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Clean air, year round.

by Haldane King

The most massive contiguous structure known to all of human history may very well be the American highway system. If its 41,000 miles were made into a parking lot it would be a cube more than 20 miles on a side and could hold 50 million vehicles. Understandably it’s a great way to get around. 

But does roadtripping from state to state add much pollution? Let’s take a look at how to travel to other communities and what kind of impact it has.

Many cars on the freeway in dense smog

Which is more fuel efficient for traveling: Airplanes or Cars?

Most of us prefer these two modes of transportation. It can be fun to travel by train and it’s usually a little more efficient than a car or plane, but it takes many times as long, usually more than 24 hours for interstate travel. Two in three Americans prefer roadtrips to travel by plane, mostly due to the cost but also the convenience of having your car at your destination. But when comparing the environmental impact of cars versus airplanes, the biggest factor becomes traveling companions. One or two extra people on a roadtrip can double or triple the fuel efficiency, respectively.

How many miles per gallon do you get flying in a plane?

We know that the average fuel efficiency for a passenger in a plane in 2018 was about 58 miles per gallon per person, though some planes like the Airbus can get up to 100 miles per gallon per person. This type of efficiency requires no planning on the part of the traveler because airlines are directly incentivized to be sure each plane is full.

How many miles per gallon do you get on a roadtrip?

Almost any vehicle can be used for a roadtrip, with the main considerations being, storage, seating, and sleepability. Motorcycles are very fuel efficient, usually 55 mpg or better, but often lack much space for gear or other passengers. Hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius will have the best mileage for their size at around 50 mpg. Most cars and car-sized SUVs rate between 25 and 30 mpg. RVs come in three classes- the bus-sized class A to sleep 10 or more people, the van-sized class B to sleep around 4 people, and the mid-sized class C to sleep about 8 people. RVs eliminate the need for hotel rooms but need to be serviced every few days, which can easily rival the cost of several nights in a hotel. Obviously, these larger sized vehicles are the only option for traveling with many people.

Miles per gallon per car and per passenger 

Graph of several types of cars with fuel efficiencies for number of passengers

[Information from Consumer Reports,, and Camper Report

To get better than the average plane flight (yellow boxes), you’ll need at least 2 people and nothing bigger than a station wagon. To be totally sure you’re beating even the Airbuses of the world (green boxes), you’ll need a hybrid or a packed vehicle that isn’t a large truck. Interestingly, Class A RVs can’t quite hold enough people to be very fuel efficient at all.

View from behind a driver and they drive through a green forested area

Best ways to have the most air quality-friendly roadtrip

Focus driving time in long controlled bursts. Fuel efficiency is best around 55-60 mph, depending on the car, and when accelerating or braking a lot of fuel is lost. Plan your trips to drive at this speed for the longest possible time to get the most out of every drop. Try at all costs to avoid rush hour traffic in cities and large towns. When planning your trip, use a navigation app to set the departure time so you can see if rush hour will impact your road trip. 

Minimize pollution with longer trips and shorter drives. One of the best ways to not pollute with a car is to not drive it. Set destinations close by so you spend a smaller amount of each day on the road. Then, plan to spend a few days seeing everything at each stop. 

Service your vehicle. One study in Toronto found that 25% of the cars produced 90% of the pollution, so get into the upper brackets. Making sure that your car passes smog checks is vital, along with keeping clean oil, fresh filters, and topped off fluids. 

Don’t freshen the air. Car air fresheners can make air quality a lot worse by emitting chemicals that may smell good but can react with pollution from other cars to form an unhealthy mix. Instead you can roll down the windows. For persistent issues sprinkle baking soda on the floor and use diluted vinegar to destroy smells in or on other surfaces.

Stay away from other cars. When you smell the plume from another car or a truck it’s too late. Try to get ahead of or way back from vehicles that are emitting a lot of pollution. When in doubt, trust your nose. 

There are other less direct ways to improve the air, as well. Pack your own meals and avoid fast food or anywhere that sells food in packaging to reduce waste. When choosing a destination, pick one from the list of green power communities listed by the EPA

You could also consider an electric vehicle, which sidestep the fuel efficiency question completely. As long as you’re willing to plan your trip at the mercy of available electric chargers, an electric car could be a great roadtrip vehicle. None of the major manufacturers have come out with all-electric RVs yet, but they’re on the way, and in the meantime some small car outfitters are selling functional versions.

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