Environmental Cost of Transportation in Costa Rica

It will probably surprise you to know that environmentally it’s about the same or maybe better to fly than take a bus in Costa Rica.  Amazingly flying burns less fuel per person transported, creates less pollutants and carbon dioxide (see calculations*), and has lower impacts in many other ways as well.

A typical airport in Costa Rica
A typical airport in Costa Rica

For example, you have to count the environmental impact of the road itself against traveling by road. Bulldozing the trees, eroding the hillsides and laying down all that petroleum based asphalt aren’t necessary if you fly.

Another factor that is frequently ignored in environmental “friendliness” estimates is the manufacturing impact.  There’s very roughly the same amount of raw materials and energy used to make a small plane and a bus but planes typically last four times as long.  This is because planes get to their destination 5-10 times faster so they aren’t running as much and wearing out parts and they also have significantly better maintenance programs.

A rarely considered cost of road travel – when tires wear out, where is out?  Mostly it’s into the atmosphere as micro-fine, carcinogenic, toxic dust released as the tires rub against the road.  Another strike against the bus.

Noise pollution is probably about a toss up.  Turboprops aren’t nearly as loud as jets, but still, a bus is much quieter.  However, the bus trip takes more than eight times longer and the noise is much closer to both the human and rainforest residents along the way.

*The Calculations

Comparison of flying, taking the bus or driving between San José and Puerto Jiménez on the Osa peninsula of Costa Rica.

The twin engine de Havilland Otter turboprop airplane carries 20 passengers and burns 64 gallons of fuel per hour.  It takes 50 minutes to cover the 113 air miles so that’s 2.66 gallons per person.

A 38 passenger Volvo 9500 diesel coach gets 2.4 miles to the gallon takes eight hours to cover the 249 miles (via the Caldera and Costanera Sur) burning 2.73 gallons per person.

A 6 passenger Toyota Prado gets 10 miles to the gallon takes seven hours to drive the 249 miles burning 4.15 gallons per person.

The Explanation

You’ve probably heard how horribly inefficient air travel is from an environmental perspective and are wondering who’s right, CNN or this crackpot claiming flying is better.

The answer is both and there’s a simple explanation.  In general air travel is less efficient but in Costa Rica the roads are so inefficient they more than make up the difference.  You have to travel more than twice as far by road than by air to get most places in Costa Rica.

In the example calculation it’s 113 miles between San José and Puerto Jiménez on the Osa peninsula by air but 249 miles on the road.

The Disclaimer

I don’t work for any airline and don’t have any hidden motivation to try to make air travel sound “better”.  In fact I co-own a small company that produces roadmaps of Costa Rica and would, if anything, have a bias towards promoting ground transportation.  Mostly I’m just interested in people taking a more realistic view of the world around them – don’t even get me started on the evils of electric cars (did you know that the majority of them secretly burn coal and they pollute up to twice as much as a regular gasoline engine).

5 thoughts on “Environmental Cost of Transportation in Costa Rica”

  1. looking to fly out of alegria week of feb. 14 a couple of day trips

  2. Alegria? The housing development on Playa Flamingo? The nearest airport is LIR 25 minutes east on the road to Liberia and both SANSA and Nature Air offer several flights a day to various destinations

  3. i will contact them when i get there do you have there phone numbers

  4. Their local contact is Nature Air (506) 2299-6000, SANSA (506) 2290-4100

  5. thanks ray you have been very helpful

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