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Suppose you believe, as I do, that we have to slash our carbon emissions drastically and urgently to ameliorate the worst effects of the climate catastrophe that is beginning to engulf us. And that you believe, as I do, that travel is a good thing for individuals and societies, and that in principle every human should enjoy the opportunity to visit every neighborhood around our fair planet. Can these beliefs be reconciled?

I used to joke, when people looked askance at my refusal to leave Vancouver, that it was the center of the world: “Ten hours to Heathrow, ten hours to Narita!” I was right, but…

  1. Earth can’t afford for everyone to routinely hop on a jet-fueled aluminium cylinder and fly ten hours at a time.

  2. Narita and Heathrow both suck. Arriving at either of them after one of those long flights is usually pretty awful. I speak from painful experience.

The unpleasantness of Narita and Heathrow is not entirely their own fault. After you’ve flown ten hours east or west, when the plane comes down you’ve descended into a nasty fog of jet-lag. Words cannot express my loathing for this condition  — tossing and turning in an unfamiliar hotel bed during the wee hours, fighting off nap attacks in the middle of business meetings, feeling paralyzed after a single glass of wine with dinner.

The lame old anecdote applies here: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this!” “So, stop doing that.” No kidding, and you might help save the planet too.

I have read that recovery from jet-lag takes on the order of one day per timezone crossed. Thus, our current mode of travel, which crosses roughly one time zone per hour while spewing CO2 to poison our children’s futures is simply a bad thing and we should Stop Doing That.

Disclosure: I have been an egregious lifelong travel offender. I’ve enjoyed Damascus and Antibes and São Paolo and Tokyo and Memphis and, well, the list goes on. A world in which those destination options are no longer open to anyone would be a sad place.

What are you suggesting? · That we travel more slowly, which is to say more humanely, and which will enable us to cut down on the greenhouse gas per unit of distance.

Concretely, that for every trip we want to take, we maximize the distance that is covered by train, and minimize those legs that require becoming airborne.

For example · So let’s suppose I want to sample the delights of the Côte d'Azur one more time. Starting, of course, from Vancouver.

The big problem, of course, is the Atlantic ocean. Water travel is unacceptably slow and not notably energy-efficient. So let’s concede that it has to be done by air.

Today, I’d fly to Heathrow (sigh), 7,574km. Then I’d spend unpleasant airport time waiting for my connection to Nice or Cannes or somewhere, another 1000km or so. And I’d arrive feeling like deep-fried shit, wouldn’t really be in the swing of things for another couple of days.

(By the way, I’ve done this, back in the Nineties. There were two immigration lines in Cannes and when we got to the front of ours I noticed that each was being served by a young woman and both of them were flushing and giggling. I glanced left and there was Andre Agassi arriving in France to play in the Monaco open.)

Let’s do this more humanely. By consulting Google Earth I observe that the minimum as-the-plane-flies distance between the North American mainland and Europe is probably Portland, Maine to Brest, France. So our trip becomes three-legged:

  1. Train: Vancouver to Portland, ME: 4,023km.

  2. Fly: Portland to Brest: 4,944km.

  3. Train: Brest to Cannes: 1,034k.

How long is this going to take? Let’s assume that all train travel averages 300km/h. Don’t tell me that’s crazy, I traveled 2000km from Hong Kong to Beijing that way in 2019, averaging 306km/h. It can and should be done.

Modern aircraft cruise at somewhere around 900km/h. Thus:

  1. Vancouver to Portland: 13.4hrs.

  2. Portland to Brest: 5.5hrs

  3. Brest to Cannes: 3.4hrs

Realistically, I probably would have to go to Seattle to catch this imagined future train. But anyhow, the idea is that you wouldn’t do all three legs as a single 22.3hr marathon. You’d start the first leg early and get to Portland late, and stay overnight in a hotel with real beds and real breakfasts. Presumably since Portland is now a major rail hub the locals would have recognized a business opportunity and made it attractive to spend a day there taking the sights in, eating lobster, catching up on minor jetlag, and spending another night before you took off for Brest.

I’ve been to Brest, but only the train station on a trip to the countryside of Brittany. It’s well-worth a day or two’s visit, poking around taking in the standing stones and ciders and country cooking. Why not do that while you recover from the trans-Atlantic jet-lag? Remember that a 5000km leg will hurt less than the currently-typical 7500km jolt.

And then that last leg is a doddle, although France being France you probably have to go through Paris to get from Brest to the Riviera. Why not stop? Yes, you’re a tourist so Parisians hate you, but it’s still a cool place. And I guarantee that with four nights off, you’ll show up at the edge of the Mediterranean in a much better condition to enjoy it.

But wait, there’s more! · The thing that bothers me about this trip is still that trans-Atlantic leg. Yes, we’ve chopped a third off the carbon cost by shortening the route, but it’s still damn expensive, measured in CO2. Is there an alternative?

Maybe so. The airships being manufactured by Luftschiffbau Zeppelin cruise at 115km/h. So the leg from Portland to Brest would take about 43 hours. And to be realistic, the Zeppelin products do not have the scale or range to do this economically.

But let’s throw this challenge in the face of the world’s aircraft designers: Build us a way to travel 5000km or so that spews less carbon and provides a reasonably pleasant experience. We don’t require the 900km/h velocity of the current product, but we’d like it to be faster than 115km/h.

The profession built the current nasty-experience climate-destroying product line because they could, and because we decided incorrectly that we needed to travel one time-zone per hour. Let’s just drop that last constraint, and rejoice in doing so.

The real cost · It’s time, of course. Instead of waking up in Vancouver and going to bed in the South of France, it’s taken us the best part of a week to get there. That’s awful!

No it isn’t, it’s civilized. We’ve seen interesting places, we’ve eaten good meals, we’ve arrived in a decent condition to enjoy ourselves, and we’ve avoided pissing on our children’s future.

Of course, I’ve just ruined everyone’s vacation plans because they don’t get enough time off work for this kind of extravaganza. Well, that’s a bug too. As is the notion that it’s ever a good idea to travel at one time-zone per hour.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Soph (Aug 18 2022, at 12:59)

Hello from Brest! I’d be wary of this city becoming a hub for international travel… but I guess much less people would arrive this way than the number of people who now land in Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle.

You could shorten the air part of the trip by landing somewhere in Ireland then sailing to mainland Europe. I think ferries are more fuel-efficient than planes. There are new projects of sail-assisted freighters or ferries. You’d “lose” one day but if the weather is not too stormy you could spend it eating, sleeping, reading and watching the sea and seabirds.

For my part I’ve just stopped flying and dreaming of going very far away. I just go slowly by sail and I’m lucky to be in a place where there is a variety of places that can be reached that way. I think you are in a similar spot…


From: Nathan (Aug 18 2022, at 14:39)

First, a point in favor of your proposal: with remote work becoming more common, I could see trains and airships providing coworking spaces and decent wireless Internet. Perhaps the fact that I don't have the vacation time to add a week of travel time onto the beginning and end of my vacation does not have to be solved in order for your ideas to be implemented.

That said, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Nobody is going to build out such a system without demand, and I just can't see such demand for SLOWER travel that any company would risk the massive up-front investment it would take to make it happen. I'm curious if you see a way out of this problem.


From: Chris Quenelle (Aug 18 2022, at 19:55)

Here's another thought. Find a place within one hour's drive that you've never been before which looks interesting. Find a neighborhood in Vancouver that uyou've never been to, and go walk it.

Not knowing who our neighbor's are (with whom we share watersheds and coastline) is a big cause of the NIMBY fever that's killing the modern world.... IMHO .. :-)


From: Bryant Cutler (Aug 18 2022, at 21:13)

Not sure the financial side of things actually pencils out. I remember hearing that the airlines exist nearly entirely to service the needs of frequent business travelers - the ones for which they provided banking services in the form of miles programs - and that all the world's holiday/vacation travel is just about increasing utilization on planes that are already going to be flying, to defray fuel costs.

Not sure you're going to convince those frequent business travelers, ever, that it's better to spend two weeks getting to/from a day of meetings, no matter how much more comfortable the experience is.


From: Koobee (Aug 18 2022, at 22:40)

Haha, I like it. I’ve always been a proponent of traveling as slow as possible. When vacationing/ adventuring it seems to make a lot of sense. The real issue comes down to capitalism :(, in our current system it doesn’t make a lot of sense (dollars) to travel this way. Perhaps with basic universal income and robots doing all the menial jobs we could get there.


From: mmphosis (Aug 18 2022, at 23:34)

Slow travel is wonderful. I dream of a future Cape Town-Ushuaia Railway that crosses the Diomede Islands.


From: Christof (Aug 19 2022, at 00:50)

Another try on posting this. I think your spam filter hates me.

You could use a sleeper train on your first long train leg. Saves you the night in the hotel, and sleeping in trains is much nicer than on planes.

One rule I use to slow travel down is to stay at least a week when I fly. No more weekend city breaks for me. A weekend somewhere is pretty useless for a good experience anyway.

I like this quote about jet lag from William Gibson's Pattern Recognition:

“Damien's theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”


From: Rory (Aug 19 2022, at 05:37)

> You could shorten the air part of the trip by landing somewhere in Ireland then sailing to mainland Europe.

Irish person here:

The first transatlantic flight in history landed in Ireland (on purpose!)


After that, there were plans for Ireland to become a hub for transatlantic air travel, with flying boats which could travel at up to 180kmh, and hold about 30 passengers. They were much more "civilised", with dining rooms and sleeper cabins onboard. Crossing the Atlantic took about 15 hours

WW2 led to the development of longer range aircraft and better airstrips, and commercial air travel could be facilitated closer to big cities, and the dream of flying boats died.

> I think ferries are more fuel-efficient than planes.

This is probably not a good plan. Ferries are awful for the environment. Better to land somewhere you can get a train to mainland europe.

Let's not forget the Channel Tunnel though - you could fly into heathrow and get a train to Paris, though there may be changes required.

I love the idea of slow travel, and I would like to see airships or electric short hop aircraft take a bigger role


From: Ed Davies (Aug 19 2022, at 06:40)

My first thought, similar to mmphosis, was that the Bering Strait's only about 50km wide. TGV running on the Trans-Siberian, anybody?

Or, high-speed rail to Ellesmere Island, electric hovercraft round the north of Greenland to Tromsø, perhaps recharging in Spitsbergen, then high-speed rail down through Europe.


From: Gavin B. (Aug 19 2022, at 09:41)

I guess you saw this Economist optimism about sustainable aviation fuel



From: John Cowan (Aug 19 2022, at 15:57)

Tim: Hovercraft can do rather better than zeppelins, as a modest 240 km/hr takes us from London to NYC in a day. And if they are big enough, the problem of vibration and bounce more or less goes away. Unlike ordinary ships, they don't have to stop at the waterline, being equally good for traveling on sand, swamps, plowed fields, ice, even molten lava -- to say nothing of superhighways, which then do not have to be expensively maintained.

Arthur C. Clarke pointed all this out in 1960 in his nonfiction book _Profiles of the Future_, and said that "ground effect machines", as he called them (_Hovercraft_ was a trademark back then) were highly suitable for traveling any distance from about 200 km to 20,000 km. He also had this to say about the future of short-range transport:

"The best personal transport vehicle [humanity] has ever possessed -- where only short ranges are concerned and the weather is good -- is the horse. It is self-steering, self-reproducing, never goes out of style, and only a double-decker bus gives a comparable view of the scenery. I admit that there are some disadvantages; horses are expensive to maintain, prone to embarrassing behavior, and not really very bright [untrue!]. But these are not *fundamental* limitations [...]. The horse may not turn out to be the best choice in the long run; something like a compact elephant might be preferable, because of its dexterity. (It is the only quadruped that can carry out delicate handling operations while remaining a quadruped.)"

It is clear that Clarke was thinking of genetically engineered elephants, but in fact the African pygmy elephant, an environmental variety of the African forest elephant (_Loxodonta cyclota_) was trained in the Belgian Congo as a beast of burden in the late 19C, and a full-grown bull elephant who lived at the Bronx Zoo in the early 20C stood only 180 cm high at the shoulders. So mere selective breeding and an intensive training program should be satisfactory.


From: Meower68 (Aug 24 2022, at 14:46)

A valid question is just how fast you can travel without needing to suffer from jet lag. Some of the things I've seen indicate that it's worse when traveling east so I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers are different for east-bound vs west-bound travel.

You mention taking a train from Vancouver (or Seattle) to Portland, Maine and dealing with minor jet lag, and that's assuming moving at 300 km/h. Vancouver time to Portland time is 3 hours difference. Sounds like 300 km/h is may be too fast for our minds / bodies to adapt, even at that speed, for east-bound travel.

If we're trying to travel more slowly, so as not to expend so much energy (and release so much CO2), it might make sense to try to adjust the speed to one to which humans can adapt, such that you don't arrive feeling like "deep-fried shit." If it takes an extra day or two to get there, but you feel relaxed / energized by the travel rather than exhausted by it ... have you really lost anything? And, as you mentioned, if you've passed through some interesting places (such as Paris) and had time to look around, while en-route, that's a plus.

The Airlander 10 is projecting a long-range cruise speed of 145 km/h. That would further trim your flight time from Portland to Brest.

If you could travel in a "cubicle" of sorts, such that you could telecommute (not burning precious PTO while traveling), that MIGHT be one way to help the situation. Of course, not everyone can telecommute.


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