How Bad Is Taking a Cab to the Airport, Compared to the Flight Itself?

airplane sunset photo

photo: Doc Searls

Pulling back the curtain a bit on the TreeHugger virtual office, I’ll let you in on part of the working method of those of us cranking out the eco-news, pointing our collective Duchampian finger at the latest in green cool, and sifting through all the press announcements to bring you what’s worth paying attention to: We keep a running Skype chat going to share tips and brainstorm ideas. I suppose not a great secret, but that’s where this post comes from.

One day, while contemplating the travel that this job sometimes requires, this question arose: What percentage of the carbon emissions of a trip by airplane is the travel to the airport if you take a cab? While TreeHugger is certainly a big fan of pubic transit, biking and getting out of the car in general, sometimes you’ve got to travel with a heavy load of gear and taking a cab seems the easiest thing to do. In that case, should the concerned greenie overly worry about the carbon emissions of that cab ride?

So, I did some quick back of the napkin calculations: If I take a cab from my apartment in lower Manhattan to JFK airport, a journey of about five miles, what are the carbon emissions?

NYC Cabs Have Awful Fuel Economy
The average cab in New York City (despite the efforts to green the NYC cab fleet) really gets horrendous gas mileage. Most cabs are the something like Lincoln Town Cars, achieving an astounding 18 miles per gallon. So, based on the EPA standard figure for the carbon content of gasoline (2,421g carbon/gallon = 19.4 pounds CO2/gallon) the trip to JFK emits 5.432 pounds of CO2.

But Your Flight Spews Carbon Like There’s No Tomorrow
What about the flight? For the sake of comparison I checked the carbon emissions of flights of various lengths: Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dubai, Singapore. These yielded (for a one-way flight) 120lbs, 300lbs, 1220lbs, 3620 lbs, and 5420lbs of CO2 emissions respectively. You can probably see where this is heading.

Don’t Sweat the Cab, But Buy an Offset for the Flight
It doesn’t take a math genius to see that the cab ride really isn’t a big deal in comparison to the flight as a whole. In this example, only on the flights to Washington DC and Chicago does the cab ride even top one percent of the flight’s carbon emissions (4.53%, 1.81%). For everything else the carbon emissions are essentially negligible: 0.45%, 0.15% and 0.10%.

The Verdict: It’s the Flight Stupid!
Unless you're taking a flight of very short length, if you’ve got to take a cab to the airport because you’ve got an excess of luggage (moving? photographers? filmmakers?) don’t worry about the carbon emissions of the cab ride. Ultimately, the fact that you’re flying at all is the bigger issue that how you get to the airport.

The question to ponder really is whether there isn't a better form of mass transit (train or bus) to get to your destination than flying.

Aviation, Carbon Offsets
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