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Commuting and my carbon footprint


Chris Crombie is a Technical Director at Atkins. In this article Chris discusses his commuting pre-pandemic and the transition to living locally, and the impact this has had on the planet.

For over 20 years I have been a committed commuter, travelling daily between South West London and Central London covering the daily return of 42 miles by bicycle or train. I was staggered recently to calculate that this amounts to over 200,000 commuter miles, or roughly a trip to the moon and back!


The nature of commuting means these miles are often a forgotten part of a Londoners carbon footprint. Had I covered the equivalent distance by circumnavigating the planet eight times I would been acutely aware of my investment in time and expense as well as the cost I had imposed on the environment. Travel cards on the table, I have rarely thought about this while sitting on a train during my morning commute.


Although the majority of my travel has been via bicycle or trains, a quick carbon calculation shows my impact on London, the city I love to call home, is over 22,000 Kgs of carbon or 22 tonnes, and I’m only one of 8.7m!


Do we all need to reconsider our commuting habits to achieve net zero targets by 2050? The answer is quite simply yes.


Until the beginning of last century, the distance people could walk in a day was the definitive measure of a settlements and as a result they rarely grew beyond villages. Recently our own anatomical measures have been replaced by those of the car, and cities have exponentially spread. Our exceptional public transport network has added arterial rail and tube connections to maintain the cities beating heart, but in doing so we have inadvertently enabled an unsustainable lifestyle.


Recently, we’ve all been required to live local and for many this has come with tangible benefits. extra time in the day, reduced costs, and less face to armpit induced stress. As a society we have engaged with our immediate surrounding enjoying a “local lifestyle”, limited at times to only 5 miles, and our own personal mobility.


Many have also discovered that their homes can successfully support a live work arrangement, with fibre optic cables replacing the journeys that we might have otherwise made in person.


We are also on the edge of a personal mobility revolution, E-bikes and E-scooters are leading an electrical charge into the future, offering an attractive alternative to local journeys by bus, car and even train.  The benefits of E-travel are indisputable, carbon free, clean, cheap and reliable, they need little more than a flat surface and a 13 amp plug socket – local personal mobility has never looked more exciting.


In combination subtle shifts in lifestyle and personal mobility have the potential to reshape our cities to the same extent cars did a century ago possibly moving us, once again, to living in villages as part of a polycentric settlement, less reliant on a centre. Given that 20% of a cities carbon footprint is linked to its transport systems, replacing at least some of the traditional commutes with clean local travel, could make a big difference.


Over the past 12 months I have only travelled to Central London on few occasions and as a result saved London around 10,000 miles and 1200kgs of carbon. Maintaining and encouraging local behaviours long term will require a transformation of our cities and society, particularly around how and where we work, but the something thing we can be certain of is reaching an environmental equilibrium is never going to happen without change.

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