The most sustainable means of transport

Published 22/05/2023

The most sustainable means of transport

Published 22/05/2023

We all know that flying is incredibly bad for the environment. Yet again, we can’t always avoid it. Unless you have all the time in the world, you’ll have to take a plane to another continent. Nevertheless, you can still choose sustainable transport alternatives on location. And especially if you stay on your own continent, you can make a sustainable difference by choosing sustainable travel alternatives! As much as 55% of CO2 emissions during holidays come from transport. Here are the best sustainable transport choices to keep those emissions low.

What defines sustainable transport?

Sustainable transport depends on several factors, and it’s actually difficult to draw 1 line. With the fast rise of electric alternatives, some modes of transport might become more sustainable or less sustainable than the “old” alternative. An electric bike is worse for the environment to make than an ordinary bicycle. And processing an old battery is very polluting, the same goes for that of an electric car. That actually makes cycling less sustainable than riding your good old bike.

Electric trains, buses and cars are a good sustainable alternative for the old petrol modes of transport, but if that energy is not generated with green electricity, it still does little for the environment. In other words, this list is not very black and white and may vary from country to country. But hopefully this will help you better understand what makes a mode of transport sustainable, which may help you understand what the best choice is on a country-by-country basis.

Most sustainable: walking or cycling

Yes, this might sound stupid, because you may not be talking about that at all, but walking and cycling are the most sustainable. Why am I including this? First of all, cycling holidays or hike-trails are really fun ways to travel! They get you to places you can’t get to by public transport or car, and they keep you in shape.

But besides walking and cycling as actual means of transport, you also have your little trips at your holiday location. For example, do you always rent a car when you could just go by bike, purely because the car is so convenient? Or do you catch the bus daily to the city centre or surrounding villages, when you could also cycle or walk? Or are you a fan of the hop-on hop-off buses in big cities because you can easily see all the hotspots?

It’s so easy to jump on public transport or opt for a rental car, also because it’s just faster. But you often see much more of the surroundings if you go for a nice bike ride or walk. For example this waterfall I found on a hike, where I could have just taken a bus to get to the other side of the mountain.

Trains or trams

Trains and trams are quite sustainable, especially with the rise of electric trains and trams. Unfortunately, they aren’t carbon-neutral (yet), but certainly a lot better than the polluting steam trains we used to have. In some places these still run, often as a tourist attraction where you travel a historic route. Then again, those are not sustainable. But otherwise, trains and trams are the best sustainable choice of public transport.

The bottom line is that emissions from trains and trams are the lowest of all forms of transport. Exactly how much that is, is hard to say and a rather complex calculation. For instance, it has to do with how often the track is used and how full the train is. The fuller the train, the smaller the CO₂ emissions per passenger. But on the other hand, emissions increase when the train is heavier. Contradictory, I know. Fortunately, this is quite negligible, it is probably only 0.5 grams of extra emissions from Amsterdam to Milan.

If you want to learn more about this, I recommend reading this article.


You may be wondering why I didn’t mention the metro along with the tram and train, isn’t that practically the same thing? Yes and no. The metro is similar to the train and tram in terms of emissions, but because it travels through the ground, the emissions have nowhere to go. So, it lingers in the ground, where it directly affects the soil. While the little bit of emissions from the train and tram, in many cases, can be broken down by trees standing next to the track. So, it’s similar, but purely because of the location, just slightly worse.


Buses are generally slightly less environmentally friendly than trains, as they still run on petrol. Although, we also see a swift towards more electric buses. And aside from that, not all trains are equally sustainable, as I mentioned. So actually, the difference between buses and trains is not very big. The only big difference is that a train simply fits many more people than a bus. So, the emissions are distributed by a larger number of people, making it proportionally less per person.

You could always do a quick Google search on whether the trains and buses in the country you are going to are electric or not, to determine which is a better alternative.


A car is the worst in terms of land vehicles. This is mainly because we’re often alone or 2 people in a car, which was designed for more people. The more people in a car, the lower the emissions per person. Are you driving by yourself? Then a car’s emissions are just as high as if you’d take a plane.

Huh? Yes, really. A regular petrol car and plane are just as bad when it comes to emissions. It only gets better when you share the car with at least 3 other people. Still, a plane is a lot more polluting than a car, due to the simple fact that a plane comes closer to the ozone layer. So, this causes the CO2 to do damage faster, while some of a car’s emissions can still be captured by roadside trees.

Cruise ships

Unfortunately, cruise ships are also far from sustainable and almost as polluting as flying. There is little research available that really puts the figures of a cruise next to those of a plane, but it’s known that it’s incredibly polluting. For a big part because a lot of waste and dirt ends up in the water, where it causes direct damage. In addition, there are often only a small number of people on board, relative to the size of such a ship. It may feel like there are quite a few people on board, but compare it to the small space of a plane or car. On a cruise ship, you have a lot more room to move around per person, so the emissions are shared by far fewer people. So, it might even be more polluting than a plane, where you have less and less space these days..

Ferries and sailboats are more sustainable alternatives, though. Ferries are generally quite full and there is little waste discharge because they only cover small distances. Sailboats, of course, are incredibly sustainable when you don’t have to use the engine. You are literally sailing on wind power. The more you have to use the engine, the more polluting it is.

Least sustainable: airplanes

Yet air travel is generally considered the most polluting mode of transport. To be precise, it’s about 27x as bad as a car! Mainly because it comes so close to the ozone layer. Yet there are ways to make your air travel just a little less polluting. The effect of weight on a plane’s emissions is very big. A plane is made as light as possible, otherwise, it wouldn’t even take off. Then, per kg of weight, a certain amount of fuel is used. The less weight carried, the less fuel used, and the lower the emissions.

So, are you still taking the plane somewhere? Then try to pack light, to still slightly reduce emissions.

So, how to travel sustainably?

Obviously, not taking a plane or cruise, is best. But there are a number of ways you can reduce your emissions, without having to leave things out immediately. Some examples:


  • Try to avoid car/taxi rides when flying somewhere. So, take public transport from the airport to the city instead of getting into a taxi. That way, you’ll reduce your emissions a bit.
  • Want to rent a car on holiday? Then opt for electric and go for a size that suits your travelling party. So, not a family car if there are only 2 of you, and not an 8-seater van if there are 6 of you. And leave the car for short distances that you could also walk.
  • Do you want to island hop and were you looking at domestic flights? Ferries are a more sustainable alternative.
  • Going to visit several places in a big country? Then take the (night) train or bus from A to B, instead of a domestic flight.
  • Scooters are also polluting, especially old models. In countries where scooters are very common, it’s better to take a tuctuc or local bus. Or go for the good old bicycle.
  • Go for a sailing trip instead of a cruise.

Despite transport being over half of the emission of your trip, it’s definitely not the only way to make your trip more sustainable. You’ll find more information and tips on sustainable travel in this blog.