As rosy fingered dawn touched Pasadena and extended into Santa Monica yesterday morning, we confirmed that the storm had indeed passed: Carmageddon is over.
A brief primer for those not versed in this L.A.-centric version of the apocalypse: about 10 miles of Interstate 405, one of the busiest highways in the country, was closed for construction all weekend. But instead of the epic gridlock of an R.E.M. video, the Los Angeles Times reported that the city’s “car culture took the day off,” on Saturday and, indeed, Sunday as well. The freeway actually opened on Sunday afternoon, well ahead of schedule.
Nevertheless, Carmageddon provided a series of fascinating sideshows. Ever the opportunist, JetBlue Airways last Wednesday announced the sale of $4 tickets ($8 roundtrip) for four special 40-mile flights between the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank and the Long Beach Airport. Call them microflights. This was obviously a publicity ploy and kudos to JetBlue, the airline’s “The 405 Closure? We’re So Over It” campaign attracted national attention. Still, it got us to thinking, what are the impacts of microflights and is there any place for them in our packed megacities?
The long tailpipe of aircraft emissions
Before you conclude that JetBlue committed an environmental crime, consider that the online carbon calculator TerraPass finds that each passenger on the Long Beach to Burbank flight is responsible for 19 pounds of carbon dioxide. That’s less than the carbon footprint of driving the route without any passengers (which assumes, of course, that there is no Carmageddon). Taking the train, on the other hand, emits one-third less carbon than flying, according to these calculations.
Keep in mind also that JetBlue is the second most efficient domestic air carrier, according to a study by the carbon consultancy Brighter Planet, in part because they cram more seats into their jets than most airlines. For the Long Beach to Burbank flights, each flight Airbus A320 will hold 150 coach passengers, a JetBlue spokeswoman told Txchnologist.
Here’s the bad part: Just as cars are much more efficient at highway speeds than in city traffic (hybrids being the exception), aircraft are generally more efficient over long distances. That’s because flying at cruising altitude takes less fuel than taxiing, climbing and descending, which is what JetBlue aircraft on this route will spend most of their time doing. For this reason, carbon calculators like TerraPass almost surely understate the impact of these flights, especially since they are not traveling a regularly scheduled route so carbon calculators are offering pure conjecture.
Crowded highways, crowded skies
Think Southern California’s highways are a disaster? Try the airspace. There are 62 airports in the area serving everything from superjumbos to single engines, making it the busiest airspace in the world. A regular short-haul flight that runs directly through this tangle of thorns would face delays that would make the 405 look like the Tomorrowland Monorail at Disney. Consider also, that if the 250,000 vehicles a day that ply the closed portions of Interstate 405 have a load factor of 1.5, that represents about 375,000 people. It would take 2,500 fully loaded Airbus A320s to haul the same number of people. Only a fraction of these people want to go from Long Beach to Burbank, or vice versa, but this is clearly not doable, no matter how small the number.
What is doable?
As the cycling collective Wolfpack Hustle showed when they beat the JetBlue flight to Long Beach, it’s actually easier to bike across L.A. than to fly. Ditto for transit according to Txchnologist contributor Nick Nigro, a solutions fellow at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change:
“The flight is about 20 minutes between Burbank and Long Beach, and it takes about 60 minutes with [public] transit,” Nigro wrote in an email. “Add all the extra [hassles] associated with going to the airport, getting through security, etc. and it sounds like transit is a winner.”
Article by Matthew Van Dusen, appearing courtesy Txchnologist.