While train travel may be better for the environment than flying or driving your own car, hopping on a bus may still be the best choice from an environmental perspective. Credit: Don McCullough, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: I always assumed the train was the greenest form of mass transit, but a friend told me I would be better off taking the bus. Could this be true? — Jane McNeil, New York, NY

Most of us assume that train travel — whether for getting around town, commuting to work or for a long haul — is the most eco-friendly mass transit “mode.” Indeed, trains seem greener, with some relying exclusively on electricity while others utilize a single diesel-powered locomotive to pull dozens of passenger cars.

But even though trains are no slouch when it comes to fuel efficiency, buses, even though they spew diesel exhaust and get only about six miles per gallon, may be even better.

“The reason…is that they are usually full of people, giving [buses] the highest miles per gallon per passenger, at 208,” reports CNN’s Steve Hargreaves based on his research digging into Department of Energy data. He adds that trains are the next best choice for the eco-conscious traveler, whether commuting or doing a longer haul. “A city train (think subway or light rail) gets 52 mpg per passenger (or the equivalent, if it’s electric), while a commuter train — usually used to connect the suburbs to a city — gets about 44 mpg per passenger.”

A landmark 2013 study in Environmental Science and Technology by researchers at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) backs up these findings. The researchers found that bus travel noses out rail travel in fuel efficiency and carbon impact on typical business or holiday trips ranging from 300-600 miles, generating only about 20 percent of the per passenger emissions as driving alone in a typical gas-powered car.

“Motor coaches leave carbon in the dust,” reports the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), adding that a couple can cut their travel carbon emissions in half by boarding a motor coach instead of taking their Prius. “And if they take the motor coach rather than flying, they will cut their emissions by 55 to 75 percent, depending on the distance they travel.” And given that many bus companies have ditched their old buses in favor or new models replete with not only more efficient engines but also reclining seats, on-board entertainment and WIFI, the bus could become your new favorite way to travel.

Though buses are the current green leader, trains are catching up fast. All of Amtrak’s trains in its busiest Northeast Corridor now eschew the old diesel generators that used to power their locomotives, and run instead on an increasingly renewable supply of electricity. Some $10 billion in investment in high-speed rail by the Obama administration means trains are getting more efficient across the country, as well.

While candidate Trump promised he would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into further boosting high-speed rail infrastructure, his 2018 budget does more to decimate Obama’s progress on the issue than augment it. Whether he will follow through with a plan to further bolster U.S. rail travel remains to be seen. In the meantime, while trains remain a viable green choice, choosing Greyhound over Amtrak might be the better option for the time being.

Contacts: UCS, www.ucsusa.org; Amtrak, www.amtrak.com; IIASA, www.iiasa.ac.at; CICERO, www.cicero.uio.no; Greyhound, www.greyhound.com.


Getting a few houseplants is one way to start cleaning up the air quality inside your home. Credit: Stephanie Vacher, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been having trouble sleeping and my doctor suggested that indoor air pollution could be a contributing factor. Do you have any tips for how to improve my home’s air quality without breaking the bank? — Jennifer Abromovitch, Putney, VT

The key to a healthy indoor environment is clean air, but many of the finishes and furniture in a typical home or office off-gas pollutants that can compromise air quality. While opening a window might help, it also could make matters worse by introducing auto exhaust and other noxious emissions in. So, what’s a clean air lover to do about keeping the indoor environment safe?

For starters, it can’t hurt to change the filters on your furnace and air conditioner(s) on a regular, scheduled basis. Manufacturers recommend changing out furnace filters every three months, but mileage may vary depending on square footage and other factors. (When you install a new filter, write the date on it when it should be changed to keep yourself honest.) Also, getting your HVAC air ducts cleaned once every few years — or more frequently if you have pets or lots of people using the space in question.

Another way to help filter your indoor air is the all-natural way: with house plants. While humans have always had a special relationship with the plants around them, it wasn’t until NASA published research in the 1980s that we knew just what an important role house plants could play in ridding indoor environments of noxious chemical pollutants. Plants scrub particulates from the air while taking in carbon dioxide and processing it into oxygen, thereby creating more clean air for us to breathe. Garden mums, spider plants, dracaenas, ficus, peace lilies, Boston ferns, snake plants and bamboo palms are great choices given their especially powerful air purifying abilities.

Yet another relatively easy fix would be to purchase an air purifier that plugs into the wall and uses carbon filtration or other methods for filtering contaminants out of the indoor environment. The Coway Mighty and Winix 5500-2 share top rankings from leading consumer review service, Wirecutter, while the Dyson Pure Hot+Cool Link gets kudos for great air cleaning with style.

If you really want to go all out, think about repainting interior walls with paint formulations that use little or no volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that have been linked to respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue, among other health worries. AFM Safecoat is the industry leader in low- and no-VOC paints and finishes, but the big players like Sherwin-Williams and Benjamin Moore now also have healthier formulations for a quickly increasing number of eco-conscious home improvement customers.

Another easy albeit more costly way to green up your indoor environment would be to get rid of those old couches, mattresses and other furniture which were required by law to contain flame retardant chemicals before we knew how harmful they could be to our indoor environment and health. Now that California has mandated that new furniture products cannot contain these noxious chemicals, more and more manufacturers (including Ikea and Pottery Barn) are starting to phase them out, so it’s a great time to replace that old mattress with a new one that won’t off-gas carcinogens every time you plop down onto it.

Contacts: Coway, coway.com/Product/Detail?prod_disp_no=47; Winix, winixamerica.com/product/5500-2; Dyson, www.dyson.com/air-treatment/purifiers/dyson-pure-hot-cool-link-evo/overview.aspx; NASA’s “Indoor Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement,” https://goo.gl/j7WzPU; AFM Safecoat, www.afmsafecoat.com.


Sea level rise and coastal flooding could wreak havoc on real estate values for the 40 percent of Americans currently residing in coastal areas. Credit: Roddy Scheer.
Dear EarthTalk: How will climate change affect real estate values? — Jeremy Willson, Oxnard, CA

It’s not surprising that questions like these are on readers’ minds today, given the relentless hurricanes in the Southeast, the devastating wildfires in California and other climate-related “Acts of God” bedeviling Americans recently. No doubt, climate change is already having an effect on real estate values.

Of course, the 40 percent or so of Americans who live in coastal areas are at most risk of financial loss, given rising sea levels and the increase in intense storms and attendant flooding. A recent analysis by Attom Data Solutions found that home sales in flood-prone areas grew 25 percent less quickly than in counties not prone to flooding over the last five years.

“If sea levels rise as much as climate scientists predict by the year 2100, almost 300 U.S. cities would lose at least half their homes, and 36 U.S. cities would be completely lost,” says Krishna Rao, director of Economic Product & Research at Zillow. Across the country, some 1.9 million homes — worth some $882 billion in the aggregate — are at risk of literally being “underwater” as sea levels rise in coming decades.

Those states with lots of people living along their coastlines would be hardest hit. “More than one in eight properties in Florida are in an area expected to be underwater if sea levels rise by six feet, representing more than $400 billion dollars in current housing value,” reports Rao.

But living away from the coast doesn’t guarantee your real estate values won’t be affected by climate change, given the increase in extremely warm days across the country and the extension of the wildfire season across much of the West. Verisk, an insurance industry data analytics provider, reports that more than two million homes within California alone are already located in high risk zones.

“The amount of fire that is projected to increase in a warmer world is an increase of anywhere between 100 percent and 600 to 700 percent, and that’s just with [a 1ºC increase in global average temperature],” says Mika Tosca of the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “And if we’re projected to see 6ºC of warming, you can imagine what’s going to happen.”

To make matters worse, the insurance system isn’t keeping pace with the onslaught of climate effects. When Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in late August 2017, 85 percent of the victims didn’t have flood insurance and had to start all over again financially. And while fire insurance may be required as part of owning property, the economic impacts of increasing wildfires — so far residential insured losses from the October wine country fires alone total upwards of $3 billion — could be a head shot to the insurance industry if it doesn’t raise premiums across the board accordingly.

So even if your home isn’t directly affected by climate change, your pocketbook will be, given that everyone’s rates will need to go up to pay for an increasing number of catastrophic property claims.

Contacts: Attom Data Solutions, attomdata.com; Zillow, zillow.com; Verisk, verisk.com; UCS, ucsusa.org.

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