Take the Boots, Leave the Car

Howgills 089Walking is carfree. So what’s “Carfree Walking” all about you may ask? Carfree walking started as movement in the UK, aiming to encourage people who take recreational walks to use public transport instead of a car to get to the place they want to walk. Tim Woods from Car Free Walks, a UK website offering guides and promoting walks which are accessible via public transport, explains how easy it is to escape the city without a car and find a walking adventure. Woods outlines the benefits of carfree walking for the environment and for people’s health, as well as the support it gives to public transportation in rural areas.

What is your favourite walk? Which one gets you reaching instinctively for your boots and rucksack? Perhaps an exhilarating hike up an Alpine peak, or a coastal stroll spent gazing out to sea. It is unlikely that you pictured an overflowing car park at the foot of your chosen hill, or extended the daydream to sitting in a traffic jam on the way home. But while more and more people are heading for the great outdoors, many of them use their cars to get there. The tranquil scenery that they seek is being increasingly invaded by the noise, fumes and eyesore of growing volumes of traffic.

The solution is simple: carfree walking. Many people are looking for ways to reduce their car use and using public transport to reach the destination of your chosen walk is a simple way to achieve this. Often people opt for the car by default without considering the public transport services available, especially in rural areas.

Promoting the use of public transport for recreational activities is a real opportunity for the carfree movement. Efforts to reduce car dependency often focus on urban areas, where the problems caused by cars are most obvious. Other worthwhile initiatives try to persuade people that “essential” car journeys – the commute to work, the school run – can be made using sustainable transport. But it is also important to encourage a change to our habits in leisure activities. Otherwise, that much sought after “breath of fresh air” will become increasingly hard to find.

Taking the Alternatives

The environmental benefits of carfree walking are obvious – reducing car use cuts CO2 emissions, lessening the effects of global climate change. But leaving the car at home can improve the local environment as well; helping to keep rural areas pristine and not resembling our cities – it is hard to think of any stretch of countryside that is enhanced by having cars in it. Carfree walking also eases traffic congestion in popular walking areas, which can easily become overwhelmed with vehicles and inappropriate parking at the start of walks.

There are many other reasons to go for a carfree walk. Walking is an obvious way to get fit. The World Health Organisation claims that nearly 60% of adults do not take enough physical exercise and not taking the car provides a little bit more activity, even if it is just the walk to and from the bus station.

Carfree walking also supports rural transport services. In many countries, rural transport services are useful for walkers and a lifeline for people in the local community without a car. However many are underused and face a continual fight for survival. By using these services, walkers can play a vital role in helping to keep them sustainable.

However, there are limits to the possibilities for carfree walking. Not all walks can be reached by public transport, which puts them off limits to those of us without a car. Some people prefer to head into completely untouched wildernesses, where even train lines would be an intrusion to the pristine environment.

Walking Adventures

Despite the limitations, there are endless places across the world to get your boots muddy without firing up the ignition. The opportunity to complete a linear route is an attraction. Going for a walk can be an adventure, and few adventures involve going round in circles – Captain Cook would have ended up back in the UK with that approach.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island, sets the standard for carfree walking. A linear route across a dramatic volcanic landscape of deep craters and shimmering emerald lakes, it is hailed as the world’s greatest one day walk (by New Zealanders at least). This awe-inspiring hike attracts thousands of walkers each year, and this unique environment benefits from the fact that most leave their cars behind.

Each morning, 14 locally run bus companies collect “trampers” (the local name for walkers) from nearby towns and drop them at the start of the route. After an unforgettable day exploring the otherworldly scenery (which doubled as Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings films), buses running throughout the day collect the weary hordes 19.4km north of the start. This service is so efficient that few trampers, even locals, bother using their own vehicles – an impressive feat in a country where many depend on cars. It’s the same set-up for all of New Zealand’s Great Walks: Department of Conservation staff helps walkers to arrange shuttle buses to and from each route. This set up is an example to many other countries of how to keep popular walking areas as carfree as possible.

Many people use public transport to complete other famous long distance trails, such as the Appalachian Trail in the US and the hike to Machu Picchu in Peru. The distances involved, and the fact many walkers are from overseas (so often do not have a car with them), make this the logical approach.

Take a Hike

Not every walk receives enough visitors to justify its own dedicated bus service, but walkers can often make use of existing public transport systems. In the UK, the scenery of places such as the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands attracts hikers from across the world. The rich railway history has left a legacy of rural stations, most of which are still in use and in areas where cars cannot reach – perfect for setting off away from the crowds.

The popularity of carfree walking is growing. Walking magazines and walking groups help promote carfree walking by including details of public transport services in route plans. At train and bus stations in many countries, walking poles, rucksacks and muddy footprints are becoming an increasingly common sight during people’s leisure time. There may be some way to go, but it seems people are beginning to appreciate the joys of going for a carfree walk.

Finding a Green Walk

Traffic is a major problem in many parts of the UK’s countryside and many places can resemble a motorway in the summer months. Car Free Walks was started in 2007 by two friends in response to growing frustrations about cars ruining our days in the hills. The trigger to take positive action was the advice given in many of our walking guidebooks. The writers almost always list places to park a car, working on the well-founded assumption that people always drive to the countryside. But the frustration was that many authors recommend train station car parks as a place to leave cars – without even suggesting the option of taking the train! Car Free Walks website has over 150 routes in the UK and helps you plan or recommend a carfree walk. www.carfreewalks.org

Written by Tim Woods

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One Comment

  1. Jutta Jordans
    Posted 26 May, 2010 at 11:03 | Permalink

    walk to your walk.

    Seriously, we need to reconnect to our surroundings. The outdoors start right out of your door. Of course it is better to take a train or bus to your walk than to take your car (actually, you shouldn’t even have a car … and very likely you don’t or you wouldn’t even be here and read this). But it is even better to walk where you live.

    Walking or hiking, not as a form of transportation, not to get anywhere, but just as a leisure activity is a wonderful way to explore your own neighbourhood. And even if you might think at first that there is nothing special to see and your hometown streets can’t compete with woodland and high moores which you normally choose as your destination, they might surprise you yet.

    You will see a lot of beauty and a lot of uglyness. You will see that nature and even “wilderness” spreads in the oddest of places. You will see houses and gardens of people who you might be interested to meet. It’s a community building activity (dog owners know that … they normally do the walking from home thing anyway).

    We need to learn that “nature” and “environment” are not strange places that we visit for recreation on the weekends. We need to reconnect with the world around us.

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