Replace short car trips with active travel

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There are many benefits to substituting short car journeys with active travel, whether that's in terms of physical and mental health, improved air quality or reduced traffic congestion. However, many people still choose to make short journeys in their cars each day:

  • In the UK, around 56% of private vehicle (car/van) trips driven are under 5 miles (1)

  • In the US, around 59.5% of vehicle trips are under 5 miles (2)
    (NB. 5 miles = 8.05 km)

In a recent analysis by TRL (3) (based on UK National Travel Survey data), it was found that out of 172,911 car trips recorded by participants, 96,345 were single-stage journeys under 8 km, of which (taking mobility issues, age and bicycle access into account): 5,060 trips under 1 km were potentially walkable; and 32,537 trips between 1 km and 8 km were potentially replaceable by cycling. This equates to over 400 km per person per year that could be replaced by walking or cycling.

A number of reasons stop these potential pedestrians and cyclists from leaving their cars behind, among which are perceived longer journey times and lack of safety on roads.

Driving is not always quickest

Over long distances, driving will usually be quicker; but for short trips in cities, walking and cycling have their own benefits. Pedestrians and cyclists (where bike paths permit) can bypass one-way systems, do not have to sit in traffic, and do not need to find parking spaces upon arrival.

In fact, cycling is often the quickest way to get around busy cities (4).

Safety in numbers

While the casualty rates in many countries are higher for pedestrians and cyclists (compared to car passengers), there is evidence that suggests that roads would become safer as the number of pedestrians and cyclists increase. A study on relationship between the numbers of people walking or bicycling and the frequency of collisions (5) found that the probability of a given pedestrian or cyclist being struck by a motor vehicle decreases as the amount of walking or cycling increases. The reasons behind the correlation have not been fully explained, but some possible explanations include:

  • Greater awareness
    It is easier to spot a pedestrian or cyclist if you are expecting to see one. Studies on inattentional blindness have shown that humans regularly fail to notice objects that they do not expect to see, consequently, a road user is much more likely to see a pedestrian or cyclist if he/she is expecting to see one.

  • Better understanding
    Other road users (due to seeing more pedestrians and cyclists on roads, or due to walking or cycling themselves) are likely to better understand and predict the movement of a pedestrian or cyclist, and therefore react better to their actions.

  • Enabling policies and Infrastructure
    A greater number of pedestrians and cyclists could be a result of better infrastructure and pedestrian/cyclist-friendly policies. When the roads are more suited to walking and cycling, they are likely to be safer and as a result, also attract a greater number of pedestrians and cyclists.

Real benefits

The benefits of a mass switch to active travel can also be significant on a population level. A study on Dutch cycling (6) found that cycling prevents about 6,500 deaths in the Netherlands each year, increased the life expectancy of the Dutch people by half-a-year, and estimated that the health benefits translated into economic benefits of €19 billion annually (around 3% of the Netherlands' GDP).

For many journeys, whether it's due to distance, travel time or other considerations, the use of cars may be the only feasible option; but for many shorter journeys, walking and cycling provides a much healthier alternative. Before grabbing your car keys the next time you head out, why not consider taking a short ride or walk instead?

(1) Department for Transport (2018). NTS0308: Average number of trips by trip length and main mode: England.

(2) Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation. National Household Travel Survey, Popular Vehicle Trips Statistics.

(3) Smith L, Chowdhury S, Hammond J (2019). Healthy mobility and road safety. TRL PPR865. TRL Limited. ISBN 978-1-912433-51-3.

(4) Forbes (2018). Data from millions of smartphone journeys proves cyclists faster in cities than cars and motorbikes.

(5) Jacobsen PL (2003). Safety in numbers: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling. Injury Prevention 2003;9:205-209.

(6) Fishman E, Schepers P, Kamphuis CB (2015). Dutch Cycling: Quantifying the Health and Related Economic Benefits. Am J Public Health. 2015;105(8):e13-5.

Bernard Wong