Like many families, we took a trip over spring break. We made part of our plan to reduce both personal and environmental costs in our choice of transportation modes.
While the car centricity of Southern California and Northern Mexico provide a challenge, we tried out new ways to get around and to reduce the carbon footprint of our travel.
Leisure travel is a growing market in the U.S.—trips topped 169 million in 2015. That number is expected to grow to 183 million by 2020 (business trips meanwhile will grow to 488 million). With it comes a higher carbon footprint: Americans produce 5% of their annual emissions from air travel, which is forecast to grow by 3% as plane trips outpace fuel efficiency gains.
Our round trip flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles produced 1.5 tons of carbon per person, which is average for air travel—Americans produce 19 tons of carbon emissions from a combination of transportation (travel), home energy use, waste, etc. per year. We may share a hybrid car, bike to work and walk to school, but air travel is one of our "biggest environmental sins" (it will account for nearly 1/4 of our family's carbon footprint from transportation this year, according to Berkeley’s Cool Climate calculator. To offset a small part of the carbon emissions from the trip, we made a donation to University Settlement in Cleveland to help their clients with the cost of bus fare. Other carbon offset programs include the international TerraPass program and the local, Cleveland Climate Action Fund.)
The trip combined business with leisure. We revisit Tijuana, the site of a residency program where we were invited two years ago. In this age of polarizing talk of building walls to cut off the U.S. from Mexico, we hope visiting Mexico is a counter weight of cultural exchange and friendship. The more time we spend in Tijuana, the greater the dialogue with our TJinChina residency hosts, artists Daniel Ruanova and Mely Barrigan, who tread similar ground as participants in Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program. We broke bread with Tijuana artists, explored new ideas for collaboration and we shipped home some art work.
When Americans visit Europe, we routinely walk and take trains. Could we try some of that in the U.S., even in the birthplace of car culture?
Yes, its still true that nobody walks in L.A. as Missing Persons crooned in the 1980s, but how about on a 24 hour layover? The plan was, instead of renting a car, to use taxis, Uber and public transit. We arrived late and with a tired kid, so we took an expensive taxi ride from LAX to our hotel. The city recently agreed to let Uber serve LAX (Uber already runs to Cleveland Hopkins Airport) which would have cost a little less.
Uber was a reliable alternative, but it can add up if you plan to visit a lot of places. It also burns up cell phone minutes (Oh, and we planned to use it in Mexico, but forgot to secure an international plan). We hadn’t used it before, so, didn’t know what to expect. The drivers were all polite (one was a little grumpy when we dropped a pin instead of typing in our address) people working second jobs.
There’s a lot of demand for Uber in L.A. so the company places a surcharge at times. But, we never waited more than 3 minutes and our typical fee was $5-7 for the short (3-6 mile) trips between tourist sites and our hotel. We picked a hotel in a central location, near friends and a station on the Metro, L.A.’s subway.
The Metro system is small for such a large city—with no link from the city to the airport and few lines like Cleveland’s rail system. A station two blocks from our hotel was on the Red line which was a quick ride to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The fare box / Tap smart cards were easy to use. For the second leg of our trip, we took the Metro to Union Station, an architectural gem downtown which serves as a transit hub.
We waited in big leather chairs under a gilded, Deco lobby for Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner to San Diego. As the name suggests, the train line floats above the sand and surf of California’s Pacific coast. At two hours, it takes the same or less, depending on traffic, time as a drive on the highway and cost the same as renting a car. It was a novel experience. (We did rent a car to drive back to L.A. at the end of the trip. The Pacific Coast Highway was an easy, scenic drive and even with some stop and go traffic driving on L.A.’s infamous I-405 it was fine).
Arrival at San Diego’s Sante Fe, a Mission era train station between the sea port and downtown, is a convenient walk to many hotels. The station also serves as a transit hub linking to the city’s streetcar and bike share systems. The red MTS streetcar serves the downtown and even extends to the international border for a $2.50 fare where you can walk over and catch Uber or a taxi in Mexico (we were lucky enough to catch a ride from our hosts in Mexico). We walked and used Taxi Libre to move freely about in Tijuana.
Visiting California and Mexico is infinitely doable without a rental car. We spent the same or less on a daily basis using Uber and public transit as renting a car. Admittedly, we planned our trip around our transportation mode choice. We didn’t stray very far from the city centers and when we did, for a day trip to Baja Sur, we got a free ride in our host’s car. We had one stressful moment (grumpy guy), but car hailing services like Uber and Lyft live up to their billing of taking the stress out of big city driving. It can add up, but so do rental cars. It is an easy way to get around where public transit options are limited. We were also happy to have a convenient ride home on the RTA Red Line.