Robyn Vinter 20th April 2018
For my Earth Week challenge, I ditched polluting forms of transport for two weeks. That means everywhere I went, I had to get there without cars, trains or buses. Instead, I was allowed to use man or animal-powered means: walking, cycling, skating, swimming, horse riding, rowing or dog sledding. Realistically, this meant walking everywhere, as I’m no way confident enough to cycle or skate on city centre roads and I don’t have a dog.
At first glance, it’s quite a major undertaking. But if I’m being totally honest, I chose this challenge because I thought it would be easy.
I live in Leeds, a city with a transport network so fucked up that getting anywhere ever is an ordeal. We have some kind of city centre loop, which is basically a giant practical joke at the expense of drivers, and there’s nowhere cheap to park. Our bus network is run by numerous different companies, which means a journey from north Leeds to south Leeds can cost more than £6 if you’re unlucky enough to have to cross from one bus company’s fiefdom to another’s (and that’s if your bus doesn’t disappear entirely before it reaches you — a common Leeds phenomenon). And with only one main train station, no metro or tram, we’re the largest city in the EU with no mass transport system.
So needless to say, living less than two miles out of the city centre, it’s often quicker and easier to walk everywhere.
I’ve never been a petrolhead. I’m someone who likes being on their feet. I walk, run or skate constantly — I like the feeling of being outdoors, keeping fit, listening to podcasts, having time to plan work stuff in my head or simply wind down.
I caved like Theresa May in Brussels
What made the idea of the challenge easier, too, was that I don’t really go anywhere that isn’t the city centre or the north Leeds town of Headingley where I live.
Work is just over 2.5 miles away, so my commute is a 5-mile round trip — a short bus ride but a good 50 minutes each way walking. I live basically on the high street, so everything else is on my doorstep. I don’t have a car but, if I did, I literally wouldn’t have a use for it.
So with all that in mind, how did I do?
I cracked. I caved like Theresa May in Brussels. Like anyone planning to only watch one episode of The Good Place before bed.
The first few days were fine. I got fresh air, I overtook the buses on the way home from work, I saw wildlife. The biggest win came from realising if I did this every day, I could put cheese on everything and not gain weight.
While it took longer, it pretty much saved time because I was incorporating exercise into going somewhere, which meant I pretty much stopped running on evenings and weekends.
I often arrived home more relaxed than if I’d got the bus, too. This ended up being a blessing and a curse — while I’m sure it did my blood pressure good, it was much harder to get my head back in the game when I had work to do in the evenings.
Generally speaking I loved the walk, but then there were days when I was tired or under the weather. And one morning it pissed it down so badly that I didn’t dry out all day. I was so cold by mid-afternoon, in fact, that I left the office early and did the 2.5-mile slog home just so I could put my clothes and shoes on the radiator.
On the bleakest days I found myself analysing the environmental cost of the bus versus the environmental cost on the wear and tear of my trainers.
Producing one pair of trainers can add 30lb (13.36kg) of carbon emissions to the environment, according to MIT scientists, the equivalent of leaving a 100-watt bulb burning for an entire week.
Trainers are supposed to last 500 miles — that’s only 20 commuting weeks for me, and doesn’t include any other walking during the day or at the weekend. In my two weeks walking, the cost of trainer wear and tear was 1.3kg of carbon emissions.
That’s a pretty significant environmental cost, and that’s before we consider the environmental cost of landfill, which is where most clothing and shoes eventually end up.
So, given the surprising realisation that walking has its environmental cost too, was there any point in me bothering with this challenge?
I also wondered whether, rather than becoming healthier, I was taking years off my life inhaling exhaust fumes. One of my walking routes goes through the woods but when it’s wet, which it usually is, it’s too muddy for a walk to work. This means I had to walk along a main road — one of the busiest in the city — the whole way.
Air pollution kills 25.7 for every 100,000 people in the UK, according to the World Health Organisation. The effect of inhaling the fumes of stalled traffic for nearly two hours a day was palpable. It made my nose sting and made me grumpy as fuck, which tallies with research that shows breathing air pollution is as bad for your happiness as a bereavement.
I began to feel how probably most cyclists feel all the time — resentful at lazy car drivers, who contribute substantially to the problem of air pollution but seem to be the only ones who consistently escape its effects.
Breaking the rules
Let’s be honest, there’s no way someone could live a life in the modern world without ever getting in a car, bus or train. But I thought it would take longer before I broke my self-imposed code, which happened after a couple of days.
My first slip-up was totally accidental. I forgot, actually, and jumped in a taxi back to the office with my fellow podcast hosts, Grace and Rik, after a session in the studio. It wasn’t until later that day that I realised I’d fucked up the challenge.
The ease with which I forgot and automatically got in the car made me realise how little we think about alternatives to fossil fuel powered transport. Since the US started fracking and oil prices have dropped, we’ve stopped worrying so much about how much oil we’re consuming because it’s considerably cheaper than it was. The sad fact is that what drives us to choose green options is so often money. Essentially, if things are going to improve, the government needs to incentivise us to think differently.
I deliberately cracked twice more — one was a weekend trip to Homebase. I figured if my partner was driving anyway, one little person in the passenger seat wouldn’t make much difference to the carbon emissions.
The second time was about speed — a bus journey to the office after a doctor’s appointment in the morning.
After that, I found myself making some new rules — if the car was going that way anyway, it didn’t matter if I jumped in too, and if I was ill or in a mad rush, I could have a freebie.
Thus, I learned the key to the Earth Week challenge was flexibility. It was trying to be better, but not completely ruining your life over it.
If all those car drivers walked, we’d all be a lot healthier and a little less grumpy
With that in mind, I will definitely keep up this regime, especially as summer comes and walking through the woods is an option. I know not everyone can walk to work as easily as I can but more-or-less everyone can incorporate a little more walking or cycling into their routine. If all those car drivers on my commute did that, everyone would get to breathe fresh air, which means we’d all be a lot healthier and a little less grumpy.
Fiona Nicholls, Greenpeace campaigner, says: “Walking and cycling are awesome. Every journey is free, zero emissions and helps keep you fit. Get in Robyn!
“Switching from a car to foot or bike is a serious personal contribution to the environment. Where that’s not possible public transport is the best way to go. The emissions per head are far less than a car.
“Petrol and diesel cars are an obvious no-no for the environment, especially if it’s just you in the car *Stern face*. Their CO2 and air pollution emissions are so bad that the Government’s committed to getting rid of them by 2040. We think petrol and diesel should go sooner, like in many other countries.
“But you don’t have to wait till then to go green. You can get ahead of the curve by making your own green travel plans. And if you have to drive, getting a hybrid or electric is the right thing to do.”
Robyn Vinter 20th April 2018