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Blog Post 15 July 2021

An introduction to the sustainable travel hierarchy

The sustainable travel hierarchy is a useful tool to help you think about improving the impact of your journeys. The higher up the hierarchy, the more sustainable and greener the travel option.

We recently updated our travel hierarchy to reflect post-pandemic ways of working, highlighting that the most sustainable option is digital communication. This involves using email, phone, chat and video apps to communicate with colleagues.

In this blog, we take you through the sustainable travel hierarchy from top to bottom, to help you choose the lowest carbon travel mode for your journey.

Digital communication

With the range of video conferencing, home working, online shopping and networking on offer, you don’t always need to leave the comfort of your own four walls.

During the past year, many people have swapped the daily commute for working at home, so consider whether you can make use of the wide range of digital communication options available before making a journey.

Walking and wheeling

Just below digital communication in the hierarchy, walking and wheeling (the term used for wheelchair users) are classed as active travel methods. The only resource required to get from A to B is your own energy.

Travelling on foot or wheels doesn’t create any carbon emissions, so this is a sustainable and green way to make a journey. Each mile you walk rather than drive saves 276g of carbon dioxide (CO2).

female cyclist putting on helmet

Cycling

Cycling takes the third spot in our travel hierarchy, as this mode of travel requires some equipment (a bike and a helmet) to get you started. Jumping on your bike is a great option if you want to cover short distances quickly.

You may also prefer cycling for longer distances. eBikes are a great option here and there’s a national cycle network, in addition to the many dedicated cycle routes in towns and cities across the UK, so there’s no limit to how far your bike can take you.

Public and shared transport

There may be times when active travel isn’t a suitable option, for example you may be travelling a long distance or have luggage. This is where public and shared transport can be helpful.

Getting the bus or train instead of taking the car can help you reduce your carbon footprint while you travel. Shared and public transport also reduces traffic congestion and improves local air quality. It can also be a better use of your time, allowing you to check messages, read a book or chat with friends and family while you travel!

If you feel that you really need to use a car for a journey, why not look into joining a car club? The average club car produces 26.5% less greenhouse gas emissions than the average private car, and each car club vehicle takes up to 18.5 cars off the road, reducing congestion. Check out CoMoUK’s map to find your local car club.

Electric vehicles and car sharing

Sometimes a private vehicle is necessary and on these occasions you should consider the greenest type of vehicle– this is where electric cars come in.

With the electricity we use getting greener all the time as we get more of our energy from renewable sources, electric cars produce far fewer carbon emissions than their petrol and diesel equivalents – and there are zero tailpipe emissions.

The UK Government has set a target to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, with all new cars being fully zero emission at the tailpipe by 2035. When will you make the switch?

ICE vehicles and car sharing

Towards the bottom of the travel hierarchy, we find internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, which includes petrol and diesel cars.

Petrol and diesel cars contribute to local air pollution, with road vehicles responsible for around 70% of nitrogen dioxide in the UK. Reducing your dependency on this type of car can make a big difference to the environment – and to your wallet! For example, swapping just one quarter of car journeys with active travel options can save the average driver £379 a year in fuel costs.

Air

Air travel is the least sustainable method of transport, sitting right at the bottom of the hierarchy. In 2019, domestic and international aviation accounted for around 8% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions.

The aviation industry is working on ways to lower carbon emissions from flying, but we will still need to minimise our flights – especially long haul – where possible. A flight from Edinburgh to London, for example, emits around 159kg of CO2 per passenger, compared to as little as 23.5kg if you made the journey by train.

When travelling shorter distances within the UK, trains will take you into the city centre, whereas flights will land and take-off from the outskirts. When you consider this along with check-in times, there often isn’t much of a time benefit to flying. When travelling long distances within the UK, why not consider taking the train instead?

Last updated: July 8th, 2021