Monday, September 26, 2011

Approaching the Problem of Air Travel Creatively

From "Tank Girl: The Odessey" (film)

"We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity."  
Jonah Lehrer

How can someone like me who bikes to save a gallon or two of gas, justify air travel?  Spewing CO2 into the atmosphere, burning fuel like water, contributing to vapor trails, air pollution and climate change?

Where to begin?

First with a nod to human engineering.  We can fly.  I can't get over it.  We can get something off the ground with 500 people on board, travel at 600 miles an hour for 7000 miles.  Imagine what else we might accomplish? This cries out for celebration.  Preferably with a long trip.

Not convinced?  How about this:  long distance travel is good for you. Getting out of the groove, subjecting yourself to odd hours, a new language and finding your way around strange places -- unlocks creativity. A recent study asked two groups of students to list as many kinds of transportation as they could. They were told that this was for a project developed by American students who were either (a) in Greece or (b) in Indiana. When they believed they were helping students in Indiana, the participants listed things like cars and buses. When they believed they were participating in a study that came from Greece, they came up with a more imaginative list:  trams, Segway, space travel.

In another project, researchers found that people who had lived abroad were able to negotiate and solve puzzles more creatively than people who had not lived abroad.

When we're at home, our brains block out all but what we really need.  This tends to limit thinking to concrete terms (hungry, MacDonalds, eat).  When we are out of our element, we think more abstractly, and that allows us to make different, broader connections (MacDonald's, trans fats, big American bottoms).  

From "SuperSize Me" 

I wonder why this might be?  Perhaps pre-humans wandering around looking for fresh meat and places to hide from mastodons had an evolutionary advantage over more sedentary species.

Whatever the reason, we are going to need a lot of creativity to deal with a *!#?-load of self-inflicted world problems, caused by things like ....  air travel.

Sources:  "Lessons from a Faraway land: The effect of spatial distance on creative cognition," Jia, Hirt, Karpen,; "INSEAD Research Shows Going Abroad Linked to Creativity," Wm. Maddox, et al,; "An Easy Way to Increase Creativity," Shapira & Liberman,

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Is flying worth it, environmentally speaking?

The previous post celebrates bicycling as the most fuel efficient way to travel, and compares mileage on a bicycle to other forms of locomotion.  Missing from that list, however, is travel by airplane. The post before that relates a first-hand view of bicycling in Germany. Preaching bicycling to save fuel, and then waxing poetic about a (plane) trip to Germany?   Sounds hypocritical.   

It is.  But.  Here's my case, in two (maybe three) posts, for air travel. 

First, the bad news.

Jet Mileage:  The numbers depend on the size and make, passenger load, wind direction, cruising altitude, etc., but here's a rough estimate. According to British Airways, a 747-400 plane that cruises at 575 mph with 75%  of the seats full carries one passenger about 52.2 miles for every gallon of fuel burned.  That's better mileage than a Prius, and much better than the average American car.  Of course, you generally travel many, many more miles in a plane.  

The case is worse for, say, delegates who recently used private jets to fly to a climate change conference. A Gulfstream G550 business jet burns about 16 miles per gallon of fuel per passenger if loaded with 16 passengers.  An Eclipse Aviation 500 with 4 passengers:  22 mpg.  Better mileage than many American SUV's.  Not saying much considering the total fuel spent.   

Of course, the problem is not just fuel, but also carbon emissions.  A typical 350 passenger jet burns 45 or 50 gallons of fuel per minute, and a 3500 mile flight requires about 13,000 gallons of fuel, which will produce 191 tons of CO2, over 1,000 pounds per person.  

Then there are jet vapor trails, which cause cloud formations; and jets spew other greenhouse gases into the stratosphere.  The fuel itself produces more CO2 per unit than fuels made for cars.

So, for those who can afford it in this economic climate, but worry about environmental implications, there is a strong case to chill out on the vacations to Europe.  

Why do I feel OK about air travel anyway?   This opens a Pandora's box.  Look for future entries on Educating Ourselves About the World; and How Flying and Bicycling Change Time ...

Monday, September 5, 2011

Energy Efficiency

What's the most efficient form of transportation?

A 140 lb. person walking 3 miles per hour uses about 80 food calories per hour.

The same sized bicyclist, traveling at a brisk 16 miles per hour uses 43 calories per hour.

Compare this to automobiles.

Walking:  360 mpg

Bicycling: 732 mpg

Missing from this picture:  airline travel.   Since the last entry was about a visit to Germany, this deserves a post of it's own ...  to be continued ...

The math:  One food calorie contains 4.184 kiloJules of energy (a kJ equals 1,000 (10-to-the-3rd-power) Joules).  One gallon of gasoline contains 114,000 British Thermal Units (BTUs), or 120 MegaJoules (MJs) of energy (a MJ equals 1,000,000 (10-to-the-6th) Joules).  Sources:;;