Monday, 18 June 2012

Sustainable travel without losing friends

In my last post you will have seen that recent trends are for a reduction in car travel, probably due mainly to the rising cost of fuel. Looking at total distance traveled (i.e. not just by car) this peaked in 2005 at 7208 miles/person/year which is nearly 20 miles/person/day. In 2010 it was down 7% and nearer 18 miles/person/day. The biggest drop was for traveling to visit friends, down 13% from 4.0 miles/person/day to 3.5. On the other hand commuting is down only 4% from 3.8 miles/person/day to 3.7 [1]. Is this cut back a good thing overall? Can we travel more cheaply and sustainably and still maintain our social lives?

As well as cutting fuel bills, changing the way we travel can save time, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and benefit the economy by reducing congestion. Congestion is a big problem in many areas especially Cambridge where I live. Frequent delays on routes in and out of the city and on the A14 nearby cost businesses dearly in driver time and delivery delays. There are fundamentally two ways to reduce congestion:
  • Build more roads which is very expensive (£5.5 million per lane-km for dual carriageways [8]) and often only works for a short time as the new roads stimulate more car travel
  • Take cars off the road by persuading people to avoid travel altogether, walk, cycle or use public transport instead. One bus carrying 40 people takes 5% of the road space required by 20 cars taking 2 people each.
However, when roads are congested, buses are delayed and become unreliable, people prefer to use cars instead because they are more flexible in choice of route, which increases congestion ... It's a vicious circle.

Sustainable travel requires
  • reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)
  • reducing oil dependency because oil prices are increasingly unpredictable
  • reducing cost to businesses and individuals
  • improving access to work, schools, shopping, community and leisure activities
This is a hard nut to crack. Here is a table summarising some of the options for changing the way we travel and their benefits.

Reduces congestionSaves moneySaves timeSaves GHGs
Reduce distance traveledYYYY
Car share/lift shareYYNY
Use fuel efficient car-Y-Y
Walk/cycleYYMaybe - and increases reliability tooY
Use public transportYMaybe - depends on ticket cost and car parking feesMaybe if bus routes have priority. Less stressful than driving for many people.Y
Build more roadsYes but only in the short termNo - building roads is expensive and we still have to buy fuel to drive on themYes in the short term until congestion builds up again.N

Reducing traveling distance

Ever since public transport was invented and cars became affordable we have been commuting further and further. Even since 2005 the average commute trip has lengthened by 3.4% but overall commuting distance traveled has dropped slightly because we are making fewer trips. Some of this is due to flexible working and working from home.

Moving home to be closer to work and is an option for some people but not others: it is easier for people in rented accommodation because selling and buying a home is very expensive. It is also difficult if you have children in school or you have friends and family close by, or if there are two of you with jobs in different places. Moving jobs to be closer to home is another option, depending on your occupation and the local job market.

Commuting has a high impact because it contributes to congestion but it accounts for only 20% of distance traveled; visiting friends is another 19% and shopping 12%. Our shopping travel has gone down 10% since 1995, though the distance for each trip has increased by 11%. We shop less often but buy more at once, helped by big refrigerators, out of town supermarkets and shopping centres.

Car share/lift share

This is easiest for regular trips like commuting, taking the children to school or shopping. A car share scheme will put you in contact with people who live near you traveling to the same place at the same time. Car share schemes are often based around business parks or big employment centres like hospitals. If your work place doesn't have a car share scheme you could ask for one, or one for your school. You can find out about car sharing schemes in your area from this page:

Car sharing is not as convenient as using your own car and even though it saves costs most people are reluctant to give up that flexibility. Judging by the case studies on, extra motivators such as restricted car parking, or cheaper car parking for sharers are needed to make schemes successful.

Using more fuel efficient cars

It doesn't make sense to buy a new car just to save fuel, even at today's prices. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it would take 58,000 km before the savings from reduced fuel consumption offset the emissions from making a new Toyota Prius [2]. However, if you are buying a new car anyway it absolutely makes sense to buy an efficient one. The smaller cars are usually more economical and you can get a little runabout for everyday use and join a car club to hire a bigger one when you need it. Alternatively you can not buy a new car at all but join a car club instead so that you can borrow a car when you need one. Club cars are usually fuel efficient. Find car clubs in your area here:

The average new car in 2011 generates 20% less carbon emissions that in 2001 [3], which also it means it uses that much less fuel. This is partly because cars are becoming more efficient (and petrol cars are now similar to diesel in emissions) and partly because we are buying smaller cars: minis and superminis accounted for 38.5% of the market in 2011 compared to 33.3% in 2000. Also electric vehicles and petrol/electric hybrids now have a market share of 1.3%.

Using a more efficient car saves money and reduces emissions but does nothing to reduce congestion.


Even for journeys of under 2 miles, 59% of the time we use a car [1]. Does it really rain that often? Couldn't we walk or cycle that distance? Even under 1 mile we use a car 24% of the time. For many journeys using a bicycle can be quicker than driving because you can avoid the congestion. Bikes are used most for distances between 5 and 10 miles and many commutes fall into that category. Cycling is good for your fitness too but if your journey is a bit too much of a slog you can try using an electric bike. They typically have a range of 12-30 miles between recharge. You can find out more about electric bikes here: An electric bike will also save you arriving sweaty and needing a wash at work.

Apart from hilly terrain, many people are worried about cycling, or even walking, because they feel vulnerable on the busy roads. It is true that you are safer in a car: in terms of accidents per km travelled we are 3.6 times as likely be injured on foot as in a car and 18 times as likely to be injured on a bike  (2010: 7 times more injuries to car occupants than to cyclists and 8 times as many as pedestrians injured [10] but we traveled by car 29 times as far as on foot and 124 times as far as on a bike [1]).

Cycling is extremely popular in Cambridge but less so elsewhere. Of the 76 companies taking part in the Cambridgeshire Travel for Work program, 26% of their staff commute by bicycle [4]. For the UK as a whole, only 3.3% of commute trips are by bike and 10.6% are on foot [1].

Use public transport

We use trains for about 8% share of our travel, mainly long distance, and buses only 4% [1]. Using public transport is a public spirited thing to do because it reduces congestion and saves greenhouse gas emissions but it doesn't necessarily save time or money. Bus and train operators and local councils managing them have a role to play in making sure they do. This table summarises some of the disincentives to use of public transport and what can be done about them.

Slow and unreliableAvoiding cross town routes, which suffer congestion delays in the middle, can help buses run to time as demonstrated in Nottingham. Giving buses dedicated road space and priority at traffic lights also helps [5]. Guided busways are an extreme example of this: the buses don't have to stop for traffic and they only require a narrow track even for two way traffic because the wheel guides prevent collisions.

Bus speed can also be improved by using on-demand routing - the bus goes different ways depending on where people want to get on and off. Route 99 from Chichester is a good example:
InfrequentPutting on more services - this will increase costs and GHG emissions unless and until more people start to use them, but it will still be cheaper than building more roads. 4km of new road near Stowmarket has cost £35 million [7]. The average cost of a 4-lane dual carriageway (2 lanes each way) was £22.2 million per km (allowing for inflation since 2005/2006) [8]

On-demand buses (see above) can cover a larger area without unnecessary meandering to pick up non-existent passengers.
Not enough information.Bus routes and time tables are notoriously difficult to navigate but travel planning websites such as are a huge help.

Real time information available at bus stops or by text message takes away some of the stress when the bus is late - because at least you have a clue as to how late it is going to be. Real time information on the bus as well helps passengers not familiar with the route.
Cost too much/complicated pricingZoned ticketing simplifies pricing and season tickets can save a lot of money but bus travel is still frequently more expensive than car travel, at least in terms of fuel. In Cambridge a 4-week Megarider plus which gives unlimited travel around Cambridge as far as Peterborough and Bury St. Edmunds is £3.10/day. That would pay for your fuel for 23 miles per day (assuming £1.40/litre and 6 litres/100km  or 40 mpg). Taking the bus or train may also save you car parking fees but not if you can park for free at work.

On the other hand, if you take into account other costs of running a car then the bus can look more attractive. If you can sell the car and borrow one occasionally, then you can save a lot more than £1000/year.

NB. The average government subsidy per trip by bus is 9p [9].
Difficult to get on and off and handle shoppingRaised kerbs at bus stops make getting on and off much easier. Seating arrangements on the bus can also be improved.
Not door to doorTrue - and adding more and frequent bus stops slows the bus for everyone and adds to congestion. There are limits to what can be achieved in this respect.

Schemes to improve bus services and at the same time increase information and marketing of those routes have made a difference in many towns [5]. For example:
  • Birmingham line 33: 40% increase in use.
  • Nottingham Calverton Connection: 48% increase
  • Guided busways in Ipswich and Leeds: 75%
These are relative increases however: in absolute terms they are small. A 40% increase from 4% takes you to 5.6%.

Travel planning schemes

    Travel planning schemes combine awareness raising and lots of initiatives to promote sustainable travel choices. Sweeteners can include reserved parking spaces for car shares, access to bus lanes for cars being shared, pool bikes including trailer bikes and electric bikes, cycling training sessions, subsidised season tickets on public transport, subsidised bus services and more [5]. The Cambridgeshire Travel for Work initiative has been going for over 10 years now and in that time the core group of 6 employers reduced car travel among their staff from 59% to 49% (including car share) while walking and cycling increased from 29% to 33% (Cambridge has more cycling commuters than anywhere else in the country) and homeworking increased from 0 to 2.4%. However, there was little change in use of public transport [4]. Nor have Sustainable Travel Towns schemes been tremendously successful in increasing use of public transport: between 2004 and 2008 their highest performing scheme in Peterborough they increased bus usage by 35% but from a low base - from 5% of travel to 7%. However, walking and cycling increased from 27% to 31% [6].


    This is a very complex issue - despite the length of this post I have barely scratched the surface - and none of the options I have listed offer easy solutions that appeal to everyone. However, increasing fuel costs and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions means simply building more roads is not practical on any scale so unless we are happy to cut back on our travel altogether we must become more flexible and imaginative in our choices. Increasing walking and cycling (with electric assistance where appropriate) seems to be easier for people than taking the bus and it ticks all the sustainability boxes when it is possible - but when it isn't we may be reluctant or unable to move home or job for a variety of reasons. Commuting accounts for only a small part of our overall travel but this is the most important issue for many of us and contributes most to congestion. Cycling or taking the bus to work and reducing the cost of car use by joining a car club may be the best way for many of us to save money, reduce greenhouse gas emissions - and still get to visit our friends.

    [1] Dept for Transport (2011) National Travel Survey 2010
    [2] Nicola Terry (2011) Energy and carbon emissions: the way we live today UIT Cambridge Ltd.
    [3] SMMT (2012) New Car CO2 report
    [4] Travel for Work Survey Report 2011 Overall Results
    [5] Smarter choices Changing the way we travel
    [6] Sustrans (2009) Travel behaviour in the Sustainable Travel Towns
    [7] Dept. for Transport (2005) Campaign for better transport Bigger and Bigger Price Tag
    [8] Hansard 29 Mar 2007 Roads: construction
    [9] Dept. for Transport (2011) Bus subsidy per passenger journey
    [10] Dept. for Transport 2011 Reported Road Casualties in Great Britain: 2010 Annual Report

    1 comment:

    1. Last time I tried to do a trip where friends that doesn't care that much about the world could see that they have to change the way they think! And I planned a bike trip, after all, everyone loves to ride a bike!