a co-conspirator for your State side adventuring is a bit easier.


As Mer is one of my all time favorite partners in crime, she and I have always made a point to visit one another regularly.  Our college roommates (and often an all-star cast of their amazing boyfriends/girlfriends/partners/pals/siblings) make a point of gathering for New Years Eve.  That’s always a treat, and usually involves doing a multi-city flight out of California, to home, to the NYE destination (Boston 2015!), and then back to California.  While well worth it, that gets expensive.  If you add onto that a trip home during the summer and plane travel really starts to take a bite out of your budget.  So, what’s a budget-conscious, environmentally-minded person with a severe case of wanderlust to do?  Well, you can hop on the Greyhound and get to a regional destination with little money, hassle, and C02 wasted.  When I was living in Long Beach and Meridith was in Las Cruces, we were frequenting the Greyhound route between Long Beach and El Paso on a semesterly basis!
NYE 2014 Crew
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Rachel.  Take the bus? I have a car!”  Yeah? Then find a bunch of friends and pile into the car.  Carpooling is great, and sometimes it is the most logical option.  But, maybe you have a more flexible schedule, you’re traveling solo, or you really want to cut your carbon emissions.  In that case, you should really be looking up the local Greyhound and Megabus schedules.  I’ve written about my internal conflict concerning the environmental impacts of travel here, and I’d suggest you check it out.  For those unwilling to read my previous ramblings, my conclusions are simply that bus travel is the most cost effective and environmentally friendly way to transit regionally.  Since writing that post over a year ago, I’ve had numerous conversations with people who just can’t seem to get over their bus hang-ups.  Maybe this isn’t the most glamorous way to move about the world, but if you are a reasonable traveler who keeps their wits about them, you have very little about which to worry.


Maybe you’re willing to give it a try?  I’ll give you a few tips from my numerous Greyhound adventures and misadventures to make your first bus trip a breeze.                     



Cat Bus.  The best kind of bus.
First, and foremost, put your patient pants on.  Unlike plane or train travel, hitting the open road on a Greyhound requires a little less coordination on the part of the company.  This might also be part of the “you get what you pay for” part of this equation.  I’ve been on some very punctual bus trips…I’ve also waited and waited for my connection.  Really though, I’ve slept in plenty of airport chairs waiting for my connecting flight when it was delayed.  So, meh, I’d call this a wash really.  I just tend to expect the bus to be a little behind its time. (Editor’s Note: For most people this goes without saying: double check your departure time AND date. I’m going to share my most shameful Greyhound experience because I love y’all. I’m not even sure if I ever told Rachel this, but last NYE my partner and I bussed to/from Chicago and I totally made us miss our bus because I was in charge of the tickets – we were still new and he didn’t know yet how horrible of an idea this was – and got the dates mixed up. So when we were leaving to catch our bus, I took our tickets out and realized that our tickets were for the day before. Cue full shame meltdown and us having to buy a whole ‘nother set of tickets day of, which meant paying full price.)


Once your bus arrives, where you sit matters a little bit more than where you sit on a plane.  Really, you don’t want to sit near the bathroom.  Obviously, right?  You should also choose your seat mate (if you have to have one) with at least a little care.  My brother has a theory that, when you’re on the bus, you’re much less focused on how you might die than when you’re 10,000 feet above the ground.  So, I have (unscientifically) concluded that people are generally less inhibited on the bus.  For this reason (or something), I’ve had a lot more interesting and friendly conversations on buses than I’ve ever had on planes.  If you want to chat, look for the person who looks like they want to converse.  Want to sleep?  Look for a fellow napper.  In my experience, there is generally at least one bus occupant who really needs to drop the mic; I would suggest not sitting with them.    


Mer took a 12 hour bus ride so we could surprise our friend
on his birthday!
Seat selection handled, now it’s time to occupy yourself.  If you’re doing a regional tip, you can try to choose an express bus that has wifi.  The wifi on buses is free, unlike on planes.  You probably won’t be able to stream Dr. Who, but you can check your email, access gDrive, and generally get some work done.  There are also, often, power outlets so you don’t have to worry about your computer or tablet crapping out on you.  This is my problem on, literally, every flight.  Why don’t I learn?  I’m not really sure if there is a cause and effect situation here, but I have found it much easier to get work done on the bus than the plane.  Again, maybe because I’m still on the ground?     


Normal travel tips apply on the greyhound as well.  Climate control can be something of an issue on the bus.  Consider your relative hot/cold scale when choosing an aisle or window seat.  Wear layers so you can add and subtract as needed.  Also, you really do want a blanket and a pillow.  There will be no smartly dressed attendant to hook you up with one if you forget.  Bonus points, you can bring liquids on the bus!  Beverages, peanut butter, hummus, and anything else delicious and spreadable is totally allowed.  This makes it way easier, for me at least, to avoid the pull of buying weird airport or plane food that is strange in my tummy and wrapped in a bunch of obnoxious, ultrathin plastic.


Night bus.  Also a good option.
How long will your bus adventure be?  The longest I’ve been on a Greyhound trip, to date, was 20 hours from El Paso to Long Beach.  It was a haul.  And as stifled and dehydrated as I usually feel getting off a plane, I felt downright stinky when I disembarked in Long Beach after a 20 hour coach trip.  You’ll feel way better if you can brush your teeth, change your shirt, and apply some deodorant during a layover.  Do yourself and the person receiving you at the end of the line a favor and stay fresh.    


Last tip?  Don’t be a douche-bag…or something like that.  The most common argument I hear from those reluctant to travel via bus is that it isn’t safe.  Not to sound harsh but, these may be the same people who want apps on their phones to keep them out of “bad” parts of town.  Get out of the bubble and give yourself a chance to not be afraid of others.  I’ve met some friendly, sad, unnerving, and genuinely hilarious people on Greyhounds.  And you know what?  I’ve met the same set of people in so many other places!  See my original statement above, be a wary traveler, but don’t be afraid of other humans who are just trying to get from point A to point B.  As Patty Griffith would say, “Grow kindness in our hearts for all the strangers among us, till there are no strangers anymore.”    

There you go, now take the plunge!  Your wallet, the environment, and your wandering soul will thank you!  (Editor’s Note: Benjamin and I are planning on taking a train from Boston to NYC then Megabusing back to State College! Yes, it’s more time-consuming and we’ll have to chill in the cold while waiting for the bus, but the money saved is going to be so worth it!)

Hiking after one of my bus trips to visit Meridith in New Mexico.

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LIT to KY Pt 1: Planes, trains, and moral conflict

My Greyhound view on the 20hr trek between NM and CA.
As a preface, this is part one of a two part post about my recent trip home to Kentucky.  Part two will take the more traditional form of my other Low Impact Travel (LIT) posts where I discuss my adventures and the little ways I try to alter my travel behaviors to reduce my ecological impact.  However, I wanted to take some time and space to talk about an issue which often troubles me, how and why we choose our means of transportation.  Please note that while this post does contain some science, it’s mostly my own opinions and rational.  It should be taken as neither fact or prescription, and is simply the conversation I have been having with myself for the past 4 years, converted into essay form.  
Part One:  Some Science
I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, but I travel a lot, and I really enjoy it!  I am, however, generally conflicted when it comes to the subject of plane travel.  It’s a pertinent topic considering the new study published in Environmental Science and Technology last week (for some good summaries of the study you can look here or here, but I suggest you read the paper).  The study’s authors Jens Borken-Kleefeld, Jan Fuglestvedt, and Terje Berntsen offer very accurate estimates of the climate impacts of different modes of long distance travel (in their study 500-1000 km) by comparing impacts at 100% vehicle occupancy vs. average occupancy.  They also expand the definition of “climate impacts” to things beyond simple CO2 emissions, though no matter which measure you examine, the story is relatively consistent.  Spoiler alert, plane travel loses big time, every time.  Now, allow me a moment of European envy.  One of the options in their study, high speed electric rail, boasts zero grams of CO2 emitted per vehicular kilometer.  Obviously, that is just based on the fact that these trains don’t have tailpipes, and who knows where that electricity is generated, but trains lack some of the fundamental climate impacts included in plane travel such as the creation of cirrus clouds and the indirect production of ozone.  So, plane travel, not so good…yet I’m going to try and write a low impact travel post in which I take a plane?  It seems mildly disingenuous to me.  

The thing is, I know that lots of people face these same sorts of problems.  Obviously, I need to visit home.  It’s good for my mental health, I adore my family, and I don’t know if anyone else has had a southern mother but…even if I didn’t want to go home, I would.  So allow me a moment to try and work through this moral quagmire here, in this forum.  I’m going to use my potential trip home over Thanksgiving to make this a bit more tangible.  Admittedly, holiday pricing sort of skews the picture for us, but that is when most people do most of their long distance traveling, so I feel it’s appropriate.    
Part Two:  Time, Money, and Convenience
This is how Clark Gable and I prepare for train travel.
First, let’s break this problem down economically based exclusively on the upfront cost of travel.  When I first moved to California, I had some pretty romantic visions of myself boarding a train and chugging the 2264 miles back to Kentucky for the holidays.  I might also have envisioned myself in some pretty excellent period garb; I might also have been riding on the train with Rhett Butler.  That’s beside the point, because in 2013, taking the train in the USA is not substantially cheaper (or cheaper at all!) than plane travel in many cases.  For example, this coming Thanksgiving, it will likely cost me around 450 dollars to take a plane to and from home for the holidays.  The train would cost me about 500 dollars (included in this cost is the necessary bus from Chicago to my final destination).  Taking a bus all the way across the country would run me only about 375 dollars.  If I drove my car, by myself, it would cost me about 393 dollars.  I suppose this part isn’t super surprising and matches up relatively well with the findings of  Borken-Kleefeld et al. (2013) who found coach (that’s European for bus) travel to pose the lowest climate impact.  So, hooray, the cheapest form of travel is also the most environmentally friendly.  That’s a good thing.  The fact that the train costs more than the plane in this case is probably partially due to timing and partially due to the fact that I’m not just traveling between two major Amtrak hubs.  But how many people are just going between LA and Chicago, for example?
So, let’s say you, like myself, don’t mind the bus and love saving money.  Maybe you’re leaning toward a Greyhound trip for your next adventure.  Let’s now expand the analysis past just upfront costs, and things get a little more complicated.  For my long distance holiday travel, I’d say driving alone in my personal car is out of the question.  It would take me about 33 hours, so I would need to pay for lodging (a hostel or a campsite at about 20 dollars a night) and I would have to get my oil changed and what not before and after the trip (another 80 or so dollars).  After taking these things into account, driving is about the same cost as a flight or train travel.  According to the study, gasoline cars, even at maximum capacity, were second only to airplanes in their carbon impacts.  So let’s just throw that idea out.  Then there is the seemingly appealing option of taking the bus.  To get me home for the holidays, I would be in transit via bus for 2 days and 6 hours.  I don’t know about you, when when I take a long trip, I’m always very tired afterward and need a day to recoup, so that’s essentially three days lost on either side of the vacation, or almost a whole week!  Let’s say you get paid 10 dollars and hour, that is a net loss of 480 dollars if you can’t work remotely.  Okay, so maybe for such a long trip, Greyhound isn’t what we want.  What about the train then?  To get me back to KY from CA would take almost 66 hours via train, or almost three days.  So, the train takes longer than the bus.  An advantage of the train, however, is the free WiFi and more comfortable seating where one could, potentially, get some work done.  Last, we have plane travel, which could get me back to KY in as little as 5 hours (no counting transit to and from the airport).  So I only lose two or three days to travel (depending on recovery time), and a lot of planes and airports have WiFi now, so I could even work in transit.  
Okay, so up to this point, this essay might seem a little…unusual based on my general content.  And that’s a fair observation.  The truth is, I want to advocate for coach and rail travel, I want to say that I never fly because I know how bad it is for the environment, and I want both those statements to be true.  Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.  So, where do we go from here?  I think I have quoted Colleen Patrick-Goudreau previously, but she often says “Don’t do something because you can’t do everything.”  I think that applies here.  So, what to do?  I think we must all apply some careful time and thought to how we move around the world.  Consider your personal circumstances carefully.  After all, convenience cannot be the only factor when making choices…that’s sort of how we got into our current environmental mess.  Based on my own personal reflections, I do have some recommendations, but I encourage each of you to do individual research and make choices based on your own knowledge and morals.    
Part Three:  A Practical Ecologist Guide to Transportation Selection
1.  Traveling with friends who don’t dig alternative transportation?  Carpool every time possible in the most fuel efficient vehicle available.  Squeeze in, sit close, just do it.  Appeal to their wallets, that generally works.       
2.  If you are traveling somewhere nearby, maybe within the 1000 km (about 620 miles) range proposed by  Borken-Kleefeld and colleges, I would strongly advocate that you take the bus.  I’ve taken quite a few regional Greyhound trips, the longest lasting about 20 hours, and they aren’t as bad as you probably think.  I’ve met some really nice and interesting people, and I got to see parts of the country that you just miss when you are traveling via plane.  And hey, if you have a job where you can work from your computer, you don’t really need the internet, and you don’t get carsick, you can probably take the Greyhound just about anywhere you want to go!    
3.  If you are traveling regionally or if you have a flexible job which allows  you to work remotely, take the train!  The seats are comfortable, the views are great, and the free WiFi is pretty speedy.  Once I am done taking courses, I have big plans to do this for the holidays.  At that point, my office will be my computer and I’ll have a lot more freedom to take transportation that is less efficient time wise.   
4.  If you have a job that really requires your physical presence or gives you limited flexibility in vacation time you really have two options:  don’t take the trip at all or hop on a plane.  While I know that some people might advocate for the former option, I really don’t.  I do, however, advocate that we make our plane travel as efficient as possible.  Carpool or take public transit to and from the airport.  Try to avoid buying bunches of plastic-packaging while you’re on the move (etc.  etc. etc.), and make your trip count!  When I’m on the other side of the continent, I try to see as many of my friends and family as possible, even if that requires the occasional Greyhound up to Chicago for a weekend.  
5.  Purchase carbon offsets when you are forced to choose the less efficient mode of transportation.  This could be a whole post later, but make sure you do a lot of research before purchasing an offset and don’t fall into the trap of using more carbon because you plan to purchase an offset later.  Carbon offsets are by no means a perfect system, but they are a tool we currently have at our disposal.  Alternatively, calculate how much you would have spent on a carbon offset and donate that amount to a environmental/conservation NGO of your choice.  
“You take your car to work, I’ll take my board..” ~Weezer
Last Word:  In closing, I would like to remind you (and myself) not to lose faith.  Changing technology and infrastructure could really alter things.  That’s why it is important that, whenever possible, we vote with our wallets and support the industries in which we believe.  We cannot let convenience be the only factor that drives our choices.  It’s also really important to remain realistic about the impacts our personal choices have, for both the good and the bad.  It’s easy to say that plane travel is less efficient than train travel, but it’s more difficult to translate these things into the currency of our daily lives.  Last, recall that this conversation becomes even more important when we consider our daily travels which can easily add up to have more substantial impacts (for the good or the bad) than our holiday or vacation travel.  I would argue that choosing the most fuel efficient way to get to and from work daily might be even more important than how you get home for Christmas.   
What do you think?  Should convenience play no role in our transportation decisions?  How do these conflicting factors play out in your life?  

Oh, The Places You’ll Go…

Greetings from Long Beach! After a long night on the Greyhound, I’m at Cal State Long Beach for a few days to help a friend stay sane through her last thesis writing days. Hopefully, my own thesis will progress as well.

If you followed my #bustweets on Twitter, you already know what an adventure the past day has been. I consider myself lucky to have arrived sane and vomit-free. Any complaints aside, I was able to travel via mass transit for cheap (way less than airfare) in a reasonable amount of time. I even  slept for a few hours here and there. So why on Earth don’t more people travel by bus?

This wasn’t my first rodeo. Ok, so it’s my second. Last summer, I took those first teetering steps onto a Greyhound to attend a Surprise Birthday Party in Dallas, TX. Another smooth trip, with some characters along the way. I had planned to attempt to travel the West  this summer with the Greyhound Discovery Pass, but unfortunately there is some distance between National Park entrance gates and the nearest bus stations. An adventure for another time, perhaps.

Have you ever traveled between cities by bus?

My mother is a self-proclaimed expert in the fields of ‘Worrying’, ‘Things That Can Go Wrong’ and ‘Worst Case Disaster Scenarios’, so if anyone has insight into this quandary, it would be her.
Her telling text message advice before my departure:

“Don’t talk to strangers, wash your hands, and put a towel down on the seat!!!”

She hits some pretty pertinent points.

  • Bus safety is questionable. These people didn’t go through rigorous scanning, frisking, and searching.
  • Sanitation is not a high priority on buses.
  • Always travel with a towel.

But how do buses compare to planes and cars in terms of speed, price, safety, and environmental impact?

I turned to the Internet for some quick answers. (Sidenote: always question what you read on the Internet, including here!)

Speed: Plane
For all but the shortest trips, planes are the obvious choice. There is no way that I am capable of driving by myself for 12 hours, so bus takes 2nd, leaving car in 3rd
Price:Bus
I bought my round trip tickets a week before departure. No airline could dream of matching the price and gas for a single passenger car would also add up quickly.
Safety: Plane
Buses follow closely after. If one bus can carry 100 people, it would take at LEAST 25 cars to carry the same load. That’s 24 more opportunities to get into accidents.
Environmental Impact: Bus
Lot of passengers and less fuel needed compared with air travel.

References:

As a grad student exploring new energy sources, I place importance on price and environmental impact. For me, taking the 17 hour bus ride is a no-brainer. I can spend riding time reading, sleeping, or people-watching. I can bring my own snacks and drinks. I can confirm that at the very least, the Phoenix station has goldfish crackers. Also, when I’m lucky the buses have free WiFi, another advantage over most airports.

Safety and time would be useful to consider for families and business travelers. The young mother with three little girls (including The Vomiter) was mostly likely grateful that she didn’t have to drive and handle her crew.  But once the eldest can entertain and watch over her sisters, then perhaps traveling by car will once more be practical.

Travel is always going to be give and take with time, money, safety and comfort, but when the destination is worthy you will find a way. Luckily, I don’t have to depend on funding from the government, international cooperation, and years of innovation to visit my friend. If we as a global community truly want to explore and visit Mars, we’ll find a way. We may have to pick and choose our priorities, and exhibit endless patience, but the destination is a reward like no other.

Question of The Day:
What is your favorite form of travel?
What is your limit for time spent traveling by bus?
What are your favorite travel snacks?