Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Footprints in the air: travel costs vs. conscience

With a daughter in Chicago, a house in France and a job that takes me around the country teaching cooking, I spend a lot of time on the road or in the air.

With a daughter in Chicago, a house in France and a job that takes me around the country teaching cooking, I spend a lot of time on the road or in the air. Between the price of fuel this summer and the threat of global warming, both my pocketbook and conscience feel pinched. 

This spring, when my God-given right to visit daughter Melanie triumphed over nagging guilt, I realized I could make some educated travel choices by evaluating four ways of getting to Chicago. Criteria: carbon footprint, time, price and general convenience. 

Three of the transportation options — plane, train and automobile — are so obvious there’s even a movie named after them; the fourth is the megabus. Based out of Chicago and offering express service in the U.S. and Canada, the megabus began in the United Kingdom as a cheap travel alternative. I ended up choosing the car through simple inertia — i.e., it was just sitting there waiting for me — and decided to explore my other possibilities later.

Now, as summer wanes, I’ve done my research and found the train to be the greenest, the bus the cheapest and the plane the biggest loser except for time.

Article continues after advertisement

How many trees will I need to plant?
Amtrak touts its Earth-friendly status on the web and offers a link to the Carbon Footprint Calculator. Clicking on train, I typed in 850 miles for a round-trip and got .082 tons or 164 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. To offset that amount, I’d need to plant one tree. Unfortunately, in the time category, each way requires a drive to or from the St. Paul Amtrak station, a minimum 30-minute pre-departure arrival to check baggage and around eight hours actually on board. Plus, passenger trains are notoriously late.  Cost varies by date, ranging from $46 to $119 one way. Book ahead — train travel is catching on and routes can be sold out.

Flying is the fastest, but that’s less of a factor on a regional trip. With both airports requiring commutes, a requested 75-minute pre-boarding arrival, the flight itself and the wait for checked luggage, the total pushes four hours. Assuming the flight’s on time. Leaving a Yeti-sized footprint in the air, the plane’s CO2 output is .197 tons or around three trees’ worth of offsets.  Cost for a three-week-out reservation is running around $400.00

For bargain-basement prices, the megabus takes the prize with one-way fares generally in the $20.00 to $30.00 range. Calculating the carbon footprint for buses, I came up with .122 tons -almost two trees — giving megabus a solid second for emissions. The megabus website estimates travel time at about seven hours. Add on approximately 30 minutes for commuting and boarding. When Melanie used the bus, it arrived two hours late. 

Considering other variables, the car is king when carrying luggage but the train is not far behind, allowing two carry-ons and three checked pieces (including a bike). The megabus lets you bring one standard bag plus one carry-on while the airlines allow one free carry-on with, increasingly, a fee for checked luggage. 

The family pet is welcome in the car and on planes for a fee but is barred from train or bus. All will accommodate service animals and have wheelchair access accommodations. 

For creature comforts, Amtrak offers dining cars, comfy seats and aisles to stroll. None but the plane makes you remove your shoes, jacket, belt, etc. Neither do they require itty-bitty toiletries to be carried in a see-through quart bag.

The car is still king of the road
And what about the car? My road trip proved it wins hands-down for convenience.

In April, I loaded up my red Honda Civic with a box of books that had been expediently abandoned in our garage when Melanie moved to Chicago. Score one for the car. Picking up a last-minute sandwich, I hit the road at 11:15 a.m. Because the weather was decent, I didn’t have to contend with late snow and I could rely on the car vents instead of the AC. My only pit stop was to get gas in Cottage Grove, Wis., well this side of Chicago and its even higher gas prices; I managed to fill the tank at $3.479 a gallon. 

My one nemesis was the toll by O’Hare on Interstate 90. It took close to half an hour to merge into the cash lane and creep my way to the toll booth. The other side was so jammed that the toll operators weren’t lifting the exit arms until a car could squeeze into place. This jockeying and inching went on for what seemed an eternity but finally eased into a comparatively zippy 28 mph. Joining Melanie for a bite to eat, I parked the car in the heart of the loop 7½ hours after leaving home. 

Article continues after advertisement

The next morning, Melanie, who has no car, borrowed mine for some errands but for the rest of Saturday we left the Honda parked on the street close to her apartment and used public transportation. 

Sunday, we took the car to Ina’s, a restaurant named for and owned by a friend of mine. With her long-standing reputation as Chicago’s breakfast queen, it made sense to head her way for a mid-morning nosh. Since her place at 1235 W. Randolph St. is in the warehouse area by Oprah’s studio and off-El, my car toted up another check in the convenience column. Then we took advantage of another Sunday car-plus — free meters — and headed for Lincoln Park and the zoo. Later, we drove to the video store and settled in for a chick-flick evening.

On Monday, after Melanie left for the El and work, I headed home via a visit to a friend in Highland Park, with the car eliminating a lengthy CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) and commuter train ride to this northern suburb. 

Once back on Interstate 94, I chose Lake Mills as a place to stretch my legs and get some gas. Besides, my Wisconsin cheese and beer map told me it was home to the Tyrenena Brewing Co. At the BP station, I fueled up, paying $3.599 at the pump and then grabbed a six-pack from a cooler inside.

Am I there yet?
I made one more planned detour — to the Norskie Nook in Osseo, Wis., known for their pies and Scandinavian baking. Loaded with a solid hit of sugar, I tackled the last leg home. It was then, as darkness descended, that the length of the journey began to wear. I kept checking the roadside mileage in an adult version of “Are we there yet?” Finally, I pulled into my driveway. Return travel time: 7¾ hours.

Here at home, I filled the tank again at $3.429 and did the math. I’d driven 892.5 miles, paying $81.04 for 23.08 gallons of gas. With the tolls I’d paid around Chicago, I rounded the cost to $90. I averaged 38.66 miles per gallon for the trip, not bad when you factor in idling at the toll-booth traffic jam, road construction and side trips along the way.   

How’s the carbon footprint? Using the calculator, my CO2 emissions were .201 tons, another three-tree option, roughly tied with flying. Ouch. And that’s with a car that gets good mileage. If my husband or son had been able to go along, I could have divided that in half.

Would I drive again? Even at $4 a gallon plus tolls, the car would only cost about $100 and I loved the convenience. But I’d like to give the train a try, with its smaller impact on the environment, overall comfort and reasonable price.    

Since Melanie was just transferred to New York, I’ll have to recalculate. In the meantime, I’m looking for a tree farm.

Article continues after advertisement

Mary Ellen Evans is a Minneapolis-based cookbook author and cooking instructor who leads food and wine trips to France. Her books include “Bistro Chicken” and “The One-Dish Chicken Cookbook.” 

Want to add your voice?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Susan Albright at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.