Size and Perception: Is the US really too big for high-speed rail?

A nifty website allowing users to pick a city in Europe and then see how far one can get from there by rail within a day made the rounds online recently. Rail and transportation advocates across the U.S. received these maps as an example of the virtues of European rail systems and the failures of the American system. “We could never get halfway across the continent in 6 hours, how can that be?” one asks themselves looking at these maps. Well, part of the problem is Europe is actually really tiny compared to the U.S. Size remains a problem for establishing a comprehensive rail American network comparable to operations in Europe. But it’s a problem of perception in addition to structural issues, which are perhaps reinforced by perception, that keeps down momentum on rail. Voices in opposition of greater investment often take the question of size to heart as a reason for passenger rail’s infeasibility; and the casual observer can probably comprehend the logic of size working against rail. We have to get over the question of size though. While the geographic size of the U.S. and distribution of its cities will definitely affect what passenger rail services will look like it doesn’t inherently hinder the potential for such systems.

The U.S. is a really big country, huge in comparison to Europe. I use a particular anecdote with the students I work with in Austria to impress this upon them. I ask how long a flight from New York City to LA lasts and usually get answers ranging from two to five hours, but hear answers in the two to three hour range, or a long flight within Europe. The answer, which is 5 hours and 20 minutes, always manages to elicit plenty of awe especially when I sweeten the whole thing by informing them this is about 20 minutes longer than a flight from London to Amman, Jordan. Crammed into this small area is a population well over 510 million (the EU’s current population, not Europe as a whole) compared to the U.S. with a population of 320 million and a combined U.S.-Canadian population that still pales in comparison at just 355 million. It’s a dramatic demographic and geographic difference that has defined how the two continents have been shaped in the last century.


When Europe was adopting advanced rail technology and building the Chunnel and TGVs in France, the U.S. was expanding the Interstate Highway system and building cities around cars and national travel around aviation. The changing world though is proving the resilience of the European (and Japanese) models of urban development and intercity transportation. The U.S. survived on the idea of cheap fuel without the foresight to consider the environmental impacts of our life styles and the potential that access to cheap fuel might be ephemeral, ideas that have no been thoroughly shaken.

Trains are inherently more sustainable than cars and planes. Cities and dense living similarly while also incubating contemporary economic advancements and human interactions. People are moving away from cars. These changes are forcing the U.S. to reevaluate how to get around the country and many eyes have turned towards high-speed rail (HSR) and passenger rail in general as a solution. A persistent point of opposition is that the U.S. is just too big for HSR, but that’s based on the false thinking that HSR and passenger rail systems like they exist elsewhere in the world are the only models that could work and it lacks the creative thinking to explore how such models can be adjusted for American landscapes.

I’ll grant this, doing a direct comparison of the U.S. and Europe would make the casual observe believe that, yes, the U.S. is just too big for HSR or any European style rail system. Even when broken down into regions, the U.S. is still at a very different scale from Europe. Take the Midwest for example, it covers an area comparable to much of Western Europe (population 260+ million), but has a population similar to France (approx. 67 million). With only one city of 10 million plus people (Chicago), it also falls far behind the two in this European region and the many of urban regions with over 5 million people there. If the distribution of cities and population are what make a successful HSR system work, well then yeah, Western Europe has a lot on the U.S.

But that’s not all what it takes to make rail feasible and work or what make it a valuable asset.

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The European counties of the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria are shown in comparison to the Midwest and Great Lakes States with Chicago and Frankfurt positioned roughly at the same point.

What is too often overlooked in the simplistic argument that the U.S. is too big is considering the way rail fits into larger socio-economic, environmental, and transportation systems that are both dependent and independent of geography. There are of course the environmental reasons for promoting investments in rail over investments in car infrastructure and aviation. Trains contribute significantly less to global climate change than the latter two, but the environmental argument alone isn’t a huge sell for many Americans (unfortunately) and is at the very least it’s well established. Additionally, although the costs of building the system are high, the economic output that would likely result is even greater. That’s moving in the right direction. Perception is powerful though, and this all means nothing if people think the country is just too big for a system to be built anyhow.

But now it’s time to start thinking outside the box?

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France, superimposed over the Midwest, occupies a relatively small portion of region.


There are a few particular points that indicate geography and scale are not the significant roadblocks to HSR and passenger rail generally believed. One point is how the system is going to be used. There are two models one can look at in determining the design of a HSR and passenger rail system. One is the German system, which really looks more like a subway system. Routes criss-cross a region connecting multiple urban centers of various size and varying in importance. Such a system would make sense along the Atlantic coast where urban centers are more scattered and a passenger getting on at Point A may be getting off an any number of points between A and B. Then there is the French model, which is all about getting people to and from a single primary center to outlying more minor urban regions.


This map shows the different HSR systems in Europe and how each country follows pretty much one of two models, the German or French one. (Source:

The applicable model is important when considering geography. In the German model, trains run at slower speeds and can share tracks with conventional trains, because the shorter distances between stops means trains can never really pick up speed anyhow. In the French model, speed is king. With more express or almost express services, the goal is to get passengers from Point A to B with few to no stops in between; often because it’s not even necessary. A geographic and demographic distribution similar to Europe is significantly more important for the German model, but the French model could easily benefit from the spatial geography of a region like the Midwest.

Let’s focus on the Midwest as an example.

Part of what makes HSR in the French model work is trains getting up to very high speeds cutting down the door-to-door travel times while having the option to offer frequent service throughout the day in a more comfortable surrounding than an airplane. Competition with cars and planes though means trains need to hit speeds of well over 180 kph (110 mph) and usually closer to 320 kph (200 mph) (Link: 10 Fastest Trains in the World). The longer the distance between stops and the fewer stops means the faster trains can go and the better they can maintain their speed. The Midwest is ideal for such a system. With Chicago at its center and most traffic going to and from Chicago with few large cities between it and other major centers a system modeled on the French one here would be highly competitive.

Indeed, the long stretches of relatively flat land with few barriers (natural and man-made) means Midwestern trains could be some of the fastest in the world. Running at speeds comparable to the Renfe between Madrid and Barcelona an express train from Chicago to Minneapolis/St. Paul would arrive in about 2 hours, 10 minutes. At a maximum, there would likely be 4-6 intermediary stops (Chicago-O’Hare, Milwaukee, Madison, LaCrosse, Rochester, and maybe Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport). This is barely half the number along the Acela Express from Boston to Washington, D.C. with an average of 70 miles between stops in the Midwest versus 32 miles along the Acela. Combined with trains that have improved acceleration and breaking technologies common on German systems a Midwestern system could be globally state of the art. Here, geography is less an impediment to rail, and more a benefit.


A Finnish train outside of Helsinki mid-winter (Source:


In our Midwestern model, weather also plays a major role in supporting a strong rail based transportation system. The size of the Midwest will never save it from two things: summer thunderstorms and winter weather. Both of these can cause havoc at regional airports and on roadways and are especially troublesome for a singular aviation center, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A Chicago Tribune article from 2013 looked at the numbers and reasons for flight delays at O’Hare and bad weather year-round socked the city’s airports’ on-time departure rankings. Unlike airports and airplanes, which can be quickly and more dramatically affected by severe weather trains, which are by no means immune, at least offer A) an alternative mode of transportation and B) can get through more before getting shut down.

In a region like the Midwest, where thunderstorms are common in the summer with snowy, cold winters, providing a quick and convenient transportation option that can get people around the cancelled flights and slogging traffic (or keep them out of it in the first place) is essential and up to now missing. Considering how much air and road traffic goes through Chicago this is significant for improving passenger and freight movements through the region. Since most any Midwest HSR system would in all likelihood include stops at O’Hare it would actually enhance intraregional and national passenger traffic.

Chicago’s O’Hare is a major hub, but not necessarily a major destination. One of the keys to making O’Hare function successfully is getting people and planes in and out of the airport as efficiently as possible. Weather regularly confounds those efforts and causing delays creating backups that include short-haul flights within the region and important national and international long-haul flights. Opening up capacity at O’Hare can be achieved by decreasing the number of short-haul flights to the airport from within the Midwest. This would improve operations year round and improve performance when operations are limited by bad weather.

And HSR makes this entirely possible at O’Hare. Chicago is within the Top 3 destinations for many of the region’s major cities (#1 from Cleveland, #2 from Detroit, St. Louis, Indianapolis each, and #3 from Kansas City) as well as the fourth top destination from Milwaukee. All of these are within 2-3 hours or less of Chicago based on optimistic proposals for a Midwestern HSR system. If an HSR system was built in the Midwest and bad weather strikes fewer passengers would get trapped at O’Hare, because the first or final leg of their journey to or from O’Hare would be by train rather than plane.

That’s not to say trains equal problem free winters. A study from the Swedish Royal Institution of Technology (KTH) called Gröna Tåget examines the problems facing high-speed rail operations in climates with harsh winters such as the Nordic countries, Russia, and northern Japan. While winters pose very robust engineering and planning problems for high-speed rail operations (and rail operations in general) they are not problems that are impossible to overcome. There are still many areas for improvement. Indeed, the Midwest’s geography in particular may be more ideal for HSR in wintry environments, because it’s relatively flat compared to Scandinavia where on top of everything snow build-up in valleys and avalanches are problematic too. Growing HSR systems in Russia and China and older ones in Germany and Japan show that winter isn’t as much of an impediment to rail as it may seem and reinforces the positive impact it can have in relation to other transportation modes.


This is just one proposal for HSR in the U.S. This map gives more details about the types of services offered. (Source:

Weather disrupting air and road traffic though isn’t unique to the Midwest. Regions like the Deep South and Texas, both of which experience thunderstorms in the summer and the remnants of hurricanes would benefit from transportation modes that redistribute passenger traffic over a number of modes too. Indeed, these two regions share another common characteristic with the Midwest: both have major hub airports serving the American aviation network (Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airports), that could also be connected to HSR and passenger rail systems serving their immediate surroundings and regions. Indeed, a hub-and-spoke HSR system in the South with Atlanta at its center could beneficially serve Hartsfield-Jackson International airport the same way as with O’Hare in the Midwest. And all this means less traffic at airports allowing for a greater focus on the major mid- and long-haul flights people are most likely connecting to, less congestion in security lines and terminals, and fewer emissions and noise pollution from fewer flights overall.


According to Shanghaiist, an ambitious new plan has been unveiled to connect Beijing and Hong Kong by an HSR line that will cover the 2,400 km (1,490 miles) distance in 8 hours. This is an equivalent distance to Amtrak’s Silver Star or Silver Meteor routes between New York City and Miami, which each take more than 27 hours. The article, which was shared by the Midwest High Speed Rail Association on its Facebook page, has made the rounds of social media as an example of the China’s increasingly superior HSR network. Granted that the construction of single, essentially transcontinental HSR lines is impressive, it’s not a shame the U.S. isn’t doing that, or at least not to the extent that China is (as well as Europe to an extent), because a U.S. network needs to serve the needs of the U.S. and reflect the realities of the country, including in terms of our geography, and there are plenty of ways HSR and other passenger rail services can do just that.

This is important to remember when planning and thinking about any model of passenger rail development. Although there are certain trends and truths that are universal, the way to apply them isn’t always identical. Examples like those from China are great to inspire something better in the U.S., but they’re not set in stone. I can see it already though, critics explaining how the U.S. is just too big for a system like China’s, because we have fewer people spread over more of the country than China.

Well, duh! The U.S. will never have the huge, concentrated population of eastern China that supporting massive transcontinental HSR lines. But that’s basing an American rail system on a country unlike the U.S. And that’s fine. China is not Europe is not the U.S. At the very least China can continue to set an example of what is possible. As Rick Harnish, Executive Director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association pointed out in an e-mail interview “in ten years China has connected the equivalent of Miami to Boston, New York to Omaha, and New Orleans to St. Paul.”

That’s really impressive for sure and although it’s built to serve different demographic needs it also exposes the ironic situation the U.S. is in. The U.S. has a set of integrated regions and megalopolises to support regional systems connected to each other via long-distance trains or connecting hubs, all of which are included in realistic proposals for HSR and passenger rail improvements in the U.S. and none of which are nearly as big as the Chinese system. So how has the U.S. managed to achieve so little? Europe and Japan are successful by virtue of geography and technology. China is successful because of population and technology. The U.S. falls somewhere in the middle. Clearly the geography of the U.S. isn’t too big for comprehensive rail systems or its population too small and there is plenty of technology to fix the quirks. We simply have a limited perception of what’s possible.

All these arguments have gotten so swamped with chatter about how we’re not Europe or China and how unrealistic this whole HSR thing is that we’re losing sight of important details. Europe and China only offer examples for us to build on and most proposals are incredibly realistic. In an interview with Talk of the Nation on NPR Dr. Christopher Barkan of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides insight into the geographic practicalities of HSR compared to other modes explaining the sweet spot for HSR is somewhere between 240 and 1120 km (150-700 miles). Most existing proposals for HSR in the U.S. are well within this range and some routes are much shorter. The Northeast Corridor for example could be extended another 435 km (270 miles) and still be within this ideal range for HSR. That’s an extension from Washington, D.C. to Norfolk, VA.



Fantasy map of an HSR network in the U.S. (Source:

Yeah, some ideas are definitely too far outside the realm of possibility, such as one fantasy map showing a transcontinental HSR network with routes that carry trains from Miami to San Francisco and Québec to Cleveland… via Dallas! While it manages to simultaneously engage people in the discussion about HSR it also worrying reinforces a perception that HSR and passenger rail advocates in the U.S. day dream about trains that will whisk people from Seattle to Washington, D.C., rather than more realistic and practical dream of trains from Las Vegas to Los Angeles or New York City to Montréal. And these are the ones we should be discussing.

So okay, there are in fact pipe dreams out there, but the overwhelming majority of proposals are really well though out and realistic HSR and passenger rail concepts. What’s strange about arguing the U.S. is too big for HSR–or better passenger rail in general–is that usually the U.S. never sees itself as too big for anything. It’s just this time that we’re breaking from that mold. This point alone shows how the particular argument being challenged here is pretty blatantly used as a means to mask various other more subjective reasons to oppose HSR. If the U.S. never limits itself because of size, how did the country suddenly grow too big? The U.S. is not too big for HSR and it’s not too big for rail, we’re just thinking too small.

We’re a country of big dreams and big ideas and yet the dreams many have for passenger rail in the U.S. are pretty modest compared to international examples. HSR networks that connect specific regions, expanded passenger services, and potentially improvements that will make transcontinental trips an overnight journey instead of a weekend long excursion are all much more realistic than most of us think or are told to believe. How we let ourselves fall into the trap of suddenly thinking we’re too small for anything is pretty unfortunate and getting over that thinking alone won’t make HSR and better passenger rail services appear over night, but it’ll sure as hell help.

As Harnish put it bluntly, “Perception is everything.”

Chicago International: The region needs an aviation Master Plan (and here are some ideas to go with it)

The O’Hare Modernization Plan (OMP) has been the cause of great excitement over the future of one of the most important airports in America and of a great PR disaster once residents began experiencing the resultant jet noise. Planning for the future of O’Hare will never be an easy feat; it has to remain competitive, but grow in highly constrained conditions. Planning O’Hare’s future occurs in an irresponsible vacuum though. Any future planning must be fashioned in relation to external elements at Midway Airport on Chicago’s Southwest Side and increasingly in relation to a potential third airport in the region. At this point an aviation master plan for Chicago is needed. The development of one would be a huge boon for the city as it would probably coalesce a number of transportation and economic planning projects into one more cohesive vision of future transportation in the region.

Earlier this spring, the Chicago Tribune ran a multi-page feature by transportation columnist Jon Hilkevitch comparing O’Hare with Shanghai’s Changi Airport--a tale of two airports–and it wasn’t a pretty picture of O’Hare. It ate away at the brief joy that followed O’Hare’s renewed position as the busiest airport in the world based on take-offs and landings and did a lot to remind Chicagoans that while we may be home to a great and important airport, we’re also home to one that needs a lot of work to catch up with international rivals in terms of quality customer experience. Indeed, the article opened the flood gates for renewed debates about the airport’s multimodal connections as well. One of the worst problems facing O’Hare’s future and ability to perform doesn’t even seem to be O’Hare’s problem per se, rather a fundamental lack of regionalized planning in relation to aviation.

Much of the problem lies in the competition for tax dollars between the states of Illinois and Indiana. The obvious, although oft ignored, site for a third airport in Chicagoland is Gary. Located just southeast of the Loop, Gary/Chicago airport could easily be transformed into a commercial airport. A soon to be completed extension of its main runway (one of two) will push that potential future. Tax dollars generated from this plan (which a city like Gary could use) wouldn’t benefit Illinois as directly though, and so the proposal for an airport in far south suburban Peotone was born. It will never be built. If anything it has merely diverted attention away from actually achieving anything like a functional third airport serving Chicago.

A bi-state, region-wide master plan for how to grow and support Chicagoland’s aviation industry has to be the next step. And it can’t ignore Gary.

Granted, the funding for such a project might be hard to come by considering the current fiscal and political situation in Illinois, it is nonetheless well within the realm of possibility and could be absorbed into the work of existing organizations, both public and private. Ideally, such a plan will scrap pie in the sky ideas like the Peotone airport, which will probably die alongside the Illiana Tollroad, which is failing to get the support former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn may have hoped for (you can sign a petition here against it), and focus on reasonable alternatives. (Like Gary/Chicago.) The plan can’t focus just on the distribution of air traffic at regional airports though. In reality it would probably be wiser to look at such a master plan more as an intermodal transportation plan aiming to improve how people get in and out of the region.


Gary/Chicago Airport seen from the air with the Chicago skyline in the background. The airport is extending its main runway west. The terminal facilities are on the north end of the airport and the South Shore Line runs just to its south.

Wisely, proposals to turn Gary/Chicago airport into a functioning commercial airport includes the development of a multi-modal transit center adjacent to the airport where connections could be made to coach buses, Amtrak intercity trains, and the South Shore line (an interurban running between Chicago and South Bend, IN). Future growth in this area would have to include high-speed rail and the potential for new services offered by the South Shore Line or Metra. Indeed, future development of a regional rail systems around the proposed CrossRail Chicago may include a modern airport rail link similar to ones in London, Beijing, and soon Toronto, that connects regional airports to Chicago’s Loop central business district and the three main airports themselves.

Such a plan would likely woo the support of multiple organizations and communities looking to improve transportation options in the region and multimodal connectivity. Gary/Chicago has also already won the support of the City of Chicago, which according to a summary produced to assess the viability of commercial operations at Gary/Chicago included fiscal support from Chicago. Investing in a viable third airport is certainly in the city’s interests too and something that plays into recently re-elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s push for growth in tourism in the city and maintenance of the city’s strong convention industry. Much of that of course revolves around how well O’Hare can perform. How a third airport would affect O’Hare needs to be seriously considered too, because this could vastly change how the facility functions and brings the airlines O’Hare into the conversation much more.

One upshot of a third Chicago airport is that it increases air traffic capacity in Chicago. Again, the reason why Gary remains such a strong contender is proximity to Chicago and the potential for strong transportation connections. A master plan though could help do more than just make a plan to increase capacity, but change air traffic movements in a masterful way. O’Hare would regardless remain Chicagoland’s primary airport and international gateway.

With growing interest from large international air service providers such as Air New Zealand and Philippine Air too how travels move through the airport is going to be as important if not more important than how many enter and leave. Codeshare agreements play a big role in this, because they make it incredibly easy to connect between flights on different airlines. A master plan might work to guiding a future reconfiguration of O’Hare that includes organization of airlines based on their airline alliance and in the current three domestic* terminals and international terminal, much like Miami International. For example one could be given over to the Star Alliance, one to SkyTeam and to Oneworld. In the latter case that would put American Airlines (AA) in the same terminal as Air Berlin, BA, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Iberia, JAL, Qatar Airways, and Royal Jordanian, or the easy movement of passengers from international flights to domestic connecting flights on AA without the need to change terminals.

This would likely be best achieved by moving operations of one or more smaller airlines to Gary/Chicago from O’Hare not only giving it commercial viability, but allowing it to support itself beyond use as a center of charter and infrequently scheduled services, as recommended in the summary mentioned above from 2010. What that means for O’Hare though is fewer passengers, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Increasingly in-airport comforts are drivers of an airports success and fewer passengers means more room to expand food and shopping options as well as entertainment and relaxation options.

It’s normal to hear news cycles about O’Hare’s ranking as an airport in the United States. And it’s great to be able to boast that the busiest airport in America is here, but quantity and quality are vastly different things. Great as it is that O’Hare is busy, the quality of the experience increasingly is a big a player in an airport’s desirability factor. But, it should also be considered that O’Hare and Midway collectively account for more than 90 million passenger movements a year and taken together would mean Chicago is the world’s second busiest airport. Improving transportation options and intermodal connections across the board and the region could become one of the busiest transportation centers anywhere in the world, if it isn’t already. A master plan is essential to guide that growth and development though. Smart decisions shouldn’t be held back by political boosterism, truly conceivable plans are there (they just need a push), and at the end of the day sometimes quality trumps quantity and by leaps and bounds.

The business of flying less

Twittering away this afternoon I stumbled upon a fun little nugget of an article from the New York Times Magazine: apparently, Abercrombie & Fitch is ditching the company’s private jet. While the slow decline of the once ubiquitous brand isn’t of much concern, what stood out about this snippet of news was the role flying plays in American business culture and vice versa. The amount it’s utilized in the US for business travel raises some quandaries like acknowledging how much of a contribution business air travel is contributing to American carbon emissions while figuring out a way to expanding and financially invest in alternatives. Considering business needs for comprehensive infrastructure and the benefits produced private business arguably needs to play a bigger role in new investments and financing. Flying remains one of the heaviest carbon producing forms of passenger transportation, and if business is a major player in maintaining the status quo of unsustainable transportation options the burden should be put equally on them as other parties to bring about the needed cultures and resources for change.

A huge player behind the number of flights made in the United States is business travel. The amount of business travel I observe in my day-to-day life is impressive. Even as a recent college graduate I have already had instances where I’ve needed to travel for work. But the sheer amount of it I see in the US astounds.he frequency and the degree to which it happens is actually shocking. Consultants are making flights multiple times a week, people commute by plane to other cities, people who make three or four trips a year for work, and even at my job I’ve had managers fly from New York to Chicago for one afternoon. Epic, the healthcare technologies firm based in Madison, WI, seemed to function on a cycle of flying employees all across the country Mondays only to have them return Thursdays. And each flight is contributing to the country’s collectively huge carbon footprint.

This speaks volumes about energy, environmentalism, and transportation priorities in the US compared to the rest of the world. While the EU is trying to enact laws that counter the negative impact of flying on the environment and its role in climate change, the US resists along with the likes of China and India. While part of this is certainly a culture of flying in the US that is practically the long-distance equivalent to driving, another part of the problem lies in the lack of alternatives and the poor intermodal connections available at American transportation hubs. While the former is a cultural change that will require a lot more than infrastructure, the latter issue is a problem of poor investment programs, public and private. If money (and so much political resistance to ‘big government’) were no object, American transportation infrastructure might resemble that in Europe or Japan (and increasingly China). But money is an object to investing in better and cleaner alternatives, and raising money for investments in infrastructure is proving to be slightly more than difficult these days.

Carbon Emissions in US by Travel Mode

Source: Sightline Institute

As more businesses and companies seek to build a “green” profile, part of the equation should be an examination of how business travel plays into this and ways to counter unsustainable practices.  While solutions like telecommuting and working remotely may have lowered the number of business trips people need to take to some degree, the importance of face-to-face contact, and thus the need for travel, remains important. Getting business travelers out of plans and onto trains as the best alternative is one of many massive moves needed to reign in American greenhouse emissions.



Aviation in the US is massive. According to the US Department of Transportation’s 2001 National Household Survey, approximately 45-50% of all trips by air were for some type of business travel. Assuming these percentages have stayed relatively constant in 2012 there were 276 million business related passenger trips of 736.7 million total (not including foreign travelers). Just the number of potential business travelers in the US in 2012 alone dwarfs the total number of passenger air trips made in Germany, Russia, the UK, France, and Brazil each that year. The price for investing in these intermodal connections and alternatives has to fall somewhere. Placing a greater burden on the worst offenders to fund better investment (and in the case of aviation that’s business travel) might just be the boost needed to actually increase investment.

Even though aviation accounts for only about 5% of greenhouse gas emissions globally it’s not unreasonable for a half to three-quarters of the average American’s emissions to result from flying (and aviation contributions to American emissions could potentially amount to half US emissions by 2050); that translates to three or five long flights a year (something some business people do on a monthly basis if not more). The more developed a country is the higher contributions from aviation become. This alone is evidence enough that demand for air travel is a major player large carbon footprint of the average American with business travel playing a big role in spurring that demand. And with an increase of 71.4 million trips between 2000 and 2012 demand remains high.

While leisure trips still account for almost half of total air trips in the US it only accounts for about a quarter of leisure trips; aviation accounts for almost two-thirds of all business trips (numbers sourced from US Travel Answer Sheet). The numbers reflect the obvious: leisure travel differs from business travel. It can be done at a more placated pace, while business travel usually needs to be quick and efficient. But that also reveals another truth! Other than planes, there is no other quick and efficient travel option available to the many Americans, even when such options would be competitive and more sustainable than flying is available (even in the most modest ways possible).

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This graph shows passenger airline trips made on a national basis.

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This graph compares global flights made and passenger flights made by region.

With the exception of the Northeast Corridor and a few routes in the Midwest and California, trains can basically be ruled out as business travel options, which is probably the reason behind the mind-boggling number of airline trips being made. But they offer the best alternative, especially for the many connecting flights and short-haul flights made each day. The opposite relationship exists in Europe: at Schipol, Frankfurt/Main, or Charles de Gaulle travelers have the option to transfer to either another flight or local and high-speed trains to complete their journey. Indeed, a number of European rail companies and airlines code share to encourage such transfers. German Wings, a lower-cost carrier, offers an option to buy unlimited 24-hour passes for local transit in the destination city to facilitate access to main stations or complete the final leg of a trip. Even intercity-bus connections are well thought out at airports there.

Granted, the costs of flying are already raised by taxes and fees, but a total review of transportation funding across the country has to happen to redistribute the costs onto the worst offenders, ease the burden on responsible travel, and invest in options that have the widest benefits–economic, social, and environmental. This could include putting more of the costs onto business travelers and businesses that require large numbers of employees to travel. Yearend fees could be imposed on businesses bases on the number of employees traveling and the mode of transportation (with high fees for air miles and the associated environmental costs, moderate fees for rail and bus transit to help pay for basic maintenance and new investments, and very low fees for private automobile use assuming charges for infrastructure use would be levied through gas taxes and tolls).

The reason for doing this is to ensure business travel is being appropriately taxed. Just applying fees to passengers based on reason for travel would be impossible, there would be no way to track it. Of course business class tickets would be easy to tax extra, many business travelers still fly coach. Other methods would be to remove things like “segment fees” and turn them into emissions fees (potentially levied on flights to pay for alternative energy and transportation options as a means to off-set the environmental costs of air travel) and “alternatives” fees–extra fees levied on flights made where reasonable alternatives exists (such as the Northeast Corridor). Maybe, just maybe, businesses would even put a greater push behind getting government to invest in alternatives already if their profit margins and costs were challenged by the potential of higher travel fees.

This isn’t to say the costs of flying should be mitigated all together for non-business travelers. As Barbara Peterson points out in the Condé Nast article linked above points out, part of the purpose behind the sticker shock caused by taxes on air travel to discourage consumption of this resource, and in a more infrastructure rich future, hopefully utilize alternatives. It shouldn’t also be misconstrued as an attempt to disregard the issues of government divestment, which if reversed could usher investments mitigating the need to charge more for costly travel practices. Reviews of tax codes, releasing much need infrastructure funds, continuing equitable investment in all modes of travel, and encouraging sustainable living habits (through taxation and practice) is as much the realm of government as it is business. But considering we seem to be in an area of government fiscal constraint and poor foresight to the needs of infrastructure investments it appears the user fees shall reign and should as a means to fairly distribute the real and external costs of high-frequency flying.



Getting people out of planes and onto trains, much like getting people out of cars and onto bikes and transit, is going to require a sea change in terms of infrastructure and culture. Culturally speaking, the significant gains in the power of communications technologies is going to be a huge boon for how business is done, but also keeping people on the ground when it’s not absolutely necessary. Even when it’s time to travel though, a culture of practicality needs to be developed when planning business trips. Asking whether it’s absolutely necessary to go is one question, deciding where to locate a meeting is another. Practicality of location is important to consider. Generally though, accepting other forms of transportation as reasonable options for business travel might also have a positive impact on how we value time and work–a more comprehensive cultural shift.

Changing travel habits is not just something that should be a concern for environmental reasons, but our own psychological health as well. In a piece he wrote for Slate, Eric Holthaus succinctly explains the needs and benefits of slowing our speed of travel and disconnecting our travel habits from aviation a little bit. For him, it not only re-prioritized what was important to him–sustainable living–but it helped him to re-engage with the world around him better, something a lot of us probably need. Americans are notorious for our obsessions with work and our seeming inability to stop for even a moment. The need to fly for all work travel, beyond being a symptom of limited infrastructure, apparently is also a product of the ‘go go’ attitude in American work culture.

Kevin Anderson, another infrequent flier based in England, recounts his rail based trip from Manchester to Shanghai for an environmental conference. He was spurred by the need to remind the environmentalist community to actually live what they preached. A great irony of many sustainability activists lifestyles is rate at which they fly, indeed jet set, dramatically increasing their individual carbon footprints. From his perspective it was an engaging experience on multiple levels and the days long return trip proved rather productive.

There are benefits to both slowing down our travel habits and rethinking priorities that are as applicable to private travel as they are to business travel. Not only does it become more sustainable, it forces us to re-evaluate what is important to us and worth prioritizing, because slowed down travel means potentially less travel. Finally though, it has the benefit of giving us time to be disconnected for a little bit from work, and when we do work, the large bulks of uninterrupted time can be dedicated to productive work, away from many of life’s distractions. Slowing down is not a bad thing and should really be embraced a little bit more.



The whole idea of flying less is a complicated and frustrating thought. The great issue with flying is the huge costs it entails, but financially on individuals and operating agencies, but also on the environment. Countering the greenhouse emissions of a few domestic flights a year in the US would require most Americans to begin living exactly like Manhattanites, which isn’t happening any time soon. At this rate, it will be hard to get a lot of Americans to live even partially like that. The great joy of flying stems from the ability to cover great distances in a relatively short amount of time and thus having the opportunity to experience a greater number of places and see more of the world. Travel provides a huge amount of joy to people, and that shouldn’t stop any time soon. A critique of flying shouldn’t be taken as a critique of travel, because sustainable habits and travel shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

But this point lies behind the particular emphasis on changing travel practices for business and not leisure. It plays a significantly bigger role in generating demand for air travel in the US. Based on 2012 employment statistics, if every employed person in the US traveled for work at some point that year they would be making an average of 1.4 air trips annually versus 1.3 air trips for leisure per capita annually. But since not all employed people travel for work, it’s easy to assume a much smaller number of individuals is responsible the high rates of air travel for business. This is the issue at hand, because it represents a disproportionate responsibility for carbon emissions from aviation (and don’t forget all those private jets used in business, unless you’re Abercrombie). Pressuring businesses to fly less and promote heavier investment in alternatives could make a huge impact in our collective travel related carbon foot print while systematically improving infrastructure in the US (less pressure on airports, more options, improved local economies etc).

This is not a silver bullet solution, nor can aviation be blamed in a simplistic fashion. Like so much in the battle to reign in emissions, aviation is only one piece to the puzzle and one that shouldn’t be attacked so easily as the only culprit. As Justin Francis is quoted in The Guardian “People are after simple answers, simple solutions. But we’ve oversimplified it with flying: if people really want to reduce their carbon, they can make a larger difference by lagging their boiler or taking showers not baths, rather than cutting out a flight…”  Cutting out flights won’t solve anything on its own. We need to be comprehensive in our approach to lowering our carbon footprints all around. Plus, aviation gives tourism a huge boost and is an economic engine to so many places, especially where major hubs are located. And if not for aviation, many of us wouldn’t have the wondrous experiences travel bring to our lives. But it can’t remain the only option, nor the go to option. Something has to give in our over reliance on aviation and much of that will be rooted in a cultural change and improvements to infrastructure.

And that has to come from somewhere.

It just makes sense to put the pressure to change on business. As the a disproportionate contributor to the issue, but also a major beneficiary of strong infrastructure it seems reasonable that it would be business contributing a greater share to solving this issue, getting into the business of flying, and flying less.