A culture of car dependency exists in the UK. 67% of commuting trips are made by car , as are 46% of all trips of less than two miles . Across Britain, bicycle journeys make up 2% of journeys and public transport makes up just 9% . Average walking trips per person have decreased by 27% since 1995, with walking now making up less than a quarter (22%) of trips in Britain .
Sustainable and active travel means making journeys by healthier, more environmentally-friendly modes, such as walking, cycling, or public transport. This in turn improves safety: as the vast majority of crashes are attributable to driver error , fewer journeys by car would lead to fewer crashes and casualties and a safer more pleasant environment for walking and cycling in particular.
There is some international evidence for the “safety in numbers” theory that increasing walking and cycling brings about safer walking and cycling. European data shows that countries with high levels of cycling, such as Norway and the Netherlands, have lower cyclist death rates .
Benefits of sustainable and active travel
Encouraging and enabling increased sustainable and active travel benefits people’s health, personal finances, the environment, and the economy.
Health and wellbeing benefits
Low levels of walking and cycling has serious public health implications at a time when 14% of children and a quarter of adults in England are obese . Persuading people to integrate active travel into their everyday routines is a simple, constructive way to address this: incorporating physical activity into everyday life through activities such as walking and cycling is as effective for weight loss as supervised exercise programmes .
Research has also found that, on top of the physical health benefits of active travel, people who commute by walking, cycling or public transport have better mental health than those who drive to work. Active commuters are better able to concentrate and less stressed than car commuters .
Driving is becoming increasingly expensive. Around 800,000 car-owning households, many of whom are families with incomes among the lowest 10% in the UK, spend at least 31% of their disposable income on a motor vehicle . Sustainable travel charity Sustrans estimates that nearly half of households in England struggle with the costs of car ownership , and that the average family could save £642 a year by swapping a car-based school run for walking or cycling .
There are major environmental consequences of so many journeys being made by car, including carbon emissions, air quality and noise pollution. 21% of UK greenhouse gas emissions come from transport , so reducing our reliance on cars would make a big difference to this. It is predicted that the proportion of traffic travelling in very congested conditions will more than double by 2035 , further increasing emissions.
The RAC Foundation predicts that, with the number of cars on our roads set to increase by 43% by 2035, average delays will increase by 50% . The cost of increased congestion on UK roads by 2025 has been estimated at £22 billion . Shifting more journeys towards active and sustainable modes of transport would help reduce congestion overall.
Improved public health through increased walking and cycling also carried a huge economic benefit. Lack of physical activity is a key contributing factor to obesity, which is estimated to cost the NHS £4.2 billion a year .
Research has also found that when local areas are made safer for walking and cycling, for example by lowering speed limits, they become more economically sustainable. This is because safer areas for walking and cycling are seen as more desirable areas to live, boosting local businesses and increasing the value of homes in these areas . Town centre shops can also benefit from increased footfall when there are more people walking and cycling .
How can we encourage sustainable and active travel?
We can all do our part to encourage sustainable and active travel by making a simple pledge to leave the car at home, or choose not to drive at all, and make journeys by foot, bike or public transport whenever possible.
There are also initiatives and investment needed at central and local government level, to make sustainable and active travel safe and accessible to all.
Investment in public transport
Investment in effective public transport has been recommended  as a vital step to tackle the environmental damage caused by motor vehicle travel. At present, only one in three (32%) EU citizens use urban public transport at least once a week . Almost half (44%) of UK adults say they are willing to use public transport more often to reduce their impact on the environment, but only one in three (35%) believe this is achievable within their lifestyle . UK government research has found cost is a perceived barrier to using public transport .
Investment in reliable, affordable public transport, with stops close to homes, shops and workplaces, would reduce car reliance by providing a convenient alternative. For example, analysis of a proposed community shuttle bus and cycle lane system to link residential locations to train and bus stations in Chicago, USA found it could reduce car use by 53% .
Safer roads for walking and cycling
More than half (55%) of UK adults say they are willing to walk more often in order to reduce their impact on the environment, and one in four (27%) say they are willing to cycle more . However, many do not feel safe enough to do so. A survey of UK drivers by Brake and Direct Line indicated that as many as one in three non-cyclists would be persuaded to cycle if there were safe local cycling routes .
Traffic-free and segregated cycle paths and footpaths would make journeys much safer for those on foot or bike by separating them from traffic entirely. Studies in Denmark found that segregated cycle tracks or lanes alongside urban roads reduced cyclist deaths by 35% .
Where cyclists and pedestrians have to share the road with traffic, it is essential that traffic is slowed down. Brake is calling on the government to make 20mph (32km/h) the default speed limit in towns, cities and villages through its GO 20 campaign. This is recommended by road safety experts as a key measure to protect pedestrians and cyclists in particular . Brake also campaigns for better speed enforcement, to help ensure drivers keep under limits, and lower limits on country roads.
Car free days
Car free days, where people are encouraged to leave their cars at home and explore alternative forms of transport, can educate the public on the benefits, practicalities and ease of reducing car-dependence and embracing active and sustainable travel.
Since 2001, UK towns have been invited to participate in an EU led campaign, ‘In town, without my car’ (ITWMC) as part of European Mobility Week, which aims to encourage use of alternative modes of transport to driving. Looking beyond Europe, several countries run car-free initiatives such as Bogota Columbia’s annual car free day, and weekly ‘Ciclovia’, where traffic is excluded from certain streets in Bogota 7am-2pm every Sunday for people on foot and bike. Bogota’s car free day sees almost two million residents use public transport , while Ciclovia often attracts more than a million walkers and cyclists to the city’s streets . The promotion of non-motorised transport has played an important part in improving environmental protection, urban mobility and public space in the city .
A few organisations coordinate local car free days in the UK. For example, Streets Alive have organised a car free day in Bristol. In recent years there have also been numerous initiatives around the UK aimed at promoting cycling by building confidence through a social event in a traffic-free environment, such as SkyRides and the RideLondon Freecycle, which attracted around 60,000 participants in 2014.
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Page last updated: September 2014