Why urban commuters can breathe more easily

David Phelan finds out that London no longer deserves to be known as the ‘Big Smoke’ – and discovers what other communities can do to follow its example

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It’s 8.15am. You’re going to be late for work if you’re not careful. Again. At this time of day, the truth is that you’re more concerned with whether you remembered to iron your shirt, feed the cat or prepare for that important meeting than with the environmental impact of your journey to work.

But, according to new research commissioned by EDF Energy, the rush-hour is boom time when it comes to consuming carbon. In fact, across the UK, rush-hour carbon adds up to 29.7 million tonnes of CO2.Andif that’s not making you cough and splutter already, that’s the same as 280,000 lorries driving 100,000km each year. Different parts of the UK show wide variations in carbon emissions at these times of day. Greater London, you would be right for thinking, comes at the top of the table. But it may surprise you to learn that it’s there because it’s the best, not worst, for emissions, which were measured as 1.3kg of CO2 per person per day.



London’s low emissions are thanks to the widespread availability of public transport: 43 per cent of London’s rush-hour trips are serviced by public transport. Drilling deeper into the data shows that trips during rush hour are undertaken for many different purposes, from holiday outings with the kids to shopping, visiting friends and for educational purposes, such as dropping the little ones off at school.

While the biggest nationwide motivation behind rush-hour traffic is commuting, in London this accounts for 37 per cent of trips, against an average of 26 per cent elsewhere. But the capital’s dependence on public transport also means that a lower proportion of people are making private car journeys. London isn’t the “Big Smoke” any more.

Professor Nigel Brandon, head of Imperial College London’s Energy Futures Lab, said: “The research commissioned by EDF Energy has indicated that a large use of public transport, walking and cycling in Greater London has managed to make the busiest UK city the leader in reducing harmful carbon output from travel commutes. Often thought of as one of the biggest strains on the environment, London has shown it’s doing its bit in reducing the carbon footprint. Other regions of the UK should follow its lead.”

The highest emissions are in the East Midlands (2.5 kg) and Eastern (2.51kg) regions. Rural areas have far less comprehensive public transport – only 1.9 per cent of rural rush-hour trips use public transport. As a result, these areas have emissions more than twice those of London. Rural places in the North-east of England emit the most carbon of all, measuring 4.64kg of CO2 per person each day. Londoners have the longest commutes at just under 36 minutes on average and a distance of 5.41km, but rush-hour journeys in Wales are much quicker, 22 minutes, although not much shorter at 5.07km. The East Midlands claims the longest average journey distance (7.01km) but at an impressive journey time of only 25 minutes. Do they just drive really fast?

However, the town and country are linked in one way. Although London has the most gas-guzzling vehicles, with 48 per cent of cars from band J and higher, the rural areas aren’t far behind at 44 per cent. The most efficient vehicles (band E or better) are found in Scotland (14.5 per cent), followed by the East Midlands and Northeast, both at about 12.5 per cent.

So that’s how things are. But we can improve our carbon levels – and even our fitness – by thinking differently about the rush-hour. Your journey is probably unavoidable, but could you do it in a more carbon-efficient way?

Gareth Wynn, director of EDF’s London 2012 programme, said: “Team Green Britain is about encouraging people to change the ways in which they use energy every day – particularly in the home and in their modes of transport. We firmly believe that the take-up of low-carbon transport is crucial to Britain meeting its carbon reduction targets and it is an important part of helping to reduce the country’s carbon emissions. By following the example set by our Team Green Britain ambassadors we hope this will inspire people to look at an alternative, more carbon-friendly route to work.”

Walking is obviously best for reducing carbon emissions, but unless you’re going from one end of the village to the other, it’s scarcely practical for most of us. Cycling is similarly carbon-friendly and many companies have responded to the Government’s Cycle to Work scheme, which offers big discounts to employees buying bikes.

Paul Whitehead from BikeBuddies, a company set up to encourage us on to our bikes, knows not all employers are the same. “It’s more than just providing bike racks so they can tick boxes to show improved environmental performance,” he said. “BikeBuddies is a corporate one-stop shop. The barriers to cycling are convenience, safety and cost. We can offer travel advice, provide briefings on safety and more.”

Services include a buddy arriving at your home to escort you to work on your first day on the bike, to show you how your journey could feel less pressured by choosing to ride through a park, for example. There are also mobile maintenance teams that can service bikes at your place of work.

Whitehead encourages companies to provide cyclists with showers, lockers to keep their bike kit in, racks that are secure and accessible, and even vending machines where you can buy essentials such as inner tubes.

“Companies which are more proactive see significant increases in employees cycling to work,” says Whitehead. “We can provide quarterly roadworthiness tests, tightening brake cables and so on. Cycling is fun and entertaining, so we help people see that. And, of course, we advise them on how to stay safe: a whistle on a lanyard is much better than a standard bike bell for making yourself heard, for example.”

Employers are also coming up with original ways to change the commute. London-based communications agency Forster bought four fold-up bikes which are made available to staff, and offered five minutes of extra holiday per return journey made on foot or by bike. These provisions, plus others including cycle confidence training and 40p per mile expenses for business cycling, saw commuting by bike rise from 13 per cent to an impressive 31 per cent. What’s more, taxi bills dropped by about 10 per cent.

GlaxoSmithKline provides another example. By partnering with a local cycling business that set up an advice centre and shop on site and introducing training sessions for cycle newbies, the number of registered cyclists commuting to work rose by 70 per cent and now accounts for 15 per cent of the 3,200 staff. The pressure on car parking has been reduced, too.

Of course, cycling or walking to work won’t suit everyone and there may be things about your commute that just can’t be improved, but just thinking about the journey in new ways is refreshing in itself. So you’ll still need to remember to walk the dog and make sure your shirt’s clean in the morning, but follow one of these ways to get to work and your carbon footprint is one less thing to worry about. Which is good news for all of us.

Unusual commutes

  • It’s about more than bikes: car pooling may not have taken off as it has in the US, where car pool-only lanes are more commonplace, but it’s still a great way for neighbours to save petrol and carbon footprints.
  • Think outside the box: is there a waterway near you that would mean you could row to work (if you’re feeling ambitious) or if you are able to take a shower at work, you could also jog or run in to the office.
  • Remember, all sorts of wheels will get you there, even if some look dangerous to onlookers. Skateboarding is popular among the fit and young (and show-offs) in flat environments, while others just seem downright peculiar. Do you really want an excuse to put that evening class in unicycling to good use?
  • And if you must use your car, maybe it’s time to consider an electric one: EDF Energy has partnered with Peugeot UK and Citroen UK so that residential users who buy a Citroen C-Zero or Peugeot iOn are offered a package including a charging point that’s faster than a regular socket, a smart meter and a statement showing how much charging the car has cost. There are offers for business customers, too.

What you can do

Dr Tim Brabants, Team Green Britain ambassador and former kayaking champion, offers the following tips to those who want to lower their rush-hour travel carbon footprint in a pain-free way.

  • Don’t forget breakfast: good nutrition and hydration are vital to providing the energy boost you need before physical exertion – without enough fluids, fatigue and tiredness can make the body more prone to trauma.
  • Slow but steady wins the race: your body needs time to adapt to heightened levels of activity, so make sure to build up to longer distance and intensities, allowing the body time to recover between rides.
  • Mix it up: if you live too far away to walk the whole distance, park a little further away than usual, or swap your car journey for a mixture of public transport andwalking.
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