There are a lot of ways to get to New York City from Toronto, and I think I've tried just about all of them, from a slow Amtrak train to turboprop plane to an early Rabbit diesel automobile. The train provided perhaps the worst border crossing I've ever had, and I'm not fond of long car trips. Before sister site TreeHugger became part of the MNN family, I used to come to New York a lot, usually riding my folding Strida bicycle down to Toronto Island Airport, flying the cute little Porter Q400 prop planes, among the most fuel-efficient in the air. That leg got me to Newark Airport, which has a great train into Penn Station, where I would unfold the bike and ride to my destination. This was the route:

Bike to island airport →Porter Q400 to Newark→train to Penn Station→bike to destination.

This made a lot of sense then; getting to Toronto’s Pearson Airport was an expensive taxi ride, customs and security lines were long. However things have changed; Porter no longer takes bikes for free, Citibike made carrying one unnecessary, and a high-speed rail link to the airport opened, with a station just a few blocks from my home. When a trip to New York came up on short notice, I thought I would see if the alternate route was any faster or any greener:

UP Express to Pearson airport→Jet to La Guardia→find a way to Manhattan.

UP ExpressHere comes my train to the airport (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Leg one is on the new Union Pearson Express, a diesel-powered train that's controversial, but close to home, dependable and fast, getting me to the airport in 15 minutes. The alternative to the island airport is a subway ride, a short transfer bus, a ferry ride or the new tunnel. It’s cheaper by subway, but for me, living so near a station pushes the needle the other way. Advantage UP Express/Air Canada.

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It’s then a short walk to a long line for American Customs and Immigration. Canada is the only country where they set up outside of the country. The lines are long for this, and for security, so here it would be an advantage to use the island airport, unless you have a Trusted Traveler or NEXUS card, where the Canadian and American governments scan your retinas, take your fingerprints, do a background check and give you a special card that lets you use a machine instead of lining up for a customs agent, plus you can skip the security line for a much shorter, faster one. My wife is appalled that I would willingly give away my fingerprints and retina scans but really, it works so well.

Porter loungeComfy lounge with cookies! (Photo: Porter Airlines)

Then there's the wait; Pearson is comfortable but it's crowded, whereas the island airport has a lovely waiting area, lots of free computers, free coffee and cookies, one of the most comfortable I've been in anywhere, nicer than many first-class lounges. Advantage Porter Airlines.

As for the flight, there's no comparison. The Bombardier Q400 is 60 percent more fuel-efficient per passenger than a jet. Being small, it loads and deplanes faster. Passengers seem chattier and nicer. The airline offers give free wine and snacks. The staff wear cute little pillbox hats. It's all consciously designed to feel like you are back in the golden age of flying. Definite Advantage Porter.

La Guardia AirportLa Guardia is slightly newer than this, but not much. (Photo: Old postcard)

Then you arrive in New York City at La Guardia Airport and really, you don’t know what hit you. Crowded, old, dirty, and there's no way out except taxi or bus. I chose a private express bus with a rude ticket taker, a long wait, a slow ride, with waiting and loading at three stops in the airport and everything else, it took an hour to go seven miles from the airport to Grand Central Station. The alternative, the train from Newark, takes about the same time but it is frankly a lot less stressful. Advantage Porter.

Homeward bound

On the return home, I only had to go three miles from my editor’s home to La Guardia, but taxi was the only way to go; the big bridge is under construction so the driver took a long way around, it took 45 minutes and cost $35. Flights were delayed and cancelled and changed so the airport was a zoo. The security line was endless (where’s the priority/ trusted traveler line, I asked, as I was barely in the terminal. “You’re in it!” she said.)

view from airplaneThe view from my window, above the clouds (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

I'll admit that in yesterday’s weather I was much happier flying higher, above the clouds in a crowded Brazilian jet than I would have been in a little Canadian turboprop. It was a bumpy ride, but then it was a quick retina scan, a short walk and I was in my comfy seat on the train home. But it was five hours door to door.

The winner:

In the end, in terms of door-to-door travel experiences, from the viewpoint of environmental footprint, convenience and cost, the island airport/Porter Airlines/Newark trip beats the UP Express/Air Canada/La Guardia trip. In fact, they're both problematic.

Consider the alternatives

When you look at all the different modes of transportation I used — the dedicated commuter train, the flying, the taxis and subways to get from downtown to airports — you realize how silly this all is.

fast train in chinaGoing 190 miles per hour on a train in China. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

In Europe or China, that five hours could have been spent on a fast train, going from downtown terminal to downtown terminal. Toronto Pearson Airport cost $4 billion to build; the current plans to rebuild La Guardia are about $4.5 billion. The environmental footprint of the short-haul flying jets is huge, still the worst of any mode of travel. The time, cost and inconvenience of the the security theater is insane. Yet a decent high-speed rail network in America, even just in the dense East Coast, remains a dream.

The cost of NOT having a high-speed rail network is going up all the time. The lunacy of short hop flying like this becomes totally obvious on rainy days — the system just backs up and almost breaks down.

We all deserve better.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Which is better, jet or turbo-prop? Neither
In which I try a different way to fly, and find them both wanting.