Blog by Taylor
Sustainable Merton Community Champion & Air Quality Team Leader
We’ve all probably heard the term “active travel”, but what does that actually mean? Simply put, it refers to making journeys by walking or cycling. By incorporating active travel into our daily lives we can save money, improve local air quality, reduce traffic, and get the recommended daily amount of exercise without eating into our increasingly limited free time.
Here are some pledges you can take to #BreatheCleanerAir - a simple way to feel good while doing something good for the planet. It's a win-win!
1) Ditch the drive
According to a study commissioned by Sustrans, 68% of UK trips undertaken are under 5 miles and 19% of trips are less than 1 mile. Many of these trips are done via car and in traffic, resulting in considerable amounts of air pollution. Consider replacing one drive a week with walking, cycling, or taking public transit. You’ll not only save money on petrol and keep fit, but will get to better know your community and improve your mental wellbeing.
Fun fact... Merton is the only borough in London to be served by trains, trams, the Underground, and buses.
Upgrade the school run
In the UK, a staggering 86% of children are breathing dangerous levels of toxic air. The British Lung Foundation notes that children are more vulnerable to polluted air due to smaller, still developing airways and breathing more rapidly than adults. Continued exposure to air pollution can increase their risk of developing asthma, infections like pneumonia, and lung cancer. Perhaps even more alarming is that sitting in traffic can actually be more harmful to a child’s health. Professor Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser, writes that air pollution is more harmful to children in cars than outside as children are more likely to be exposed to a concentrated form of air pollution from toxic gases by surrounding vehicles.
Fortunately, remedying this problem can be as easy as walking or cycling. Parents, if you are routinely driving your child to school, consider making the school run more fun with Walking Wednesdays or Fitness Fridays! Set aside these days to incorporate an engaging walk to and from school. If you live near other families, why not try forming a Walking Bus with other school children?
Strengthen your physical and mental wellbeing
Did you know that the health benefits of walking and cycling outweigh the negative health effects of air pollution? This holds true even in cities with high levels of air pollution. Going on a 30 minute walk can not only lower your risk of heart disease, but can also decrease risk of stroke by 35% and Type 2 diabetes by 40%. Incorporating active travel into your daily routine doesn’t have to mean starting and stopping your trip at your front door. If you’re unable to walk for long periods of time or want to walk but are worried about heavy items, consider building up your strength in small increments. This could begin with a short 10 minute walk or cycle ride, or parking your car a little further away than normal and walking the rest of your journey.
As so many of us have experienced heightened sensitivity to anxiety, low moods, or even depression due to the pandemic, it’s important to spend time focusing on your mental health, alongside your physical health. Something as short as a brisk walk around your block has proven to boost mood and energy during the day, and may contribute to a better night’s sleep.
Petrol in the UK is among the most expensive in Europe. Factor in car maintenance, metered parking and parking permits, and the cost of using a car keeps going up. Replacing a two-mile drive with walking or cycling once a week would result in reducing wear on your car by over 100 miles each year, saving you not only money but also time that would otherwise be spent sitting in traffic.
2) Cycling 101
Your first bike
Cycling doesn’t need to be an expensive means to get around and there’s certainly no obligation to don Lycra while riding. Consider the cost of a TFL travelcard from zone 4 to zone 1: £204.30 per month or £2128.00 for an annual pass. Purchasing bikes second-hand, using a cycle-share or cycle-for-hire bike, or taking advantage of your place of work’s “cycle to work” scheme are not only more sustainable for the environment but can also greatly reduce your monthly travel expenses, allowing you to put money saved towards something else.
Merton resident Nico cycle commutes to work in Paddington using a bike purchased through the cycle to work scheme and had this to say about his experience: “After registering for the scheme through my work, I simply placed an order for a commuter bike online and was able to pay with my voucher code at the check out. I ended up saving about £400 on a new bike.” How easy is that? If you’re interested in learning more, Sustrans wrote about how these schemes end up saving both you and your employer money.
Want to try before you buy? Merton Council has partnered with Peddle My Wheels, which allows Merton residents to trial a bike for a small monthly fee of £10 for children or £20 for adults. If you end up liking the bike you’ve used, you are then able to purchase it at a discounted price. Unsure about which one is best for you? Not to worry - they have a wide variety designed to fit your needs including folding bikes, electric bikes, and even cargo bikes designed to carry larger loads. The Bike Project, an organisation that provides second hand bikes to refugees and asylum seekers, recently opened a chapter at 42 Station Road in Colliers Wood and offers reasonably priced bikes, accessories, and bike services, meaning Merton has even more options when it comes to affordable cycling.
Purchasing Tip: Unsure about where to look for a second-hand bike? Cycling UK offers advice on places to buy, how to avoid buying a stolen bike, and what things to look out for before purchasing. Once you have your bike, be sure to register it free of charge with the UK’s national bike register.
Similar to maintaining a car, bike maintenance plays an important role in ensuring your bike will be running smoothly and safely. The UK’s own Global Cycling Network has numerous instructional videos on cycle care, covering everything from how to wash your bike in a flat or in a garden to how to fix a puncture. Merton’s Dr. Bike periodically offers free bike maintenance checks at Wimbledon Centre Court and the Wandle River trail entrance near Sainsbury’s in Colliers Wood. Be sure to check Merton Council’s website for the most up to date information on sessions.
Cycle confidently and safely
There are plenty of local and London-based organizations aimed at helping people gain bike confidence. Organisations such as Cycle Sisters work to help women in particular gain confidence. Feeling unsure about the road? Parks such as Morden Hall Park, Morden Park, and the Wandle Trail are great for beginner cyclists who want to practice a bit before riding alongside cars. Richmond Park also has car-free paved roads in the centre of the park, with a cycle-for-rent shop, car park, and café next to Roehampton Gate.
Legal and safety dos and don’ts: Ensure that you are aware of the rules and best practices regarding cycling and read through the highway code. Key points include always being aware of what’s on the road, maintaining high visibility with bright coloured clothing and legally required lights; and signaling your intentions early. Similar to car insurance, you may want to consider purchasing cycle insurance to protect your bike in case of damage or theft. For the recreational cyclist, comprehensive insurance can be as low as £5-10 per month.
Recent improvements to cycle routes, including clearer bike lane markings and newly installed barriers, mean that cycling on the high streets in Merton is becoming safer and more accessible to new cyclists.
“I learned to cycle as a child, and only started cycling again a few years ago in an attempt to save money on transport and not rely on public transport. I had a terrible bicycle, but it saved me so much money and time, and I slowly became more confident riding in heavy traffic. My top advice to someone trying to gain more confidence cycling on the road would be to learn to keep their balance cycling with only one hand and/or cycling glancing behind them, as they will constantly use hand signals and glance at traffic coming from behind.”
Sustainable Merton Community Champion
3) Active Travel Apps
Given that we’re living in an app-based world, there’s never been an easier time to track and gamify your walks, runs, and cycling trips. Fitness apps such as Strava (free for basic use, paid for premium athlete-focused use) and Komoot are among the most popular in London, with more coming to the marketplace each year. Most of these apps will track the total amount that you’ve walked, run, cycled, etc. and package your end-of-year stats.
Local transit apps such as Citymapper and the newly launched TfL Go app are available free of charge for Android and Apple phones. These offer up-to-date timetables, maps, and other important information for your walking, cycling, or transiting journey. Citymapper even has a calories burned calculator!
Better know your streets
By getting off the high streets, you’re ensuring a bit more peace of mind not only being further away from traffic but knowing that you’re breathing cleaner air. Many fitness and travel apps feature local hotspots, highlighting routes that are commonly taken, giving users comfort in knowing that they are using a well-established and frequently travelled route.