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.