Sustainable Travel Ain't Easy 🚃.

After running the numbers on the flights to Hawaii for Mozilla's all-hands meeting, I resolved to make my next business trip by a more sustainable air-travel alternative. The opportunity came via a training in our San Francisco offices, just near enough to Portland to consider traveling by train, car, or bus.

I knew flights from Portland to the bay were cheap, numerous and, most enticingly, fast. One hour and fifty minutes, one hundred and fifty bucks (with enough advance purchase and flexibility). But then there was the carbon toll: a quarter ton of CO2 by Alaska Airlines' estimation - a little more than skipping recycling for a year, and a little less than the total amount of carbon that should be emitted per person for the entire year through travel come 2030.


Option 1: Hitch a Ride 👍

My first thought was to see if I might hitch a ride to San Francisco - though car travel (~.32 tons, shared amongst all passengers aboard) is less sustainable than train (~.2 tons) or bus (~.08 tons), it'd also about 9 hours for me, vs 16 in train or bus - it'd be free, I'd have some company, and a little more flexibility to take a pit stop, walk off the mileage, see things along the way maybe...but alas, the long-distance ride share websites I checked for my dates all came up empty.

Option 2: Go By Train 🚂

Train seemed the next best option. If you've ever traveled by train somewhere like Western Europe or Japan, you know it can be fast, as well as enjoyable - seats facing out towards pastoral landscapes, dining and sleeper cars, the ability to stretch your legs at will. Stateside, things are a bit more complicated. Certainly, no one would call Amtrak fast - the trains run on poorly maintained railroads, owned by a hodgepodge of public and private entities, leading to scheduling nightmares. The freight companies, whose cargo is far more profitable, often win out, and as a result, Amtrak becomes a second-class citizen to impending cargo trains - hence constant delays (1 in 4 trains in 2018) and stops that, at around the time of my own trip booking, led passengers on a D.C. to Orlando train to be delayed more than 20 hours, prompting some passengers to call the police claiming they'd been held hostage.

Audio of Amtrak announcement regarding "being held hostage"

I was aware of such delays, having traveled from Los Angeles to San Francisco some years ago at an average of 20 miles an hour with delays. The travel time, while exhausting, had been worth the experience. My particular train, the Pacific Coast Starliner, hugs the ocean and provides a private view of the Pacific that even cars don't get to enjoy - and on the ride, I met a friend along the way with whom I maintained a relationship that lasted several years. Surely by documenting the joys of slow travel, I can entice some of my coworkers to someday do the same, I theorized.

Two weeks before departure I got a notice from Amtrak that my train had been canceled due to the torrential rain bombarding California for the last couple of weeks, itself a manifestation of climate change. Some 18 billion gallons in a single storm alone dumped down on LA, a deluge that, in moderation, would have been a blessing for the drought-stricken state to retain. Unfortunately, the majority of California's rainfall ends up rushing out to sea unused, and this particular storm, it turned out, had wiped out a bridge essential to rail travel. As a result, I'd need to make other arrangements.

Last Resort: Nothing but a Hound Dog 🚍

Last on the list of options was the bus - and only the notorious Greyhound bus service seemed to connect the dots between Portland and San Francisco. Ask almost anyone and they'll warn you away from this decision. I can admit personally that, despite having traveled across the bulk of central and South America by bus, making this particular journey evoked visions of coffin-like confinement and nausea, albeit with a mild dose of curiosity for the hijinks that might befall me en route.

I read a motivating essay on Greyhound a while back called 20 hours on the dog, and felt like the experience would do me some good in terms of understanding what long-distance travel looks like for those who don't have the luxury to fly. At the very least, it'd be faster and cheaper than traveling by train...right? Turns out the ticket costs $110 each way, and the estimated time is nearly the same as Amtrak, all stops included.

Confronting the Consequences of Flying ✈️

With the deadline a week away, and rain still looming in the bay, traveling by bus seemed no more feasible than by train, and in the end, I took the all-too-easy way out - guiltily pressing purchase for a direct flight on Alaska, an estimated an hour and fifty minutes each way.

So what miseries befell me? None.

The traffic to the airport was minimal, I breezed through security, the plane left on time, and the legroom on my particular aircraft was surprisingly spacious. The view of the earth below as we passed over Crater Lake, Mount Shasta, and, quite quickly, San Francisco Bay, was stunning, and with nothing but my backpack to lug along, I was out the airport doors and onboard the BART (the Bay Area's Bus and Train network) in minutes. In other words, I did not feel the adverse effects of air travel that I should have.

But was the in-person trip necessary?

I'm still wrestling with this one. I finally had the opportunity to meet the coworkers I'd spent more than two years talking with only over Zoom. I told myself the in-person work might only be minimally useful, but in truth, I feel it deepened our relationships, leveled up our skills, vastly increased the pace at which we arrived at meaningful conclusions, renewed some of my passion for the work, and led us all to rethink some key pieces of strategy around team direction.

Emerging Alternatives

So what's to be done? Should companies not be organizing into globally distributed teams? Could the cost of flying be proportional to the carbon emitted? Could there be some annual quota for number of flights per person? How would you deal with the issue of equity? Necessity? If only we could make flying itself more sustainable. How about those electric planes? (too expensive, too short-range) Or hydrogen? (sure, let's make a passenger carrying H-Bomb). And didn't Marty McFly get his eVTOL in 2015? When will these finally arrive?

For now, the most immediately viable technical option might be sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which can have 80% lower life cycle carbon emissions than traditional fossil jet fuels and, according to the Sustainable Aero Lab, is the only current feasible option for the airline industry to reach its sustainability targets in the coming decades. And while these facts are promising, the price of SAF at the time of writing is almost 4X more expensive than traditional fuel. Who will cover that cost?

Individual Action: Making the More Difficult Choice

Where does all this leave someone like me, who loves and can afford to travel, but wants to do so sustainably? Unfortunately, to a familiar conclusion as reached in so many other areas of the environment - until there are incentives, regulations, systems, and technologies that help solve these problems for us, we, as individuals, have to make the harder choices - to travel slower, to stay at home, to find ways to make remote work more effective, personal, and fulfilling.

Coming back from the work week, our team is currently discussing just that, and I'll likely be posting about any positive outcomes.