Sustainable transport | Alternatives to commuting | Walking (or running?) and cycling to work

Green Pedestrian Crossing in China Creates Leaves from Footprints

Walking and cycling are the two major non-oil consuming, non-polluting forms of transport. Many people ride bicycles and/or walk for many reasons: commuting to work, as part of their job, for shopping and visiting, and for pleasure and recreation. For many of these citizens, walking and cycling are an important, and in some cases the main, means of transportation.

The societal benefits of cycling and walking are countless, and the environmental benefits are several as well, particularly in relation to the prevailing mode of transport: the car (1).

By far the greatest environmental benefit of walking and cycling is the fact that they bypass the fossil fuel system to which our modern economy has become addicted. Aside from the modest additional food intake which fuels the cyclist or walker, cycle-riding and walking do not contribute to the environmental damage inherent in extracting, transporting, processing, and burning petroleum or other fossil fuels.

Walking and cycling supports the environment by:

  1. having no adverse effects on the environment
  2. offering an alternative to car use
  3. cutting down on traffic congestion and pollution
  4. reducing road maintenance and car parking
  5. reduce noise levels

Improving the environment also brings added health benefits that come, for example, from cleaner air, less traffic noise and fewer road accidents (2).

“Walking is highly efficient in its use of urban space and energy, it rarely causes injury and it gives streets vitality and personal security. Many car trips are quite short, less than 2 km, indicating that walking could be a feasible alternative and contribute to reducing the pollution from a cold-start vehicle travelling only a short distance.” (3)

Emissions from cars are greatest when an engine is cold. The first few minutes when you start up and then drive your car produces the highest emissions because the emissions control equipment has not yet reached its optimal operating temperature. On a cold day a petrol car may take up to 10km to warm up and operate at maximum efficiency. One of the best ways individuals can contribute to reducing air pollution is to leave the car at home for short trips and walk or cycle instead (2).

Münster’s iconic ‘waste of space’ photo

Cycling and especially walking require a lot less physical road space per traveler than automobiles. Thus, human-powered travelers avoid most of the need for roadways exerted, along with associated environmental costs: such as loss of open space, conversion of farm land, elimination of water and flood drainage, and the various direct impacts from creating, installing, and maintaining pavement surfaces (1). Similarly, walking and cycling add little or nothing to congestion.

Road traffic noise is a major contributor to high noise levels, particularly around schools and places of work. In adults it can affect our sense of well being and lead to sleep disturbance as well as hearing loss if we are exposed to high noise levels for long periods of time (2).

Other indirect environmental benefits of cycling and walking:

  • reducing oil use would also reduce the correlated activities of drilling, shipping, and storing it that have a huge impact on the environment, let alone the collateral risk of leakage…
  • car and truck air conditioning account for about a quarter of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) use. These manmade chemicals are considered responsible for an estimated 14% of the greenhouse effect, ranking third behind CO2 (responsible for about 50%) and methane (18%) (4). And are also destroying the stratospheric ozone.
  • Stormwater runoff of salts applied to de-ice highways harms the environment. The portion of this allocable to bicycling and walking 
is quite small.

Cyclists and walkers suffer loss from vehicles not only as citizens and taxpayers, but as victims of a transport system and motor culture that subject them to constant danger and abuse. It is vital that the environmental benefits of bicycling and walking be appreciated not only by planners and public officials, but by the populace at large (1).


  1. (1993). Case Study N. 15. Environmental Benefits of Bicycling and Walking. National Bicycling and Walking Study, U.S. Department of Transportation. Federal Highway Administration.
  2. Walk to Work Australia, “Information Sheet 2: Environmental Benefits of Walking.” Retrieved 05.11.2012, from
  3. Mason, C. (2000). “Transport and health: en route to a healthier Australia?” Medical Journal of Australia 172: 230-232.
  4. EPA, U. S. (1989). “The Greenhouse Effect: How It Can Change Our Lives.” EPA Journal 15(1).

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