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Comparing the fuel efficiency of planes, trains, automobiles – and cheeseburgers?

James I Davison's picture

After East Asia & Pacific on the rise blogger and World Bank conservationist Tony Whitten recently questioned the morality of jetting off to Asia so often for work, this chart from GOOD Magazine – comparing (sort of) the efficiency of different modes of transportation – caught my eye.

Since the people who made the chart are considering gallons of fuel used per passenger to travel a long distance, Tony’s frequently used airplanes are far from being the worst offenders on the list, which is led by gas-guzzling SUVs and cruise ships. When it comes to realistically traveling 350 miles, your most efficient choices – in the following order, according to this chart – are to travel by bus, train, or (you guessed it) airplane.

If that doesn't cut it for you, however, and you are feeling particularly energetic, they made a conversion to human energy. In such a case, GOOD estimates, a person would have to consume approximately 16 Whoppers to complete the trip by bike and 48 of the mouth-watering cheeseburgers to trek the distance on foot (To be safe, I'll take a similar stance as GOOD in "neither endorsing or denouncing the consumption of Whoppers").

As an aside, I would have liked to figure out how many of the burgers it would take to fuel the number of air miles logged by World Bank Group's Washington, DC, staff (as Tony discovered, it equals at least 400 million miles each year) – were they to travel by foot. But seeing as my math skills were never too great, maybe one of you, dear readers, can help me figure out their equation?

(hat tip to FlowingData)


Submitted by Anonymous on
If the average walker can walk at 3.5 mph, he's covering 3.5 miles in 60 minutes. Per year, if Tony is covering about 400 million miles, this should take him 6,857,142,857 minutes, or (/60) 114, 285,714 hours. Since the walker is burning about 48 whoppers worth of calories for every 100 hours traveled (according to the chart, it took him 100 hours to travel 350 miles), then simply cross multiply: 48 whoppers/ 100 hours = xwhoppers/114,285,714 hours. Thus, 19,200,000,000 = 350x, and x (total number of whoppers needed should Tony decide to walk the 400 million miles) is 54,857,143! (not a factorial... :)

Submitted by B. Brox on
Both the GOOD's chart and its applicability to the Bank's annual travel mileage have serious problems. Regarding the 'Getting around' chart of GOOD, it is not necessarily true that the most efficient travel is (in descending order) by bus, train, or airplane. That is very much *not true* when the *same* methodology is applied to all travel modes. The chart is deceptive: multipassenger results in gallons/passenger are based on the *full* passenger capacity for the ship, plane, bus and train, but on a *partial* capacity for the SUV, sedan and hybrid motorcars. Had the chart authors followed a rigorously consistent methodology of full capacity for all modes of travel, the gallons per passenger ranking for motorized modes would have been: 1. Bus (1.4) 2. Hybrid (1.93) 3. Train (2.53) 4. Sedan (3.24) 5. SUV (3.36) 6. Boeing 737 (4.8) 7. Motorcycle (5.95) 8. Cruise ship (14.53) The above analysis assumes that the chart's capacity data are correct. Alas, they are not. Take the case of the jet -- according to Boeing's technical descriptions [], no plane of the 737 family has a typical cabin capacity of 175 passengers. The 737-800 model has a typical one-class configuration of 189 passengers; its nominal 1.95 miles per gallon (3,521 mile range with 6,875 gallon tanks), results in 3.62 gallons/passenger. The recent 737-900ER model has a much higher capacity, with a typical one-class configuration of 215 passengers. Besides underestimating motorcar efficiency, the chart overestimates typical walking speed by assuming 3.5 miles/hour for a 175-lb walker. That is too optimistic. Naismith's rule is 3.11 miles/hour for an all flat terrain. Assuming a 12-hour walking day at best, Tranter's correction based on fitness increases this speed to 3.7 miles/hour for the highest level [Tranter's 15], but decreases it to 3 miles/hour and 2.5 miles/hour for the next two levels immediately below, which nontheless are above average [Tranter's 20 and 25]. The speed used in the chart implies in an unusually high level of fitness. Now, regarding your request to the readers, it is a case of GIGO at both the individual and corporate cases. The math is quite simple. In walking 12 hours/day at 3.5 mile/hour, a 175-lb walker would burn 4,410 calories (0.035*175*60*12) and cover 42 miles (3.5*12) a day; 5.73 burgers with 770 calories each would be needed a day to cover the caloric demand of walking. In one year, the walker would cover 15,330 miles (42*365) and eat 2,090 and a half burgers. Even if one were to entertain the illogical notion of walking nonstop day and night, no single person would ever be able to walk 400 million miles in one year. Based on the above parameters, a little more than 26,000 persons are therefore needed (4*10^8/15,330) to walk collectively the 400 million miles in one year, and they would need to eat 54,545,457 burgers as fuel. But since the Bank staff does not reach even half of that number of people, the reasonability of the "equation" makes as little sense for the 10,000+ Bank employees as it did for one.

Submitted by B.C. Albaghetti on
Nicely done. The Getting Around chart is listed as a "collaboration" between the GOOD group and a graphic designer, suggesting that the provenance of the calculations is GOOD members. In view of the biased methodology used, which skews the rankings against automobiles, it is quite ironic that the chosen title for the web page with the chart was ' Transparency' (oops). In relation to the 737's capacity of 175 passengers used by GOOD, the technical characteristics pages in the Boeing site indeed do not show 737s with such a capacity in what Boeing calls a "typical" configuration. The reason for this disparity is a change of the typical seat separation (or 'pitch') between the initial and current 737-800 planes. A 32-inch pitch was used in earlier planes delivered in the late 1990s, with a 175 pasenger capacity; in recent years, it has been reduced to 30 inches for a typical capacity of 184 (which with a crew of 5 makes the total of 189 you cite). This shows GOOD used outdated data for its analysis of fuel consumption. Finally, there was some rounding up in calculating the number of burgers to be eaten by the total number of persons needed to walk collectively the 400M miles. The actual number is (4*10^8 / 15,330) * (5.73 * 365) or 54,571,428 and a half burgers. Let us hope Dr. Whitten does not try to eat them all. Penitenziagite!

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