What If Google Flights Displayed Train and Bus Journey Alternatives Too?

Beyond Google Flights, the broader concept is worth exploring too.

Man running to catch a train on Den Haag Hollands Spoor Train Station
Rob Kints / Getty Images

The other day, I welcomed the news that Google Flights would start displaying flight-specific carbon emissions next to every itinerary in its search results. After all, research has shown huge disparities in emissions based on itinerary—even between the same two airports on the same, specific day. So providing consumers with the tools to choose could mean significant emissions savings, as well as providing further incentive for airlines to meaningfully reduce emissions. 

That said, flying is still going to be an emissions-intensive activity. There is a danger that by providing the option to switch between "very harmful" and "slightly less very harmful," the service provides cover for would-be low carbon travelers to keep on flying the friendly skies, safe in the knowledge that “it could have been worse.” 

In his book "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter talks about three core strategies to lowering our footprints: 

  1. Absolute Reductions: Meaning doing less, buying less, making do with what we have. One could argue that simply seeing the emissions associated with a flight might make some folks think twice about the need to fly. 
  2. Efficiency Improvement: Meaning we keep doing what we do, but we do it better and in less resource-intensive ways. Again, in terms of the Google Flights initiative, the idea is that by comparing emissions between flights, we can hope that some travelers will choose lower carbon options and put pressure on airlines to do more. 
  3. Modal Shift: Meaning we shift from one mode of consumption (flights/meat) to a less intensive one (trains/tofu). 

A humble suggestion from the Flight Free UK folks—in response to a recent interview with Professor Katharine Hayhoe about this new initiative—offers a glimpse at how Google could get into the business of modal shift too:

It’s an interesting idea, and not just because it would provide side-by-side comparisons of emissions. Perhaps even more powerful would simply be the idea of offering a shopping interface that focuses on mobility between Point A and Point B, not necessarily segmenting the means by which you get there. If well designed, such a platform could allow—at least in regions where viable, economic, and sustainable alternatives exist—a chance to compare itineraries between trains and planes, based on both cost and convenience. (Imagine seeing not just your flight times, but total door-to-door journey times—which are often much more favorable for rail when you consider transit times to-and-from an out-of-town airport.) 

That said, “where alternatives exist” is a pretty big caveat, at least here in the U.S. While I can fly from Raleigh Durham to Indianapolis in a matter of hours, taking the train or bus would take literally days—and likely spew a significant amount of carbon in the process. As has been said many times before, while individual action and "responsible" behavior change will certainly play its part. Its impact will be limited in regions and in market segments where citizens are not really given meaningful choices. 

Beyond Google Flights, however, the broader concept is worth exploring too. Too often, we focus on providing alternatives but not necessarily on shaping the way that alternatives are actually presented to us and those around us. When researchers tested a mixed menu in which vegetarian dishes were displayed in the same segment as meat-based dishes and compared it to a menu with a separate vegetarian section, the former resulted in 56% more orders of the plant-based dishes. This is likely the same thinking that led many of the new plant-based meat companies to push to get their products not just into grocery stores but to be displayed right alongside their animal-based counterparts. 

In some ways, Google’s Nest Renew program is getting into this business already: helping consumers to automate their preference for renewables over fossil fuels, and helping to match them to actual, real-time supply. Where else might we push greener options, not just on their own terms, but at the specific times, and in the specific locations, where we and our fellow citizens are actively making decisions that would otherwise lock us into higher carbon choices? 

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