When you need to head somewhere, how do you get there? Do you walk, bike, hop on the bus, or get behind the wheel of your car? If it’s the car, an annual event encourages you to spend a day thinking about making another choice.
World Car-Free Day is an international initiative held each year on September 22. On this day, cities across the globe encourage their citizens to ditch the vehicle for 24 hours and show them what their neighborhoods might look like with fewer cars. They often make it fun, holding events on roadways to show other ways they could be used. It also highlights the benefits of other modes of transportation, and there are quite a few.
Cutting back on car trips can help lower vehicle emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, transportation is responsible for 29% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions every year, more than half of which is from light duty vehicles. Car trips of under a mile are estimated to total 10 billion miles per year in the U.S., too. The EPA says walking or biking half of those trips instead would save about 2 million metric tons of CO2 emissions each year. If you choose to take transit instead of driving alone, it would also reduce CO2 emissions by an estimated 45%.
The more cars we drive, the more we add other problematic things to the environment, too, including antifreeze and engine oil.
Cutting back on emissions and air pollution not only helps tackle climate change, but the improvements to the environment also have a direct impact on health. The World Health Organization says ambient air pollution caused more than 4 million deaths in 2019 alone. Air pollution has also been linked with breast cancer, diabetes, and dementia.
Physical Health Benefits
Being physically active through regular walking or cycling can improve your cardiovascular fitness, lower your risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, keep you at a healthy weight, and strengthen your bones. Among those who have a walking or biking commute, rather than strictly using a car, research has found that the risk of developing heart disease is also 11% lower and the risk of death from heart disease or stroke is 30% lower. For retirees or remote workers without a commute, the same research found that a more active travel pattern was also beneficial, as it was linked with an 8% lower mortality risk, compared with only using a car.
Another study out of the United Kingdom found that those who cycle to work have a 45% lower risk of developing cancer, while research based out of the U.S. Midwest found that eliminating car trips under five miles round trip in the urban areas of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin would lead to nearly $5 billion in health benefits due to improved air quality. The same study found that the increased physical activity that would stem from cutting just half of these trips would save nearly $4 billion dollars in avoided deaths and health care costs.
Mental Health Boosts
In addition to the physical health benefits, a more active commute can be good for your mental health. Children who walk to school have been found to do better academically, have lower stress levels at school, and be happier and more excited on the way to school.
For adults, the findings are similar. A study involving nearly 18,000 British workers found that those who spent more time commuting in cars had worse psychological wellbeing, while the opposite was true for those who had a longer walk to work. Those who took transit also benefitted, demonstrating better mental health than those who drove their own vehicle.
Maintaining a bike or walking means some serious financial savings over driving a car, too, what with the lack of gas, vehicle maintenance, car insurance, and even car payment if you don’t own your vehicle outright. According to the UN Environment Programme, the average annual cost of owning and traveling with a bicycle each year is between $200 and $340. For a car, that increases more than 10-fold to between $2,800 and $9,600 per year.
There are also savings for your community if you bike instead of drive. In The Netherlands, where cycling is common, a 2018 report from the government found that the average annual infrastructure costs per traveler, per kilometer, were $0.03 for bicycles and $0.11 for cars.
Other non-financial community benefits to driving less include reducing congestion in neighborhoods and around schools, keeping kids safer; a decrease in noise pollution; an increase in shared use bicycle and pedestrian paths; and the ability to socialize with people more than you would if you were all sitting in your cars.
With fewer cars and more paths for pedestrians and cyclists, there’s also less of a need for concrete, which can mean more greenery. Many cities have taken this idea and run with it, turning former roadways into beautiful green spaces. That includes Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, South Korea, and Madrid Río in Madrid, Spain.
Tips for Walking/Cycling
If you want to make things a little more interesting when you walk or cycle to work or the store, consider trying new routes. If you feel a little unsafe out by yourself, you can also get some coworkers together for a “bikepool” or a group walk. Be sure to wear what you need to be comfortable and protect yourself from the elements, including the sun. Ultimately, you may find leaving the car in the driveway a few days a week is worth it.