Air Travel: Compatible with Sustainable Transportation?

For anyone who has been following Wilshire/Vermont for a while, it’s fairly clear that I am an advocate of sustainable transportation and smart growth patterns which promote the most efficient, and pleasant uses for land. From local bus service (AC Transit) to intercity transportation (California High Speed Rail), I’ve covered many of the plans in California to improve transportation. What isn’t so clear in debates of sustainable transportation and land use is the role of air travel.

While nearly everyone discussing sustainable transportation, myself included, advocates for high speed rail services to replace flights less than 500 miles in length, what role do long-haul flights have going forward? It’s an interesting question, especially considering the massive and quick rise of long-haul air travel in the last 40-50 years. No longer is it surprising to fly from Los Angeles to London for a meeting, or from Shanghai to Sydney. Trips that used to take days or weeks take hours. While this change is profound, it has much less of a difference on the important concepts of sustainable transportation than short-haul flights or intracity transportation. Consider this:

Long-haul flights are incredibly expensive (for good reason) and very time consuming. These characteristics differentiate them from other forms of transportation. Most importantly, long-haul flights do not change land use patterns in anywhere as near profound of a manner as shorter flights or intracity transport. Although they require airport infrastructure (more on that later), long-haul flights have no feasible replacement at the moment. Their carbon footprint may be high (very, VERY, high), but we lack alternative means to travel across oceans in mere hours. So, although not admitting a loss, I must concede that long-haul air travel will be a critical part of long-distance intercity travel for the foreseeable future. Even at 240 MPH, a high speed train ride from San Francisco to New York would take at minimum 12 hours. Proposals for high speed rail from China to London are even less feasible.

Where does that leave airport infrastructure? Good question. By virtue of its scale, no matter what you do, airports are not pedestrian friendly environments in the least (ever tried walking to an airport?). They take up tons of land, produce pollution and noise, and depress local land values. Yet, air travel cannot yet be feasibly replaced by a more sustainable form of transportation. At the moment the best hope of reducing the environmental impact of air travel lies in new fuel technology, especially biofuels. But, the way that airports are constructed in the United States could take a cue from airports in Europe.

Coordinating ground transportation so air passengers have better transportation choices to their destinations. In France, Lyon’s Airport is connected to the high speed rail system, a tram-train line and extensive bus service. This type of transportation infrastructure is far more sustainable, affordable and appropriate for airport service than most US airports (see the Oakland Airport Connector, BART to SFO, LAX Connection on the Crenshaw Line etc.) Intercity rail connections, especially direct lines to center cities should be emphasized, while expensive, elaborate, proprietary transit lines. Higher speed rail services allow airports to be located far from the city center, yet be readily accessible.

Air travel must emphasize alternative fuels, effective placement of airports, and an appropriate blend of ground transportation, especially quick, intercity rail, in order to be considered an appropriate part of a sustainable transportation strategy.


About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on November 2, 2010, in Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay Area. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I think you’re right on dude. I’m surprised that no one is talking about bringing HSR into LAX instead of Union Station. I know there’s a bunch of logistical nightmares with that, but many of the people who are going to be using HSR up to the Bay Area live in the Westside. These people don’t really have any good way of getting to Union Station at the moment. Even if you complete a Subway line to Santa Monica everyone who lives south of LAX is going to prefer to fly north because of the established parking/transit infrastructure at LAX.

    Also, more on topic with your article, I could see a lot of people flying over from Asia using LAX and HSR as a connector to SF, SJ, SD, etc. I could see the airlines booking through trips on trains like in Paris. The reverse is also true for someone flying into SFO. However, the trip to Union Station would currently require a 45 minute bus ride. SFO would require a BART trip.

    Furthermore, I don’t think air travel is all bad. I have to travel a lot for work and I primarily fly. There is really no other way to get east of California. However, I have noticed that I’ve been using Amtrak to BUR or Amtrak to Flyaway to LAX a lot more instead of driving. This way I don’t have to deal with traffic, parking, shuttles, etc. I think more connections to airports (HSR and otherwise) would help more people connect this way.

    Last I’d like to say that like it or not, air travel is here to stay. I feel like it gets vilified by many environmental-type people, but I think that airplane manufactures and airlines are doing a lot to reduce emissions. Many of these measure are cost saving (canceling half full flights to create full flights), but new planes such as the 787 are much more efficient that what’s currently in the sky.

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