Coaches are the greenest way to travel. Surprised?

by Al Macmillan

At Coachfairer we are passionate about coach travel for a lot of reasons. A quick straw poll of the office reveals reasons like: it's nearly always cheaper than a train or flying, a truly global network of coach routes makes it possible to get just about anywhere, looking out the window at dawn as your overnight coach crosses Holland or a mountain in France is an amazing experience. But the number one thing we are most passionate about is this: coach travel is the greenest way to travel. Say what? I'll say it again COACH TRAVEL IS THE GREENEST WAY TO TRAVEL!

How can Coach Travel be the greenest way to travel?

Well there are a number of caveats to that. Firstly, clearly the greenest way to travel is to not travel, followed closely by walking and cycling. But they don't take you very far. And I'm sure we can have a debate about electric trains but the issue with them is they don't run everywhere. I'm sure I am like many people in Britain, the small town I live in has no railway line since Doctor Beeching's axe in the mid-sixties. The nearest train station is ten miles away and it's not electrified and it's hard to imagine it ever being. If I want to travel environmentally as well as cheaply Coach is my only option.

The Science of greener travel

But enough of my layman's speculation - when it comes to subjects like what is the greenest way to travel it's better to find a real expert. A book that did the rounds in our office last year was written by a guy called David MacKay. He is the Regius Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge and his book is called Sustainable Energy without the hot air. It's a available from Amazon but it's also available for free online at This book made a real impact when it came out - so much so that nine months after it launched David MacKay was made Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Cutting to the chase

This is just a summary - it's really worth going and reading the whole thing (and since it's free there's no excuse). But Professor Mackay talks a lot about transport and it's not hard to understand why - one third of our energy consumption goes into transportion. But what can we do to reduce that energy consumption? Mackay outlines three key concepts. Concept 2 is:

"In long-distance travel at steady speed, by train or automobile, most of the energy goes into making air swirl around, because you only have to accelerate the vehicle once. The key strategies for consuming less in this sort of transportation are therefore to move slower, and to move less, and to use long, thin vehicles."

Hmmmm a slower, moving less long thin vehicle…. Sounds familiar… And another advantage is having a small frontal area per person So the design of the long distance Coach is just by its very nature efficient.

Why Coach is the greenest way to travel

So lets get down to some numbers. What makes David MacKay's book so important is that he does the numbers of what is a complicated subject better than anybody. And he brings every mode of passenger transport onto the same scale “kWh per 100 passenger-kilometres,” i.e energy consumption in KWh of a mode of transport or a vehicle to move a person 100 Kilometres. And in this scale unlike say “miles per gallon” the best is a small number.

So how green is Coach travel. Mackay concludes: "At its best, shared public transport is far more energy-efficient than individual car-driving. A diesel-powered coach, carrying 49 passengers and doing 10 miles per gallon at 65 miles per hour, uses 6 kWh per 100 p-km - 13 times better than the single-person car." 13 times better for the environment than a car and 9 times greener than flying! (It's worth looking at the full scale and seeing the full horror that a Range Rover at 112 kWh per 100 passenger-km is more inefficient than a full Ocean Liner! Go and view the chart yourself ) It's only bettered by walking, cycling and an electric train. But for long distance travel it's coach or electric train and in terms of availability coach is king. There are coach stops and stations everywhere. We reckon for the UK alone (and we don't have every coach operator in our system - yet!) we can journey plan and connect almost 1 million routes and that's just the UK. But that's not the only issue, the economist Alan Storkey in a 2005 paper pointed out the physical reality of why coach travel is better. Just the sheer size efficiency of moving people in contrast to cars. Coaches are 15x more space efficient. Storkey takes a typical motorway: the M25 (London's 'ring-road') which has 790 miles of lanes. If these are filled with cars carrying the average load of 1.6 people, at 60mph its total capacity is just 19000 people - the whole M25! Coaches travelling at the same speed, each carrying 30 passengers, raise the M25′s carrying capacity to 260,000.

In conclusion - ditch the car take a coach or train

If you remember nothing else from this blog post remember this: each Coach replaces 1 mile of car lane traffic and reduces carbon emissions per passenger mile by an average of 88%. So next time you think about driving or flying, spare a thought for our poor planet and join with and get on the coach and bus revolution!

Image is by Jeff Turner. Used under Creative Commons Attribution License

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