Next best thing to a flying car


The denialism stuff is kind of depressing, so here are two quick hits of environmental good news. The first involves bicycles in Paris; the second a magical new technology that can transport you from San Francisco to Los Angeles for only a dollar, gets 184 miles per gallon, and is commercially viable today.

Via Grist, the world’s large bike-sharing scheme is showing signs of huge success. In the three weeks that the 10,000 “Freedom Bikes” have been available in Paris, patrons have taken them for 1.2 million rides. On average, each bike is taken for six rides a day.

The only hitches have been minor:

In Paris there have been few teething troubles with the high-tech system that supplies the bikes for up to €1 per half-hour — but one is a result of residents using them to glide downhill to work and then taking public transport home, resulting in gluts of bikes at some low-level stands and shortages at higher altitude stations, such as Montmartre.

Observers are waiting to see what happens when the weather turns nastier this fall, but so far the program has been a hit, and other cities are taking note.

And that magical technology that can transport you cheaply and efficiently from San Francisco to L.A.? It’s called a bus. Savvy (and cheap!) East Coasters (such as myself!) have long made use of the Chinatown bus to get between New York, Boston, and D.C. A company called Megabus is now taking the concept west.

Of course, Greyhound has run buses between west coast cities for year. The one tiny problem with Greyhound is that…most people would rather spend time in a Turkish prison than on a Greyhound bus.

Megabus basically applies the Southwest Airlines business model to the bus industry: cheap fares, direct routes between popular cities, and non-standard pick-up points. Also like the discount airlines, Megabus will employ yield management pricing, offering the first four seats on a route for only $1, and gradually increasing the price as more sell.

That’s all good for consumers. For the environment, the benefit is that even conventional buses get 184 miles per gallon per passenger, which is hard to beat without stuffing six people into a Prius.

Photo of Velib riders available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user malias.

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  1. Mark - August 15, 2007

    If a diesel bus get 10-15 MPG empty, but 184 MPG full, can you explain the formula?

    I’d like to understand the equivalent mileage you get from a commercial airliner, or a fully loaded 7 passenger SUV, or 4 passengers in a Prius.

    This an interesting twist on how to look at the issue.

  2. Adam Stein - August 15, 2007

    Hi Mark,
    I took the 184 mpg per passenger figure from the article, so I’m not sure what assumptions went into it. But in general, it’s easy to calculate:
    mpg per passenger = mpg * average number of passengers
    Plane mpg per passenger varies a lot based on conditions, but generally it’s slightly better than a hybrid car. Say, about 50 mpg. The problem with planes is that they fly such long distances that the numbers add up.
    Finally, I penalized hybrids in my off-the-cuff calculation, because on long highway trips hybrids perform much more like conventional cars. Hybrids really shine in city driving.

  3. Bruce - August 15, 2007

    I have a Prius and I get only slightly less mileage on the highway than I do in the city. My family (four of us) took a trip from Florida to Pennsylvania and back this summer. We averaged about 45 mpg on the highway on the trip. We get about 48 mpg in the city, but that includes some highway driving.

  4. keenen - September 18, 2007

    on boeing’s website they give the range and size of the main fuel tank for a 747. they don’t tell you how many mpg it gets. i was wondering if using this information to calculate the mpg would be valid because when you divide 57,500 by 9,200 you get around 7, which is way off of 50 mpg.

  5. Adam Stein - September 18, 2007

    Hi keenen —
    It’s mpg per passenger that we’re measuring. That’s the only way to get an apples to apples comparison. So to use the figures from the Boeing web site:
    (8,430 miles / 57,285 gallons) * 500 passengers =
    74 mpg per passenger
    Of course, this assumes a full plane flying the maximum possible distance. Real-life performance will be worse.
    – Adam

  6. Perris - February 21, 2008

    It looks great. I will also prefer it.

  7. Jan - April 26, 2009

    The NWA fuel efficiency for its Minneapolis-St. Paul to Seattle flight is 67 passenger miles per gallon according to the example calculation provided at
    Recently I saw a report on the NWA website of an average of about 50-55 passenger miles per gallon for all NWA flights. I can no longer find that info on the NWA website. The NWA per passenger mile fuel efficiency was described as the best in the industry.
    Short airline flights use considerably more fuel per mile than long airline flights due to high fuel use during takeoff and landing.
    I have had a Prius for one year. From April to October, my Prius averaged 49 mpg (about half city, half highway). In the colder weather in Michigan from October to April, my Prius averaged 39 mpg. Warm weather highway miles per gallon are consistently above 50 mpg in my Prius at highway speeds of about 62-65 mph (about 55 mpg in the summer, 45 mpg in the winter).
    Conclusion: The per passenger mile fuel use for one person driving a Prius is about the same as for NWA flights. With two people in the Prius, the Prius fuel efficiency jumps to about 100 passenger miles per gallon if the driver drives at about 62-65 mph on highways. With four people in the Prius, the per passenger mile fuel efficiency would be better than the 184 passenger miles per gallon claimed on the Greyhound bus website.