Could you go flight-free for 2020?

California Zephyr
via california Zephyr postcard

A British campaign is asking people to pledge not to fly for a year. Good luck trying that in North America.

Flight-free UK says, "One of the most effective things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is fly less. Help prevent climate breakdown by pledging not to fly in 2020."

Flying is the fastest growing cause of climate change. If aviation was a country, it would be the 7th worst polluter globally. Brits already fly more than the people of any other nation - twice as much as Americans. Even if we take other steps to be environmentally friendly, one flight can completely wipe out all the other savings.

This is true; every time I use a carbon footprint calculator I find that all the good things that I do, from my bikes to my green power, are wiped out by my modest little trip to France or even my conference in New York City.

Writing in the Guardian, Suzanne Bearne writes that many people are taking up this flight-free challenge, finding that it doesn't cost much more and can be a lot less stressful.

In the face of a climate emergency, increasing numbers of people are choosing to ditch planes. While there are legitimate concerns about the additional time and cost, travelling by train to some parts of Europe can end up being a similar price to flying (and minus the headache of hanging around at the airport).

Train in PortoTrain coming into Porto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I was really surprised by that, given how cheap flying is in Europe, where Ryanair and Easyjet are astonishingly cheap by North American standards. Heading to a Passivhaus conference last fall, it cost about the same to fly from London to Porto as it did to take the train from Porto to Aveiro, a 50 mile ride.

It helps that the trains in Europe are mostly fast and very comfortable, and the distances are relatively short. None of this is true in North America.

For example, I was recently invited to come to Santa Clara near San Francisco to try out a new e-bike, after we determined that it would be cheaper to fly round trip than to ship a bike cross-border round trip to Toronto. I thought it might be fun to take the train; the California Zephyr runs from Chicago and according to Amtrak,

Experienced travelers say the California Zephyr is one of the most beautiful train trips in all of North America. As you climb through the heart of the Rockies, and further west through the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas, you may find it hard to disagree.

AmtrakAmtrak buffalo to San Francisco/Screen capture

Sounds lovely. But when I look at the schedule from Buffalo, the train leaves at 12:20 AM, and takes 69 hours. I am not going to sit in coach all that time, and a roomette for the 52 hours on the Zephyr pushes the price to US$ 900. That's cheaper than 3 meals a day and two nights in a hotel, and maybe getting there is half the fun, but that's a bit much. And I still have to get to Buffalo.

Meanwhile, I can hop on Air Canada, fly there in 5 and a half hours, and it will cost me US$ 260. If I was going from Buffalo I could get it down to under $200.

To be fair, I am comparing first-class train to coach-class flying; If I was a masochist I could sit for almost 3 days in the train for US$281. If I wanted to lie down in First Class for the flight, it would cost twice as much as the top train ticket.

Can you go flight-free in North America? Really, it is very hard, very time consuming and very expensive. I tried the train to New York City once and it was back to flying. In fact, you have to change your expectations of traveling. As much as I love the idea of going to California to try out a bike, it has come to the point where I have to accept that I just can't do this anymore.

I love San Francisco, I love traveling, I actually even love airports and airplanes. But I might just sign up for that 2020 pledge and see if I can do a year without flying – other than that Passivhaus conference in Berlin, of course, I can't miss that. And the Docomomo architectural tour of Finland. And CNU28 is in Minneapolis; I loved that city...

Could you go flight-free for 2020?
A British campaign is asking people to pledge not to fly for a year. Good luck trying that in North America.

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