The wonders of #carfree & #flightfree travel

8 November 2019

By Jools Townsend, chief executive, Association of Community Rail Partnerships, and avid green traveller


Travel is a part of who I am. I love exploring, being outdoors, visiting new places and meeting people. I caught the travelling bug in my teens, and have done a fair bit of backpacking. It's something I can't imagine giving up.

But I am also acutely aware of the imperative for us, as a society, to wean ourselves off carbon-intensive transport modes, to avoid climate meltdown: a crisis that threatens all of the wonderful places I've been to, and all of life on Earth.

We have already warmed up our amazing planet by one degree, and we have just a few years left to avoid going over a 1.5 degree rise.¹ The consequences beyond this are unthinkable:millions losing their homes, a third of the world's population facing extreme heat, devastation for the world's plant and animal species, no more coral reefs.²

Climate Action Tracker warming projections

Yet we're not on course to hit a 1.5 degree rise, but 2.4 to 4.3, by the end of this century, just about within current lifetimes.³ We are entering the unknown, and it's truly frightening.

Transport is now the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the UK.4 Progress has been made in other sectors, but we've gone the other way in transport.

We're making more journeys, buying more highly polluting cars, and despite the climate crisis having been understood for decades, we're still driving and flying, mostly without a second thought.

Image by Kevin Snyman from Pixabay

There are signs that change is coming: millions of children and adults globally have been demonstrating for their futures,5 and the climate crisis is now ranked by the public as a top priority.6

The UK Parliament has declared a climate emergency, and the government has adopted legally binding targets to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050,7 although many acknowledge (including the government) the need to go further and faster than this.8

What does this mean for travel, and those of us who treasure our holidays, weekends away, and big trips? These things are not only nice to have: they can be important for mind, body and soul, and ingrained in our identities as individuals and families. How many of our most valued moments and memories are on holiday?

It seems clear we have to find another way to travel. But actually, this shouldn't and needn't be a case of 'making do': we can embark on all sorts of adventures, and make lots of happy memories, without going anywhere near a plane, and even, dare I say it, near a car.

The beautiful and fascinating railway lines showcased on Scenic Rail Britain are proof of this. And, I'm happy to say, I'm proof of it too. Although I originally stopped driving more by luck than judgment – my car broke down and I never got another one, gradually realising I didn't need it – I've been largely car free now for 17 years, aside from the odd taxi ride.

I can honestly say that I'm not only greener, but healthier, wealthier, and probably happier for it. Earlier this year, with mounting concern for the climate emergency, I took a #flightfree pledge too, and I'm feeling pretty happy about that too.

Since then, we have had a couple of amazing trips: Cornwall and the Scillies by sleeper train and boat, and south Cumbria by train. On both these trips, the journeys were part of the experience.

Bryher, Isles of Scilly
Arriving at Penzance

The sleeper from Waterloo to Penzance is great fun, and there is something magical about waking up in a rocking carriage, seeing misty green hills of Cornwall out the window, not to mention hopping straight onto a ferry to the incredible Isles of Scilly.

The tranquillity (especially on the smaller, largely car free islands) and beauty of these islands, with their lush gardens and sandy beaches, puts a lot of more exotic destinations to shame I'm sure.

The view of Bryher from Tresco

On our weekend in South Cumbria, we not only got the train there, via the beautiful Bentham Line from Leeds, but also hopped back and forth on the Furness Line (two community railway lines on this site I'd highly recommend!)

Bridge over Kent Estuary near Arnside

This included passing over the spectacular Kent Estuary, with its incredible birdlife and expansive skies, from Arnside to Grange-over-Sands, enjoying views you can only see by train. From there, we walked through lovely countryside to Cartmel, a famous foodie destination.

We're now planning our first flight free trips abroad, including a weekend in Paris and, hopefully, a trip to the Carpathians next year: all by train, public transport, and a bit of trekking too.

View of Kent Estuary

We're really excited about this, and about the journey being part of the experience. It doesn't feel like we're losing out by travelling this way.

Bicylces on Tresco, Isles of Scilly

In fact, from our experiences so far, I'd say that there is something special, liberating even, from travelling flight and car free, especially if you build in some walking or cycling, for the feeling of getting somewhere under your own steam power.

Travelling sustainably can also bring greater contact with people and places around you: more community-orientated travel. I've just re-watched the 1980s Michael Palin TV series Around the World in Eighty Days, in which he laments the rise of air-based travel as disorientating, superficial and too fast, literally lifting you out of places and away from the contact and experience that other forms of travel afford.

It made me wonder if watching this as a child inspired some of my enthusiasm for independent travel. It's also a great reminder of what and where is possible without flying!

It seems clear to me that there are endless opportunities for travelling without planes or cars, within Britain, and further afield. It takes a bit of planning, rethinking and determination, but the benefits can be wonderful, liberating and enlightening.

Arnside Station

I'm very much looking forward to continuing my travel adventures, and visiting more places this way, and I'll be sharing my experiences on this blog, in the hope of inspiring others. Because we have a lot to gain from making the most of these wonderful green travel opportunities, and, sadly, everything to lose if we don't.

1 IPCC (2018) Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty,

2 Carbon Brief (2019) 'The impacts of climate change at 1.5C, 2C and beyond'

3 Carbon Action Tracker (2019) 'Carbon Action Tracker'

4 Science and Technology Committee, Houses of Parliament (2019) Clean Growth: Technologies for meeting the UK's emissions reduction targets

5 The Guardian (2019) 'Across the globe, millions join biggest climate protest ever'

6The Guardian (2019), 'Climate change now the most pressing issue, says poll'

7 (2019) 'UK becomes first major economy to pass net zero emissions law',

8 (2019) 'UK to go further and faster to tackle climate change'; Independent (2019) 'UK is set to miss net-zero 2050 target with 'dire consequences', MPs warn'

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