Tag Archives: travel

How your organisation’s travel policy can impact the environment

Following on from updating our equipment policy, we’ve recently also updated our travel policy at the Endless OS Foundation. A major part of this update was to introduce consideration of carbon emissions into the decision making for when and how to travel. I’d like to share what we came up with, as it should be broadly applicable to many other technology organisations, and I’m quite excited that people across the foundation worked to make these changes happen.

Why is this important?

For a technology company or organisation, travel is likely to be the first or second largest cause of emissions from the organisation. The obvious example in free software circles is the emissions from taking a flight to go to a conference, but actually in many cases the annual emissions from commuting to an office by car are comparable. Both can be reduced through an organisation’s policies.

In Endless’ case, the company is almost entirely remote and so commuting is not a significant cause of emissions. Pre-pandemic, air travel caused a bit under a third of the organisation’s emissions. So if there are things we can do to reduce our organisation’s air travel, that would make a significant difference to our overall emissions.

On an individual level, one return transatlantic flight (1.6tCO2e, which is 1.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, the unit of global warming potential) is more than half of someone’s annual target footprint which is 2.8tCO2e for 2030. So not taking a flight is one of the most impactful single actions you can take.

Similarly, commuting 10 miles a day by petrol car, for 227 working days per year, causes annual emissions of about 0.55tCO2e, which is also a significant proportion of a personal footprint when the aim is to limit global warming to 1.5°C. An organisation’s policies and incentives can impact people’s commuting decisions.

Once the emissions from a journey have been made, they can’t be un-made anywhere near as easily or quickly. Reducing carbon emissions now is more impactful than reducing them later.

How did we change the policy?

Previously, Endless’ travel policy was almost entirely focused around minimising financial cost by only allowing employees to choose the cheapest option for a particular travel plan. It had detailed sections on how to minimise cost for flights and private car use, and didn’t really consider other modes of transport.

In the updated policy, financial cost is still a big consideration, but it’s balanced against environmental cost. I’ve included some excerpts from the policy at the bottom of this post, which could be used as the basis for updating your policy.

Due to COVID, not much travel has happened since putting the policy in place, so I can’t share any comparisons of cost and environmental impact before and after applying the policy. The intention is that reducing the number of journeys made will balance slightly increased costs for taking lower-carbon transport modes on other journeys.

The main changes we made to it are:

  • Organise the policy so that it’s written in decision making order: sections cover necessity of travel, then travel planning and approval, then accommodation, then expenses.
  • Critically, the first step in the decision making process is “do you need to travel and what are the alternatives?”. If it’s decided that travel is needed, the next step is to look at how that trip could be combined with other useful activities (meetings or holiday) to amortise the impact of the travel.
  • We give an explicit priority order of modes of travel to choose:
    1. Rail (most preferred)
    2. Shared ground transport (coach/bus, shared taxi)
    3. Private ground transport (taxi, car rental, use of own vehicle)
    4. Air (least preferable)
  • And, following that, a series of rules for how to choose the mode of transport, which gives some guidance about how to balance environmental and financial cost (and other factors):

You should explore travel options in that order, only moving to the next option if any of the following conditions are true:

  • No such option exists for the journey in question
    • e.g. there is no rail/ground link between London and San Francisco
  • This mode of travel, or the duration of time spent traveling via such means, is regarded as unsafe or excessively uncomfortable at that location
    • For example, buses/coaches are considered to be uncomfortable or unsafe in certain countries/regions.
  • The journey is over 6 hours, and the following option reduces the journey time by 2× (or more)
    • We have a duty to protect company time, so you may (e.g.) opt for flying in cases where the travel time is significantly reduced.
    • Even if there is the opportunity for significant time savings, you are encouraged to consider the possibility of working while on the train, even if it works out to be a longer journey.
  • The cost is considered unreasonably/unexpectedly high, but the following option brings expenses within usual norms
    • The regular pricing of the mode of transport can be considered against the distance traveled. If disproportionately high, move onto other options.

In summary, we prefer rail and ground transportation to favor low-emissions, even if they are not the cheapest options. However, we also consider efficient use of company time, comfort, safety, and protecting ourselves from unreasonably high expenditure. You should explore all these options and considerations and discuss with your manager to make the final decision.

Your turn

I’d be interested to know whether others have similar travel policies, or have better or different ideas — or if you make changes to your travel policy as a result of reading this.

Policy excerpt

Travelling in Honduras

Having just spent 7 weeks in Honduras, working and travelling, I thought it might be useful to document some of the things I’ve learned about the country.

In my experience, Honduras has three distinct areas: the north (Caribbean) side where English is spoken moderately commonly, and many people go to learn to dive (especially on the Bay Islands); the three major cities (Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba) where tourism infrastructure is practically non-existent, pollution is high and crime is high; and the rest of the countryside, which is pleasant, safe (for the most part) and has little tourism infrastructure.

Lightning on the cloudy mountains around Tegucigalpa at night.I spent 5 weeks in the capital (Tegucigalpa) and saw the bad side of Honduras. It is not a safe city to walk around, even in the richer areas, so you have to drive everywhere. I hadn’t previously realised how much I value being able to walk the streets and go where I please without probability of being robbed at gunpoint. Despite its security problems, Tegus was a reasonable-ish place to be. It has all the amenities of a big city — clubbing, for example, there is just as grim as in England, except with more Latin music. There is nothing for tourists to see, and they should only use it as a transport hub (since it has one of the country’s two major airports, and is a major bus terminal) or as a base to explore the much-nicer Valle de Ángeles, La Tigra national park, and Comayagua nearby.

Tegucigalpa demonstrates the two major problems which Honduras suffers from: a huge imbalance in the distribution of wealth, and endemic corruption in government and the police force. These have knock-on effects on everything else. The rich live in enclosed neighbourhoods with high walls, barbed wire, electric fences, and armed private security. They drive luxury 4×4s and have lives which would be considered privileged in Europe. The poor live in shacks which line the roads and are stacked up the hillsides. There is a huge amount of gang crime: it seems that most of the drugs passing from South America to the USA come through Honduras. This gang crime contributes hugely to Honduras’ murder rate, making it officially one of the most dangerous countries in the world — although if you’re not involved in a gang, you’re as safe as in other Central American countries. A lot of this crime goes unpunished, both because the police are unable to tackle the gangs, and also because they’re corrupt. It is the army which enforces the law here.

One of the many building-piers on Utila.The Bay Islands are completely different. I spent a week on Utila, and it was a safe, friendly place, quite different from Tegucigalpa. Its summer climate is hot (30?) and humid (up to 80% relative humidity, with very little wind), which I found unbearable at times. Still, it is easy to get to, has excellent diving opportunities, and caters well for someone who wants to party every night. It’s quite drug-friendly.

The rest of the country is mostly small villages and farmland. There isn’t much tourism infrastructure, but travel is easy and cheap on ‘collectivo’ and chicken buses (old, reappropriated US school buses; less gaudily decorated than in Guatemala). Most villages don’t have much to offer other than colonial architecture and old churches (and a lot of auto repair shops). A few are more popular: Gracias, Lempira; and Copán Ruinas.

Gracias, Lempira in the sun.

Gracias has more quaint architecture than most places, and is next to Celaque national park, home of Honduras’ tallest mountain (Cerro Las Minas). Worth a visit if you like cloud forests, bird watching or hiking in general. Summitting Cerro Las Minas normally takes two days, but an experienced (and fit — it’s a steep mountain) hiker can do it in 7 hours.

A stone face in the ruins at Copán.Copán Ruinas is the gateway to the country’s Mayan ruins, which are definitely worth a visit. Very well preserved hieroglyphics, and lots of wildlife (including a Macaw breeding programme). If you visit Copán Ruinas, seeing the ruins will take half a day, and there is little else to do in the town unless you plan in advance with a local tour company to do a trek or horse ride. I didn’t, so I don’t know what they’re like.

Infrastructure is what Honduras lacks. Its roads are full of potholes (leading to its infamous crazy driving), there are frequent (roughly once a week) power outages and internet outages. None of the tap water is potable and drainage often runs straight onto the street (which in turn expedites damage to the roads). Building and maintaining infrastructure in such a mountainous country is tricky, but it’s necessary.

With the benefit of hindsight, there are a few things I would do differently if I came to Honduras again. Quite a few of them are the standard recommendations for travelling in Central/South America anyway:

  • If you can afford it, hire a car or motorbike (the latter are incredibly popular here). Having your own transport gives you a lot of freedom and safety. Get a vehicle suited to off-road driving: even if you don’t end up on a dirt track (which is quite possible if one of the few major roads is closed due to landslides), there are nasty speed bumps throughout the country which chew up cars with low ground clearance.
  • If you can’t, use collectivo buses, which are safe and, while the routes aren’t listed anywhere online or on paper, generally follow major roads. Any local will know about them. They run very frequently.
  • Find out which areas of a city are considered safe, and which aren’t. If you stick to the safe areas and use common sense, everything will be fine. If you go to an unsafe area, you’re likely to be robbed or kidnapped. For example, even the locals in Tegus don’t venture to Comayaguela. The hotels aren’t always in the safe areas, especially in Tegucigalpa — definitely avoid anything in the Comayaguela area.
  • Don’t plan to do much hiking. It’s not a particularly popular pastime here, so while there are many ‘national parks’, they mostly exist to protect the cloud forests. There are some nice trails in some (for example, La Tigra and Celaque), but don’t expect too much. If you’re interested in birds, however, Honduras is supposed to be pretty good; there are hotels dedicated to bird watching around La Ceiba.
  • If you go to the Bay Islands to dive, have a contingency plan in case of illness (which would prevent you from diving). When I was there, several people I knew got colds and ended up doing absolutely nothing for a week until they got better.
  • Don’t try and plan a tight itinerary in advance, as unexpected transport problems might throw it off. Internet access is easy to come by in Honduras (especially 3G), so make things up as you go along. Factor in plenty of time for making travel connections, as few of the bus times are synchronised.
  • Aside from touristy places (like Copán Ruinas), Honduras doesn’t do European-style hostels. You’re going to have to look at hotels, but there are cheap ones.
  • Similarly, don’t expect to send any postcards. In my experience, they’re hard to find, and harder to send. Post offices are like gold dust.
  • Don’t trust the websites describing most bus routes in Honduras (apart from the huge companies like Hedman Alas). Even medium-sized Honduran companies don’t do websites well, or keep them updated. Phone the bus company up instead, or ask a local.

A summer with XOs in Honduras

One of the main streets in Valle de Ángeles, a village near Tegucigalpa, the capital.

One of the main streets in Valle de Ángeles, a village near Tegucigalpa, the capital.

I’ve been lucky this summer to spend 7 weeks in Honduras, working on the OLPC deployment for primary school kids here. I’ve been training the local team (part of Educatrachos, a government- and IADB-funded education project in Honduras): teaching them Python, how to create activities for Sugar, and some Unix server administration magic.

The deployment itself is impressive. Over the past two years, they’ve delivered 40?000 laptops to 400 schools. A lot of the work has been in providing infrastructure (power and internet): this is tricky given Honduras’ hugely irregular terrain. A lot of the schools are using satellite internet, which is inherently affected by the weather. Despite these obstacles, the infrastructure has been in place for a while and is working nicely.

Showing a hint about which cells to sum in Pascal’s triangle.

Showing a hint about which cells to sum in Pascal’s triangle.

The focus is now moving towards producing and updating educational resources for the laptops. That means creating new Sugar activities and refreshing and redeploying existing resource collections. This is what the bulk of my time has been spent on: training the team here in how to create activities and collections, starting from basic Python and working upwards. It’s been tricky (because of my poor Spanish if nothing else) but the team have tackled the learning with enthusiasm. I hope to see new Sugar activities on the Educatrachos gitorious page soon! So far, we’ve produced one new Sugar activity: a Pascal’s triangle game. We’ve also published the training materials I used for teaching Python and Sugar. They’re available in English and Spanish, although the Spanish translation is pretty patchy (my fault!).

What remains to be seen is how the project will evolve after the change of government from the upcoming Honduran elections.

Tomorrow is my final day in Tegucigalpa: on Friday I leave for two weeks of time off, travelling around the country to end a fun summer of travelling to celebrate graduating from university after four years.

Thanks to Raúl Segales, Walter Bender, Daniel Drake and Martin Abente for answering my silly questions as I dived into Sugar!