Your Car Is the Least Efficient Way to Get Where You’re Going

When I was young, it didn’t take much for me to suggest a road trip. Full tank and nice weather? I’d drive just about anywhere. Now that I’m older, the time and gas it takes to fuel a road trip no longer seems reasonable. So now, when I need to travel out of state, I book a flight, but not without significant eco-guilt (all those filthy jet fuel emissions!).

Recent research shows that my decision to fly rather than drive might actually be a wise one, at least environmentally-speaking. According to scientists at the University of Michigan, light-duty vehicles (cars, SUVs, pickups and vans) are the least efficient way to travel.

Fuel economy must improve 57 percent in order for light-duty vehicles to match the current energy efficiency of commercial airline flights,” said Michael Sivak, a research professor at the U-M Transportation Research Institute, in a recent statement.

To arrive at this conclusion, Sivak compared 40 years of fuel economy statistics of various light-duty vehicles with the per person mile energy consumption (as BTU) of other modes of transportation, like flying and taking a train. What he found was that though the efficiency of both driving and flying have steadily decreased, the improvement for flying is much greater than driving — 74 percent versus 17 percent.

Overall, Sivak’s research found that in 2010, BTU per person mile was 4,218 for driving versus 2,691 for flying. Other modes of transportation: Amtrak trains (1,668), motorcycles (2,675) and transit buses (3,347).

“The entire fleet of light-duty vehicles would have to improve from the current 21.5 mpg to at least 33.8 mpg, or vehicle load would have to increase from the current 1.38 persons to at least 2.3 persons,” reports the Michigan News. That 57 percent improvement is a tall order for an industry that took 40 years to improve vehicle fuel economy by just 65 percent. The other option, increasing passenger load, might be more feasible thanks to the recent growth in popularity of ride-sharing programs like Lyft and Sidecar.

Although it might make me feel slightly better about making long trips by plane rather than car, Sivak’s research seems to have missed one important variable: not all light-duty vehicles are powered by fossil fuels. It would be interesting to see how the results change when adding plug-in electric vehicles into the mix, especially in light of a recent survey that suggests EVs could meet the driving needs of over 40 percent of all Americans.

Image via Thinkstock


Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Manuela C.
Manuela C4 years ago


Dianne McGonigle
Dianne McGonigle4 years ago

Interesting post, thanks for sharing!

june t.
reft h4 years ago

Try being a handicapped senior, using a cane, a walker or a wheelchair trying to use public transit. These days, people won't give you the handicapped seat when they can easily see you are handicapped, and it is dangerous for you to stand in a moving bus. Are wheelchairs allowed on bicycle paths? How far can someone walk with a walker or cane, carrying their groceries, if they don't have a vehicle to help them get around?

The needs of people with mobility issues are often ignored. Easy for those who are able bodied to dictate to others how they should live. We already have the technology to make cars "green", the companies just don't have the will to do much with it. I'll continue to drive my aunt with M.S. around in my car to help her get her business done, as she can't handle public transit anymore. To make some of you happy, though, she is no longer physically able to drive a car herself.

Rosemary H.
Rosemary H4 years ago

Jessica L, I'm glad you can get everywhere you need or want to go to. Some of us can't!

PJ Chartrand
PJ C4 years ago

As 500 flights are cancelled in Chicago today so soon after the standard trapped in airports over the Christmas holidays it does strike me as somewhat laughable to suggest planes are a reliable choice. When they do finally get the airports viable again tons of chemicals will be being used to deice planes and we all know where those end up, in our ground water.

The windchill is currently 40 below here with large snow drifts forming on roads so my hat's off to anyone who'd even think of trying to ride a bike in winter where there is snow, ice and bitter winds....I doubt they could keep the bikes upright during some of the gusts.

I'm not so much pro car as I am common sense, not everyone has the luxury of a moderate climate all year long nor the luxury of living close enough to service to walk there without camping along the way.

Patricia H.
Patricia H.4 years ago

thanks for sharing

Jessica Grieshaber

thanks for the post. if it wasn't so cold i would ride my bike or walk

Marianne R.
Marianne R4 years ago

I would ride my bike, but the traffic is too scary and I don't feel save doing so

Janis K.
Janis K4 years ago