How to make your bus journey more eco-friendly

While countries like Thailand and Vietnam have well-developed rail networks, not every country in southeast Asia offers the luxury of exploring by train. When travelling through Cambodia or Laos, for example, you are mainly dependent on buses or flights.

Luckily, there are many bus operators that will take you to the most popular destinations in southeast Asia. The downside of this is how easy it is to get overwhelmed by choice! It’s hard to know whether you’re choosing the right bus company for you. Take for example the bus journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. On this route alone, you will find over 15 different companies that would be pleased to take you to your next destination.

So, how do you choose which operator to travel with?

Price and duration are of course important. But these are not the only factors to consider. In this article, we will highlight the factors to take into account to make a more environmentally-friendly choice. 

Young woman in an open minibus

In the previous article of this series, we learned that flying is less environmentally friendly than travelling by train, and the same is likely true for bus travel in southeast Asia.

Studies in Europe and America have concluded that carbon dioxide emissions per passenger are lower when travelling by bus instead of the train. However, the environmental impact of bus and train travel is dramatically influenced by factors such as vehicle occupancy and age of the fleet.

It is challenging to extrapolate the findings of these studies to southeast Asia as emissions standards vary widely across this region. We also believe that we shouldn’t rely solely on the government setting and enforcing emissions standards that will protect the environment. Instead, we can be proactive and choose to travel with environmentally friendly bus companies.

Supporting bus companies that have strong environmental records will enable them to grow. Over time this trend will ensure the bus industry as a whole becomes more environmentally aware.

How green is your bus? The complete checklist

If there is one rule you can live by in southeast Asia, it is this: there is always a bus. There are many bus travel operators in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Each company offers a slightly different package, and it can be challenging to choose the best operator for you.

If you wish to reduce the carbon footprint of your journey we recommend you consider four simple criteria when choosing a bus operator.

1. Newer buses, friendlier engines

Generally speaking, newer buses have newer and more efficient engines. 

Taking a bus that is over twenty years old will be more damaging to the environment than a new one. You can often find information about the average age of a fleet on the bus companies’ website, or simply by looking at the pictures. If you have the choice between different bus operators, opt for the company that uses a more modern fleet of vehicles.

And not unimportant, the modern buses will likely make your journey a lot more comfortable!

2. Larger buses, smaller footprints

A bus will complete a journey no matter how many passengers are onboard. 

The number of people that you share your journey with therefore impacts the vehicle’s per passenger carbon footprint. If you have the option to choose to travel in a small van or a bus, it’s generally better to opt for a bus as the per passenger footprint will be lower.

3. Avoid rush hours

If you can be flexible, you might also consider avoiding buses that are scheduled to leave or arrive in a built-up area during rush hour. 

Traffic jam, Vietnam

Sitting in queues of traffic increases the “per mile emissions” of a journey. Travelling at night or during the middle of the day reduces the chances of you having to spend long periods of time stationery in a traffic jam. Better for the environment and better for your mood :)!

4. Be kind to the planet and humble with your needs

No one likes to find themselves in the middle of a row of seats in the back of a bus with no air conditioning, especially for a 10-hour long journey! With this in mind, we can’t deny that air conditioned buses with lots of legroom (and thus fewer seats) produce more emissions per passenger. Thus, while taking an overcrowded bus for your long journeys can be uncomfortable, consider how much luxury you actually need for a trip that will only take a couple of hours.

The future of bus travel

It’s challenging to say once and for all whether bus or train travel causes less damage to the environment. But we can at least be confident that both are preferable to private vehicle transfers and short-haul flights. 

The future of bus travel looks to be getting even brighter! It is reasonably simple to transition a bus from running on gas to using biodiesel for energy. Buses can easily be made environmentally friendly by being equipped with engines that run on hydrogen, ethanol, gas or electricity in the future. 

Cities in China and Korea are already beginning to adopt such technologies. Shenzhen, one of China’s fastest-growing mega-cities, is home to the world’s first 100% electric public bus network. The local authorities in Shenzhen expect to cut CO2 emissions by 48% as a result of this switch (based on the city’s current mix of renewable energy sources). Shanghai is following close behind and authorities there hope the city’s public bus network will run using only electricity by 2020.

In this example, Shenzhen and Shanghai have leapt forward in their use of electric buses thanks to local authority investment. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for southeast Asian countries to take similar steps. Electric buses are more expensive to buy than typical diesel models. Switching to diesel also requires a lot of upfront investment in infrastructure such as charging points. Once the infrastructure is in place though, electricity is cheaper to buy than diesel. 

We hope these examples from China will inspire similar innovations across southeast Asia. But we also know this will take time. So, in the short-term, we want to help you choose the more environmentally friendly bus travel options available today.

Which ride will you take? 

You now have an insight into the opportunities and challenges that companies and governments face to make bus travel environmentally friendly. By using our four-point checklist to choose your bus operator, you can help to move the industry in the right direction.

Travelling with eco-friendly bus companies enables them to grow and signals to the industry that we demand a service that is kind to the planet. By supporting these companies we will drive greater environmental awareness over time.

You can rest assured that bus travel will always be an environmentally sound choice when travelling short-haul. By using our simple checklist you can optimise your decision to travel by bus.

Pro tip: Check out these reviews of Vietnamese and Cambodian bus companies before you book your ticket:

Maarten Cox

Maarten Cox

When not at the beach, you'll likely find Maarten surfing in the ocean. With a special place in his heart for Asia and ongoing work on his blog, GeckoRoutes, Maarten's biggest passion is to explore every corner of the earth while meeting new people, which fuels his adventures.
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