What I learned from a year of active travel

There are clear health and environmental benefits from active travel. A key aim of our work to develop and promote Scotland’s National Walking and Cycling Network is to support physical activity and sustainable travel choices.  A year after ditching the car for her daily commute, Helen Todd, of Ramblers Scotland, tells us about some positive changes to her life and shares six things that she’s learned.

Setting off from home. © Helen Todd

Setting off on the daily commute.

A year ago I gave up commuting by car when our office moved to Edinburgh. After 11 years of a 50-mile round trip, I now faced a 6-mile city commute. As a long term campaigner for walking and cycling as modes of transport, I now had a chance to put my money where my mouth was. I could cycle to work in 30 minutes or have a 30-minute walk plus a 15-minute tram ride. Otherwise, for bad weather days, I could take a bus door-to-door in 50 minutes – I had options!

Walking to work past one of the most spectacular views of Edinburgh. © Helen Todd

Walkers in Edinburgh can enjoy spectacular views of the capital’s stunning skyline.

Twelve months on I’m now able to see what changes my active commute has brought about and it’s been astonishing – and very positive. Here are six things I’ve learned:

1. It doesn’t rain as much as I thought it would

There are long periods of time when I don’t get wet at all, despite Scotland’s dire weather reputation. For sure, there are weeks when it feels like my waterproofs are constantly dripping over the office chairs, but even in heavy rain I’d far rather be out in the elements than sitting in a steamy bus catching my neighbour’s cold, or stuck in my car in a traffic jam, and as a Rambler I’m used to wet weather.

2. It’s really enjoyable

Walking and cycling give me quality thinking time and I really get to appreciate the beauties of the natural world on a daily basis. There’s no doubt that the stresses and strains of everyday life have felt more manageable over this past year and I arrive alert at work. It’s also more sociable outside the bubble of a car, chatting to fellow cyclists at traffic lights, or exchanging pleasantries with passing dog walkers.

3. I spend less money

The cost of my tram or occasional bus ride, plus my annual bike service and batteries for bike lights, add up to much less than I used to spend on petrol each month. This means more cash in my pocket (apparently!).

You often don't need to cycle on the road. © Helen Todd

You often don’t need to cycle on main roads.

4. Infrastructure matters

It’s really important to have safe, pleasant paths away from traffic; it’s just not inspiring to trudge alongside busy roads or dice with heavy traffic, and it’s hard to persuade people out of their cars without a realistic alternative. My cycle route is mainly on leafy offroad paths and my walk is through the residential streets of a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site, and this makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of my trip.

5. Yes, I did lose weight

Weight loss and gain is all about calories in and calories out, but it’s clearly a bit more complicated than that. I’ve always been fairly active at weekends, but sitting behind a desk all day for 11 years meant that I’d built up some excess weight around the middle. Surely, swapping my daily 90-minute car drive for an hour’s cycle or walk would mean these extra pounds would just melt away? But they didn’t! After 3 months I’d barely lost any weight and the muffin top stubbornly remained. Reluctantly I started to cut down on biscuits and cakes, and, incredibly, after a month I had lost half a stone. Even more remarkably, this weight has stayed off even though I’m eating almost as much as ever. What does this tell me? Well, just being more active doesn’t mean I lose weight automatically but it certainly helps me keep it off if I watch the calories.

6. It’s easier to be more active

While car commuting I took part in an 8-week pedometer challenge and my daily activity levels added up to the equivalent of 11,000 steps – but I’d really struggled to find time to be active when I was behind a desk all day. This year I managed 15,000 steps a day without even trying as it was part of my daily routine. Even better, I now use my bike or walk for more trips – to the library or shops – rather than dropping by on my drive back from work.

Of course some journeys will always be better done by car. But with almost two-thirds of journeys in Scotland under 5 miles and 61% of trips taken by car, there’s clearly plenty of scope for people to switch to healthier forms of transport and have more active lives for many of these trips.

Despite knowing all the evidence, it’s still been a revelation as to how much my life has changed for the better through regular daily exercise, whether by losing weight, saving money or just feeling less stressed. Would I go back to car commuting? What do you think?

Helen is a Campaigns & Policy Manager at Ramblers Scotland, a charity working to promote walking for pleasure, health, leisure and transport to people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities throughout Scotland. For more information visit www.ramblers.org.uk/scotland

For more information on Scotland’s National Walking and Cycling Network visit our website.

All images © Ramblers Scotland

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