What’s the Most Environmentally Friendly Transportation Option when Traveling?

Top 10 Modes of Transportation while Traveling Ranked by Environmental Impact

As the world starts to open up again after the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are looking forward to traveling again. After staying home for months and months, people are ready to explore new places and have adventures, including so-called “vaxications,” or vacations to celebrate your vaccination.

Aside from traveling costs, you might want to evaluate how you travel in more detail. We’ve reviewed different types of transportation and came up with the top 10 modes of transport by environmental impact.

1. Walking

Though walking may not get you to a new destination, getting around via your own two feet is one of the top ways to travel once you’re in a new city. 

While walking, you’ll be outside, which is considered safer than indoors with current COVID-19 public health guidelines. Better still, you can reduce carbon emissions compared to driving or other transportation methods. 

Walking is also an affordable way to get around (free!) and can be another way to get some exercise while traveling.

2. Biking

Biking is another environmentally and cost-effective way to get around. Taking a bicycle can also help reduce carbon dioxide emissions compared to public transportation, driving, or other forms of travel.

Biking can also be a good way to travel outdoors and help you avoid crowds, which can help you stay healthy.

3. Scooter

In the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of micro-mobility options, most notably scooter rentals. New companies have placed electric scooters in many major cities, which can be convenient depending on where you might need to go.

While electric scooters have an environmental impact, especially compared to cycling or walking, many rental companies are working to reduce their carbon footprint and environmental impact so that you can take a short trip without worry.

4. Subway

Public transportation is one of the most affordable and environmentally conscious travel options. Depending on your city and how far you might need to go, a subway fare might set you back only a few dollars.

The subway also has the benefit of carrying a lot more people than other transportation methods, helping to reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, especially when compared to driving. Many cities and regions are also working to reduce the emissions of their subway trains.

5. Motorcycles

If you know how to ride a motorcycle, it can be a great (and fun!) way to travel. Just make sure to stay safe, as riding motorcycles can also be dangerous. Motorcyclists account for a significant amount of crash-related fatalities, much higher than the proportion of vehicles they make up on the road.

From an environmental standpoint, it has less of an impact than cars. According to the EPA, greenhouse gas emissions for motorcycles in 2019 were 3.6 teragrams of carbon dioxide, making it the most environmentally-friendly option compared to other on-road vehicles.

6. Buses

When considering types of transportation with a smaller environmental impact, buses are another good option to consider. 

Buses also tend to be more affordable than driving and might cost anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars depending on the city or region and where you might want to go. 

Buses also have a smaller impact on the environment. According to the EPA, as of 2019, buses had a total of 22.2 teragrams of carbon dioxide, making it second in line when it comes to the fewest emissions for on-road vehicles next to motorcycles.

7. Rail

Another efficient way to travel is by train.

The train can also be one of the more relaxing modes of transportation. Think of railways, such as Amtrak, which can let you see the country or get from one city to another quickly. If you’re outside of the U.S., taking the train can also be a more efficient way to travel to different regions or countries than flying. 

Costs can sometimes add up, depending on your route and when you want to travel, so you may want to do some research before leaving. You may also want to budget some extra time, as traveling by rail can also be slower than other transportation options.

According to EPA data from 2019, greenhouse gas emissions from rail travel were 37.6 teragrams of carbon dioxide.

8. Commercial airlines

Flying can be an efficient way to travel, especially if you need to go the distance. However, travel by air has some of the highest environmental impacts, and there have been growing concerns about air pollution from commercial airlines.

According to the EPA, as of 2019, greenhouse gas emissions of commercial airlines were 135.4 teragrams of carbon dioxide.

While the environmental impact can be hefty, sometimes you have no choice but to fly, and as a major form of public transportation, it can be better than other options.

9. SUV or minivans

If you plan to take a road trip or go off-roading, you might want to drive a sports utility vehicle or minivan. Be aware that the environmental impact of these vehicles, what the EPA calls “light-duty trucks,” can be high. Generally, SUVs or minivans have less fuel efficiency than smaller passenger vehicles, which can add up to pricey gas bills and a larger environmental impact.

The total greenhouse gas emissions for light-duty trucks were 323.1 teragrams of carbon dioxide in 2019, according to the EPA.

While a significant amount, the carbon emissions from SUVs or minivans is still less than medium and heavy-duty trucks at 444.4 teragrams of carbon dioxide. 

Fortunately, medium and heavy-duty trucks aren’t often used for transportation because of their cargo and commercial applications.

10. Passenger cars

When it comes to the least environmentally friendly type of transportation, passenger cars top the list. The EPA defines passenger cars as vehicles typically used to transport 12 or fewer people.

According to the EPA, as of 2019, passenger cars have a total of 762.3 teragrams of carbon dioxide, a considerable contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. 

While driving a car may not be the best for the environment, it’s possible to lessen your overall impact by driving an electric vehicle or a hybrid car to use less fossil fuels. Driving an electric vehicle or a hybrid vehicle could also help you save money on gas by filling up less often or not at all.

Our Methodology

We considered the environmental impact by analyzing greenhouse gas emissions by volume of different common transportation methods using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA measures greenhouse gas emissions using teragrams of carbon dioxide.

The bottom line

If you’re traveling, it can be overwhelming to consider the different types of transportation available. You may want to consider each method’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and their environmental impact. You might also want to consider affordability, convenience, and safety.

If you like to consider your environmental impact, you may want to consider Metromile to insure your car.

Metromile provides pay-as-you-drive auto insurance, incentivizing people to drive less and choose more environmentally friendly transportation methods. Because your rate is based on how much you drive, you could pay a lower rate if you don’t often drive.

Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer, podcast host of the Mental Health and Wealth show, and author of Dear Debt. She’s a cat mom to two jazzy cats, Miles and Thelonious, an amateur boxer, music lover, and needs coffee to function.