It's time to get on your bike

Sustainable commuting has never been so easy. Virginia Matthews looks at environmentally-friendly options – which can also benefit you
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As the organisers of next month's Walk To Work Week (April 26-30) and Bike Week (June 19-27) get in some serious training, even the most hardened motorist is running out of excuses not to boycott rising fuel prices and go green.

With around half of all private car journeys running to fewer than five miles – nearly a quarter of them one mile or less, according to Department for Transport figures – there has never been a better time, say campaigners, for people to leave their car at home and do themselves and the environment a favour.

Whether it's regular telecommuting, walking or car sharing, traditional bike, foldaway or electric bike, public transport or even a mixture – multi-modal transport is the jargon – getting to work sustainably has never been so easy.

For employers, a healthier, more active workforce has many advantages in terms of motivation and productivity. So much so, says Zsolt Schuller, project manager at Devon County Council's Cycle Exeter, that the provision of bicycle pools, safe lock-ups, shower facilities and interest-free loans for cycle purchase is catching on fast. "Cyclists and motorists shouldn't be viewed as different tribes at war over road space when they are simply the same people doing different things. In Exeter, we are seeing a growing number of business people cycling to work on a regular basis and being encouraged and helped to do so by their bosses," says Schuller.

"Cycle commuting by people in smart suits and school commuting by youngsters and families helps to normalise cycling and puncture the awful stereotype of Lycra louts in fluorescent yellow."

To dedicated cyclists and walkers, the usual excuses about busy roads, bad weather or lack of time in the mornings are easily countered.

Cheryl Campsie, a project director at the social marketing agency Forster, cycles each day from Camberwell to London Bridge and back. A keen rider for more than eight years, she believes it was a free, cycle-confidence training scheme run by Lambeth Council (and others) that marked the turning point.

"Venturing out on to busy London roads as a cyclist sounds terrifying if you're a novice, but the course demonstrated beyond doubt that I was a legitimate road user. As long as I was sensible and could always be seen, my journey to work didn't need to be terrifying or dangerous, and, contrary to what others may say, I find it highly enjoyable and far quicker."

Sharing your daily commute with strangers may sound like a step too far, even as petrol looks set to rise to £1.20 a litre. But for Lisa Blezard, 26, an information systems officer at Wakefield Metropolitan District Council, car-sharing with two council colleagues, who give her the money they would have spent on buses, provides good conversation and an extra source of income as well as reducing her carbon footprint. Blezard says: "I found my two ladies via the network, and, although I wondered whether we'd all hit it off on the 30-minute journey from Normanton to Wakefield, I find picking them up each day lifts my spirits, and we can all have a jolly good moan on the way home if things have been difficult.

"In the recent snow, I skidded quite dramatically and, if I hadn't had people in the car, I'd have panicked. It's good to know that if something like that happens again, or if I get a flat tyre, I'll have help on hand."

When it comes to unpredictable weather, Keir Bovis, a research scientist at the Met Office in Bracknell, knows more than most about what the skies have in store for us. Yet when it comes to taking the car or donning waterproofs and sensible walking shoes, it's as much about attitude as practicality, he says.

"Of the 1,300 staff who work here, 15 per cent cycle to work regularly throughout the summer months, whatever the weather throws at them.

"If you're a climate scientist, you tend to be very keen to put your money where your mouth is when it comes to travelling in a more sustainable way and reducing your carbon footprint. Although people moan about rain, it has to be very extreme to stop regulars getting on their bike."

Commuting on foot can be a significant shock to the system for anyone used to driving a car or perhaps taking a bus or train, but, for many, it has become a way of life. Steve Winter, a partner sales manager at Ordnance Survey, walks more than five miles each way from his home in Romsey to OS's offices in Southampton. While he takes his car or the train to see clients, he routinely walks more than 44 miles to work and back in the average week.

"Although I may drive if I have a heavy cold or if there is torrential rain, I haven't missed a day's walking since Christmas and I can honestly say that I have never felt so fit or alive."

Despite having to leave home more than an hour earlier each morning and arriving back later in the evening, Winter believes that walking saves him time in the long run.

"I'm 35 now, and, before I started walking, I was thinking hard about joining a gym in order to keep myself fit and healthy. This way, my evenings don't need to be spent sweating over exercise equipment because I know that I'll be out in the fresh air at least twice a day."

Having caught the walking bug, Winter now steps out for sheer pleasure. "Initially I was tired after my walk, but walking is part of my life now, and that means 20-mile walks at weekends too. I walk to the supermarket [a few streets away] as a matter of course, and I also walk with my partner and with friends."

Although Winter was forced to stop using his pedometer when it ran out of digits at the 50,000-steps-a-day mark, he calculates that his car mileage is already down from 500 to 50 a month since he started walking to work a year ago.

It figures: eco-friendly travel in numbers

*During the average morning rush hour, there are 38 million empty car seats on the UK's roads.

*If the national average car occupancy could be raised from 1.6 to two people, the UK's CO2 emissions from cars would see a 20 per cent reduction.

*91 per cent of car commuting journeys and 87 per cent of work-related car journeys are single occupancy.

*24 per cent of UK passenger carbon emissions come from commuting and 13 per cent from work-related travel.

*The average car commuter drives 19 miles a day. Cutting that by half through car-sharing would save 648kg of carbon dioxide over one year – the same as that absorbed by 216 trees.

*The largest car-sharing network in the UK, with more than 350,000 participants, is liftshare. In the next 12 months, they will save an estimated 47,219 tonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent to 26,233 hot-air balloons.

(statistics from )

*Rail contributes just 0.4 per cent to the UK's domestic carbon dioxide emissions. Road travel is responsible for nearly 20 per cent.

*The average carbon dioxide emission for a passenger rail journey is about half that of an equivalent car journey, and about one-quarter of an equivalent journey by air.

*Rail freight produces a 74 per cent reduction in carbon emissions when compared with equivalent road freight.

(Statistics from Network Rail)