Walking to Work: Tom Batten on the Importance of finding your own Steps to Sustainability

Working in sustainability means I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people who want to improve the state of the environment and our prospects for a cleaner and healthier future. Whilst there is often debate concerning the impact individual actions can have in the face of the climate crisis, I always find it inspiring to hear how people make changes in their lives to best serve an environmental purpose. Regularly cited interventions are a refusal to fly, purchasing of electric vehicles, switching to vegan or vegetarian diets, only buying second hand clothes, pursuing a ‘plastic free’ lifestyle or a combination of the above, plus many more.  

Whilst adhering to these absolutes can be hugely fulfilling and open doors to experiences and that might otherwise pass us by, the barrier that stops many is the perception that by adopting more sustainable behaviours, we miss out on the full range of pleasure offered to us by society. I consider myself relatively well informed when it comes to the climate impacts of various lifestyle choices, and part of the deal when choosing to advise others for a living is a constant feeling that I am not doing enough to reduce my own impact. I have dabbled in plant-based diets, and have massively reduced my meat intake, chosen to take most holidays in the UK, and unsubscribe from mailing lists to reduce the temptation of unnecessary purchases, but will confess to having no absolute rules by which I live. The absolute holy grail, therefore, are the lifestyle choices that are both the most sustainable, and the ones that would be chosen anyway. No FOMO, no asceticism, just a warm smug feeling that you’re doing the right thing… This is how I feel about walking.   

My commitment to walking has embedded itself into my routine, and I walk a lot, particularly to and from work. This might not sound like much, but I live in Knowle and work in Clifton, which is 3.2 miles, meaning I walk 6.4 miles each working day, down one side of the bowl of the city centre, and back up the other. This equates to around 1,500 miles a year. Just for work. This is a zero-carbon way of travelling (accounting for scopes 1 and 2) and represents a significant saving over petrol-powered car travel (520kg CO2e), Bus (290kg CO2e), Rail (107kg CO2e) or electric car (120kg CO2e)  

My commitment to bipedal locomotion extends beyond work and I insist on walking to and from pretty much everywhere within reasonable distance (assuming I don’t have to also transport goods or a toddler) In the last 5 years I can probably count the number of taxis / Uber rides I’ve taken on one hand. This approach never fails to raise an eyebrow as walking is, in my experience, often considered an inefficient use of time, and somewhat unfashionable when compared to bikes, e-bikes and electric scooters. To be honest it does take a while when compared to cycling, an hour each way as opposed to 20 minutes, although it is often quicker than the bus, my back-up commuting choice, when all elements are considered. In truth, time considerations are what has caused me to become addicted to my daily hike, specifically that I can guarantee how long it will take me to get from one place to another, and can I be sure that very little will impede my journey once underway.  

Another, far more important reason is the time and space it allows me to think and be free of the pressures of work and home life, a guaranteed twice-daily meditation where I can choose to psychologically prepare for, or unravel, the day’s events making me more ready and mentally present both at work and for my family. I can listen to music, catch up with a current affairs podcast, an audio book or simply listen to the rain on the hood of my jacket, which is relaxing so long as I’m heading homeward! My walk also burns around 600 calories per day and helps me maintain a semi-to-half-decent level of aerobic fitness. 

I appreciate that cycling offers most of the same sustainability benefits of walking and is much quicker, but I have tried it and found the journey through the centre of Bristol at rush hour to be an anxiety-inducing combination of irritable motorists, disappearing cycle lanes and suicidal e-scooter riders. When I walk my wits need not be about me, I can listen to Alistair Campbell and Rory Stuart debate the previous weeks political goings—on, safe in the knowledge that my distraction won’t result in my death under the wheels of a bus. In fact, it is more likely I will end up under the wheels of a bike or e-scooter and would, like all other pedestrians, massively benefit from more and better segregated cycle lanes across the city.  

It could be argued that walking saves money, and over the course of a year the equivalent return journey by bus would cost in the region of £950, and there is no need to own a bike or all the associated kit (which I have failed to save due to purchasing it and using it infrequently). Overall, however, I think the financial benefits could easily be overstated. I was once given some good advice, to spend money on the things that separate you from the elements and, more importantly, the ground. The amount I have ‘invested’ in coats and boots probably negates most of the savings from avoiding bus fare. In terms of office adaptations, I, like the cyclists, benefit from showers and lockers at work and am lucky that my team and employers don’t mind me occasionally turning up for work somewhat bedraggled, and sometimes taking an extra 15 mins out of my day to get to external meetings.  

I would heavily recommend walking more either as part of a daily commute or simply for pleasure. The mental and physical health benefits and the positive impact on the planet when compared to non-active alternatives are undeniable and there is definitely room on the pavement for a few more, so long as everyone maintains a decent pace and stays out of my way. 

The carbon impact of different modes of transport for 1500 miles. Conversion factors from the UK Government (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero).

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