Cyclist pushing bike with woman in C.S. Lewis Square. Bike Life 2017

How a car diet can benefit your health & the planet

Did you know research has found that people inside vehicles are exposed to far higher levels of air pollution than those walking or cycling along the same urban routes? Cycling and walking more lowers the risk of getting serious diseases and can help slow down climate change.

Why not go on a car diet?

The biggest irony of the ‘lockdowns’ during Covid was that many people found their feet, and in some cases, a different set of wheels.

There has been a massive surge in walking and cycling since March 2020 with bike shops and retailers reporting soaring sales of walking shoes and cycling gear.

As leisure and shopping centres closed their doors, we were forced to find alternative outlets and went back to basics, finding a release pounding the streets.

Many of us also discovered our local parks and outdoor spaces, places we maybe hadn’t appreciated before. Less traffic on our roads meant we could hear the birds sing and those who dusted off our bikes found they could cycle more confidently on quieter streets.

Sadly, the traffic is largely back but if there are any personal lessons from the pandemic, it may have shown us that walking and cycling are both enjoyable and feasible modes of transport. They are also very good for us and our environment.

Benefits of walking and cycling

There is a huge body of evidence reporting the physical and mental health benefits of walking and cycling.

One of the largest recent studies from the University of Glasgow found that cycling to work was associated with a 45 percent lower risk of cancer and a 46 percent lower risk of heart disease. Imagine there was a pill you could take that could almost half these health conditions, GPs would certainly be prescribing it. Walking to work is also beneficial, contributing to a lower risk of heart disease.1

There is increasing knowledge about the impact cars have on both air pollution and climate change.

Air pollution is often invisible with residents in heavily polluted areas not aware what they are breathing.2 Some of the most concerning levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) emissions, which largely come from diesel engines, were recorded across inner city working class communities, with heavy traffic prevalent.

1 University of Glasgow research on active travel commutes, large-scale study of more than 260,000 people. Published in the bmj in 2017
2 Sustrans position on improving air quality

NO2 causes a range of harmful effects on the lungs, causing cough, wheezing and asthma attacks. There is also increasing evidence that tiny particulate pollution, from tyre and brake wear, as well as exhaust emissions contribute to a range of health conditions including stroke and heart disease.3

If you think you’re more protected inside a car than outside, think again. One expert, former UK chief scientific advisor Prof Sir David King, described cars as “boxes collecting toxic gases”. Experiments going back 20 years have shown that people inside vehicles are exposed to far higher levels of air pollution than those walking or cycling along the same urban routes.

Despite this fact parents often cite road safety as the main reason they drive their children to school, resulting in 1 in 5 cars in the rush hour doing the school run. Sadly, the majority of children in Northern Ireland live within just a mile of their primary school, a distance easily travelled on foot or by bike.

Cars impact on climate change

If the health impact isn’t enough to concern you, then consider the environmental implications.

Transport is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Northern Ireland at 23%. Whilst electric vehicles will help reduce local emissions, they still have an environmental impact. Modelling suggests we need to reduce private vehicle use between 20 and 60% by 2030 if we are to meet governmental climate change targets that are necessary to mitigate against the cataclysmic predictions of floods, food shortages, droughts and wildfires. 

Our attachment to driving, is a bit like knowing we should eat more fruit and less fatty foods – we are aware of the issues but choose to jump into our cars anyway, even for that short journey to the shop. Perhaps we should tackle our driving habits as if we are going on a car diet.

Cut back on driving – try the car diet

Belfast during lockdown. Photo courtesy of Sustrans & Brian Morrison

If we were to check our driving habits in a mirror we’d find the following4:

  • In Northern Ireland, 71% of all journeys are made by car
  • 18% of all journeys are by foot
  • 5% of all journeys are by public transport
  • Cycling remains at 1%. There are pockets of higher levels of cycling where there are traffic-free routes or protected cycle lanes, for example, in Belfast 12% of residents cycle at least once a week.5

If we were to look closer we’d find that two-thirds of all the journeys we make are less than 5 miles and 35% of all journeys are less than 2 miles, yet more often than not we choose the car. Consider that cycling two miles takes an average person just 15 minutes, similar to a car journey. It’s also worth considering the amount of time, fuel and pollution caused by people circling in a residential area looking for a car park space.

3 Royal College of Physicians (2016) Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution.
Report of a working party. London: RCP
4 NI Travel Survey, produced by Dept. for Infrastructure: Travel Survey for Northern Ireland 2017 to 2019
5 Bike Life Belfast 2019 report, joint publication by Sustrans and Dept. for Infrastructure

Think of all the benefits to you personally and the wider community if you cut down on your car use.

Imagine what a difference we could make if all those journeys under 2 miles (the 35%) in Northern Ireland were done on foot or cycle. We would be healthier, the air cleaner and perhaps we’d hear the birds singing again.

Why not give the car a rest just one day a week?

  • Try walking to your local shop for essentials (support local business)
  • Meeting a friend for a coffee and cake? Work up that appetite by walking or take a Belfast Bike
  • Walk, cycle or scoot with the children to school, summer camp or sports activity
  • Try walking or cycling to work just one day a week, then try two days a week
  • Take the family on a bike ride at the weekend instead of driving to a location
  • Check out your local bus or train timetable – Translink journey planner
  • Need to build your confidence to cycle or gain basic bike maintenance skills? Contact Sustrans cycle training in Northern Ireland. They offer many free sessions, thanks to funding from Dept. of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs at their Active Travel Hub in east Belfast.

Read more about Sustrans work.

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