Personal data mining: Air miles and non-air miles

It’s been a relatively good start to 2015. At least in terms of my flying miles reduction. Or flying kilometres since using miles is silly.

What I’ve done over the past few months is data mine my travel history. Sounds like I’ve got too much time on my hands doesn’t it? But the result is really interesting. I’ve basically written down information about every flight segment I’ve taken (all 114 of them). And then supplemented this with information about all my journeys that could have been taken by plane.

The result is this:

Air vs non air kilometres personal

Since I started this blog in 2013 with my supervisors personal change challenge I have been reducing my flying. I did meet my target of not flying between challenge start in October 2013 and the new year. But I haven’t done very impressively.

Intercontinental flights in particular contribute massively to my flying emissions. In 2013 I did the equivalent of 2 return trips between Europe and Oceania. In 2014 I did 1 return trip to North America and 1 to Oceania from Europe. In 2015 I haven’t done any international flying. Only flights within Norway. And that’s because my girlfriend lives in a different city (at the present anyway).

Weekend trips to Oslo however are not the most convenient to do with train because of the short total time available. In my big data crunch I’ve looked at my travel plans up until the end of May. And in this analysis I’ve managed to rack up 2510 kilometres of ground transport on routes that could be taken by plane. So that’s the green bar in my graph above called “air kilometres subbed for ground.” It compares quite favourably with my peach coloured air kilometres!

But that comparison isn’t truly fair. Taking the very simple assumption that all my travel is necessary, the comparison needs to be made between my green kilometres and the potential green kilometres. I’ve defined this potential as short haul flights. Or those that are less than 785km.

All my flying in 2015 could potentially have been done by ground transport. Since the max trip length is under 400km. Based on this comparison I’ve managed to take 43% of my (commercially) flyable trips by ground transport. Which is not that fantastic. But again, for weekend trips, the value proposition of a 6.5 hr train journey doesn’t compare that favourably to a 3 hr (1 hr flying time + airport travel) plane journey.

The Australian Context.

My worst year since I finished high school was 2012 (since I didn’t make so many independant travel choices whilst I was in school). 8% of my potentially green journeys were done by land transport. 90% of the short haul flights I took were between Melbourne and Sydney. The microscopic green bar on my chart is testament to this.

In my defence this route doesn’t have the best alternative transport means. The diesel train that trundles along between these cities is not that clean. Taking into account the relatively low passenger numbers it is about 20% less carbon polluting than the flight (98 compared to 126 gCO2/paxkm). And the notionally 11.5 hr journey is plagued by delays making it not a particularly strong competitor for plane travel on a weekend trip.

But lets think about this some more. The air corridor between Melbourne and Sydney is the 5th most trafficked route in the world. It’s 706km distance requires 4 hours by plane (inc the extra time on both ends) vs 11.5 hours by diesel train.

The 4th most trafficked air route is between Beijing and Shanghai. It’s 1075km long. Rome2Rio estimates that it takes 5 hours by plane vs 5 hr 43min by train. Seat61 says that the optimum G train (>300kph!) route is 4hr 48min.

The G class China railways trains that ply the Beijing-Shanghai route are sleek marvels of engineering. Bit like a plane actually…
The NSW XPT CountryLink diesel trains have had their day in the sun…

What can we gain from this? Well maybe Melbourne and Sydney could do with some high speed rail investment to cut back on the short haul flying route between the cities. Maybe it’s time for Australia to consider doing some investment at all in the rail network. Lots has been happening since 1930 until now. But most of it has been in the wrong direction!

1930. The good old days. Before trucks and personal cars and planes became a big deal.
Victoria’s train network today…

I think it’s quite clear that Australian under-investment in rail infrastructure has long term impacts. But I digress from my big data post…

The last thing I wanted to mention was on short haul flights. Because most people, unlike me, don’t need to worry so much about visiting their family who live on the other side of the world.

Short haul. It’s not so bad is it?

Well per passenger kilometre, flying short haul can be around two times more polluting than long haul flights. ICAO, the international civil aviation organisation produces some public information about the CO2 equivalent emissions of different flights. I’m not 100% convinced the figures are accurate, but for now we’ll take them as they are.

Flying between Oslo and Trondheim in a Boeing 737-800 (one of the world’s most common commercial aircraft) releases 160 gCO2/paxkm (passenger kilometre). That’s a distance of 360km or a flying time of roughly 45-50 minutes.

By comparison flying on the widebody Boeing 777-300 between Singapore and London produces 69 gCO2/paxkm.

The reason? Well it’s pretty intuitive. Take off. Have you felt the strain of the entire plane undergoing take-off? It’s quite a bit of work to lift up all the passengers, their bags, some freight, the plane’s own weight, and it’s fuel to 8 kilometres in the sky! And it all uses fuel. And for flights less than 1 hour we know that the cruising time is typically quite short. So the impact of take-off is particularly large on a per kilometre basis.

This doesn’t make it better to fly long haul! But it can be a good idea to try and avoid indirect flight routes. Going short haul between many European or American cities, it can sometimes be cheaper to take a slower, indirect 1 or 2 stop route instead of flying direct. As well as increasing the total distance travelled, there are now 1 or 2 more take-offs. Compounding the CO2 impact. So direct flying is preferential to indirect flying for several reasons.

By being a passenger on two or three flights you are also contributing to air travel demand on multiple routes meaning that the airlines need to keep on increasing capacity on these routes that you have taken instead of the direct one that you would have preferred.

What this means for me is that it is usually worth looking into options of cutting out excess flying legs. If I were to fly to Paris from Trondheim there are no direct flights. So I could travel 1 stop via a host of other cities like Oslo, Copenhagen or Amsterdam…

Or I could take the direct flight to Amsterdam and then take the train. I’ve never been to France so it would probably be a new and interesting journey for me to take the train via Belgium too! Another option is the direct flight to London a bit earlier and to see some friends, including one who’s living on a solar powered houseboat and then take the train under the English Channel.

Options abound when you think in this way. Give it go and see how it works out!

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