NY to Detroit: Is renting a Prius and driving any better than flying?
April 2, 2019 8:30 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are planning a long weekend from New York to Detroit to visit a dear friend. Recognizing that the most climate friendly thing to do would be to take two weeks off from work and ride bikes there or to just not go, I'm trying to figure out what the impact of renting a hybrid car and making the 10-ish hour drive would be versus taking a ~90 minute flight.

Options that I've already considered:

1) Bicycle - I would love to do this but my wife would not and I don't have the time off from work to actually do it anyway. This is supposed to be a long weekend, not a three week vacation.

2) Renting an electric car - This seems like it's definitely the greenest non-bicycle option and I'd totally do it if I thought I could make it work. I found a place in NY that I could rent one from. But even the longest range electric car can't do this trip in one charge and re-charging the battery in the middle of Pennsylvania seems like it would take a prohibitively long time and generally be difficult to arrange. If anyone thinks this is actually a doable option given my relatively short time frame for this trip, I'd love to hear about it.

2) Greyhound - Coach bus appears to be the next most efficient method but the trip is 20 hours long and involves multiple transfers. Not to throw my wife, um, under the bus again but she's not going to be up for that and I'm not sure that I am either. Also doesn't really fit within my time frame for taking this trip.

3) Amtrak - I want this to be a good option but somehow this trip is also like 20 hours, involves multiple transfers, and doesn't even seem particularly efficient because Amtrak uses diesel trains.

So that leaves renting a hybrid car. From what I've read, a car that gets 50+ mpg and has more than one person in it might be enough to tip the scales in favor of driving versus flying. But while it's not nearly the hassle of a 20 hour bus trip with multiple transfers, making an 11 hour drive versus taking a 90 minute flight is enough of an inconvenience that if the ultimate difference in impact is fairly minor then it kind of seems like we might as well just fly. There seem to be a number of different factors at play, not a lot of easily available information on the internet, plus I'm generally pretty poor at math so I'm not sure how to quantify any of this though. Curious to know what the hive mind thinks.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'd think that the marginal cost to the environment of filling two airplane seats on a plane that's going to be flying anyway is pretty minimal, especially when you can buy carbon offsets as an individual.

This article goes into some of your options.
posted by Spacelegoman at 8:46 PM on April 2, 2019 [16 favorites]

What’s your time and effort worth? I agree that individual action is as needed as collective action when it comes to climate destruction. BUT for me personally, spending half of my available and limited time driving, while the plane will be flying regardless, isn’t a choice I would make.

on preview, agree with Spacelegoman!
posted by stellaluna at 9:21 PM on April 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

First, the old phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" is in that order for a reason -- the most environmentally thing to do, bar none, is to not travel at all.

This can very quickly get very complicated. For instance, trains which you dismiss as inefficent because they are diesel are actually hybrid vehicles, much like a Prius. (They do burn diesel, but are very efficient because they have less rolling resistance and carry more people.) Meanwhile, if you are driving an electric car through Pennsylvania and Ohio, you are actually driving a coal and natural gas powered car, with a side of nuclear power.

This calculator suggests that flying is about double the emissions of driving a mid-size hybrid car (and rail is about 1/3 the emissions) but these are always rough estimates and the margin of error is substantial.

I suspect the thing you can do that is actually the greenest, if you are making the trip, is devote some money or maybe the 16 extra hours you are willing to drive (remember it's both ways) to electing environmentally friendly politicians or reminding the elected ones of their environmental constituency, perhaps in swingy Michigan more than NYC. Reinstating Obama era vehicle emissions standards is a billion climate offsets. The idea that it's up to each of us to make the environmental choice is in large part a lie, or maybe a half-truth, endorsed by big companies terrified of actual regulation forcing them to make the environmental choice.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:29 PM on April 2, 2019 [35 favorites]

The plane wouldn't be flying anyway if people took this decision as seriously as you are.

That said - flying is a form of mass transit and so differences aren't as big as I always imagined for the same longish trip (see pervious comment).

Advocating for societal change in that 16 hours would be awesome.

(Aside to consider: long car trips can be either great or terrible for relationships)
posted by lab.beetle at 9:42 PM on April 2, 2019 [5 favorites]

Do not take the bus. O friend, do not take the bus.
posted by praemunire at 10:09 PM on April 2, 2019 [23 favorites]

The train is by far the most efficient, and diesel doesn't factor much in that (how is your electricity produced? What do planes burn?). But flying is less environmentally destructive than shipping all the produce we collectively waste halfway around the globe. Air traffic is small potatoes. Peanuts.

Cars are horrid. Even sweet electric cars are immensely problematic. There was just a thread a couple weeks ago on the blue about all the regressive ways they're subsidized, and there could be many more threads about how bad all the models comparing car travel to every other form of travel actually are. We suck at studying this in the US. Suffice it to say that regardless of the propulsion mechanism of said car, it's probably better to take a vehicle that carries multiple passengers, even if that vehicle is a plane.

In terms of the original premise, you're better off taking the flight, hands down.

When you get there are you going to need a car? That slightly complicates things.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:26 PM on April 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm on the other side of the world but it looks to me like the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited goes direct from NYC to Toledo, with a convenient transfer to a 1 hour bus ride into Detroit. At this rate you leave NYC at 3.40pm and arrive in Detroit at 7.35am the next day. I'm a fool for an overnight train, so I would definitely do this, although I'd want to do it with a bed, and that might well negate any environmental benefit. The train would also be more expensive than flying, so that's probably a factor as well.
posted by Cheese Monster at 10:43 PM on April 2, 2019 [6 favorites]

So, that pre-dawn layover at the Greyhound station in Toledo is not as much fun as you might naturally assume it to be!
posted by praemunire at 12:29 AM on April 3, 2019 [22 favorites]

Both the train and the plane will be going on the route regardless. The plane is more likely to be full as airlines use dynamic pricing to sell every seat so if you don't take it then someone else will. The marginal impact of an additional passenger on the train is negligible.
Climate change is the biggest extinction risk facing mankind but it needs a solution at the scale of governments, sadly your choice of transport for single journey makes no difference (that's not to say individuals can't make a difference but only through lobbying and seeking to create mass change, their own habits in isolation are miniscule).
posted by JonB at 1:10 AM on April 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

So, that pre-dawn layover at the Greyhound station in Toledo is not as much fun as you might naturally assume it to be!

It's an Amtrak Thruway connection, i.e. the bus meets the train and you're not actually hanging around the bus station.* There are some (admittedly old) details on the experience here.

*To be fair, the Toledo and Detroit train stations are actually both intermodal stations, so are also/adjacent to the bus station.
posted by hoyland at 3:48 AM on April 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Take the flight. You'll maximize the time you have with your friend.

This is only one data point, but a family member used to take the train from Chicago to Royal Oak, Michigan (not far from Detroit) and it was ALWAYS late. Like, every time. This might have changed, but again - maximizing the time spent at your destination and with the person you have traveled to see. That's what flying is for.
posted by 41swans at 4:07 AM on April 3, 2019

How far do you really want to go down this rabbit hole? I've seen analyses that show that pollution related to infrastructure maintenance tips the scales in favor of flying - think about all those miles of roads paved in petroleum-based tar and aggregates, plus the diesel-spewing machinery required to keep that surface smooth. There's also the environmental cost of mining all those rare earth metals required for the batteries in the hybrid or electric car. Gasoline is more highly refined than jet fuel, requiring more energy to get out the same volume of fuel.

Take public transit to the airport.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:41 AM on April 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

The main operator of that route is Delta, and they have a bunch of ERJ-900 aircraft running it.

It looks to me that an ERJ-900 gets around 50 passenger-miles to the gallon, while a Prius gets around 50 miles to the gallon on the highway. So at first glance, your flight will use about twice as much fuel as your drive.

But, your flight is in a straight line (~480 miles) while your Prius has to travel on roads (~620 miles).

So, your choices are to burn around 39 gallons of aviation fuel, or 25 gallons of gasoline.

Of all the ways that humanity wastes 14 gallons of fossil fuels, this is pretty far down the list.
posted by Hatashran at 5:47 AM on April 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

I say no to the train. I took Amtrak from Cleveland to Boston and it took 22 hours one way. I say yes to the Prius because I prefer car travel over plane for the convenience of having a car and the freedom to pick my own timetable. We are driving our Prius to the Michigan UP this summer to go camping. You will also have plenty of time to try some great diners and see some sites along the way--stop overnight in Cleveland to see an Indians game and go to some amazing restaurants in Tremont! Pittsburgh is also a great place to visit. The Andy Warhol museum is pretty cool.
posted by waving at 5:59 AM on April 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

11 hour drive versus taking a 90 minute flight

I agree with others above that the climate impacts aren't hugely different (and definitely don't take bus or train trips with multiple transfers unless you absolutely have to).

But when comparing the time each option takes, do it in terms of actual door to door times, not just the advertised flight time or the drive time on google maps. (As a made-up example, it might take 30 minutes to get to the airport; 1.5 hours of going through security, checking in, and waiting at the gate; 90 minutes of flying; and 45 minutes to get your baggage, wait for your ride, and get to your destination -- still faster than driving, but no longer quite so extreme.)
posted by Dip Flash at 6:12 AM on April 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you do decide to drive, for a long highway drive, there's little difference between a hybrid and other fuel-efficient cars. On the highway, the hybrid's battery is generally not contributing at all. Many small traditional cars get close to 50 MPG on the highway, so you should just rent the smallest car you can.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:15 AM on April 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

Take the plane, eat a plant- based diet while you’re there.
posted by juliapangolin at 6:48 AM on April 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: How far do you really want to go down this rabbit hole?

This is Metafilter. I want to bean plate the hell out of it. Honestly, I posted this question not so much because I'm agonizing over this decision but rather that I figured I would get some good links and thoughtful responses and then this thread would be out there as a resource for other people who are thinking about this sort of thing. Not disappointed so far!

If anyone's curious, here's where I came up with the idea that the train isn't nearly as efficient as one might think. It also seems like you ought to be able to make this trip entirely on the water and I bet you could before, say, WWII. That would be cool.

Here's where I got the idea that once you're in a car that gets over 50 mpg, you might be better off driving. I also woke up wondering what the effect would be if I, say, tried to find someone who needed a lift to Detroit that week since every additional passenger would seem to make that trip more efficient. Not sure how to quantify that, especially if you try to take into account the effects of the associated infrastructure like someone else mentioned before.

For the record, I'm part of the ecosocialist working group of my local DSA chapter and would generally rate myself as moderately to highly engaged in local politics already. Perhaps a bit counter-intuitively, I think that the real problem here is my job. If the company I worked for weren't so tightfisted with the paid time off, I'd definitely just take a few extra days off, grab a book, and go for a 17 hour train ride. Anyway, thinking about the best way to take this trip is on top of all that stuff.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 7:10 AM on April 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's an Amtrak Thruway connection, i.e. the bus meets the train and you're not actually hanging around the bus station.* There are some (admittedly old) details on the experience here.

I'm not speculating. I've done that trip. Let's just say that assuming that Amtrak and Greyhound will successfully coordinate a perfectly smooth transfer is not a winning bet.
posted by praemunire at 8:30 AM on April 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

I did this drive 4-6 times a year for a few years for child custody swaps (I live in metro Detroit and my ex was stationed at West Point). I even had a Prius for some of that time.

Bottom line up front: I would fly, if I were you.

That 11 hour drive is a chore. If you're not a regular long-haul driver, it'll take you more like 13 hours with stops for gas and bathroom breaks and lunch and dinner. And it's difficult to drive that long in a day, so there's a good chance that you'll say "To hell with it" when you realize that you've been on the road for eight hours and you've barely made it across Pennsylvania, so that's a hotel added to the price. The main reason I kept driving vs. flying was the hassle and price of going through Stewart Airport instead of one of the more popular ones and having to get a rental car and having to schedule the kid pickup precisely (my ex was very picky about that). Also, my job had a pretty good PTO policy and I don't mind crashing at cheap motels, so that part didn't suck as much for me as it does for most people.

On the other hand, if you fly, you're up, you're down, you're done.

I understand your environmental concerns. I had them too. You will be rethinking them around Wilkes-Fucking-Barre on your way back.
posted by Etrigan at 11:05 AM on April 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Is the plane completely full? Because it's flying with or without you, using the same amount of fuel, and whatever you do that isn't taking that plane is adding additional emissions to the environment.
posted by DoubleLune at 11:14 AM on April 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

So as not to abuse the edit window: obviously if you take some other form of public transit same rule applies, so whatever *individual* mode of transportation you take is adding.
posted by DoubleLune at 11:16 AM on April 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

The more seats that are full on the plane, the lower the carbon emissions per passenger for the flight.
Without you renting a car it otherwise sits there emitting nothing.
posted by w0mbat at 1:41 PM on April 3, 2019

In your shoes, I'd choose to fly, as there seems to be no practical alternative. But I don't agree that it's an impact-free choice if the plane is not full. Any purchase of airline tickets nudges the carrier toward flying more or larger planes on the route.

To mitigate this somewhat, you could try to choose an airline that has made a commitment to more sustainable operations. (For example, United and JetBlue have sizeable aviation biofuel operations.) And make sure to let them know that's why you chose them.
posted by ContinuousWave at 12:46 AM on April 4, 2019

How much will each mode of travel cost? Once the money leaves your hands where does it go? Does the Prius company owner who rents you the car drive an Escalade?

Does the car rental company treat its workers better than Amtrak or Greyhound?

I've taken longish Amtrak trips several times in the last few years and the workers definitely seem to enjoy their jobs.
posted by mareli at 2:56 AM on April 4, 2019

One of the biggest differences between flying and driving is safety. The chance of injury while flying, even including incidents that don't involve actual crashes, is almost too small to compute, while the chance of dying in a car crash are non-negligible.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:48 AM on April 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

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