Why you should give up driving for Lent

A man rides his bike with a child trailer attached to the rear on a cycle path
Get more cycling into your life this Lent. Photo: Daria Taddei
Lent begins today. In the Christian church it’s a time for self-reflection and for many, a time to give up a luxury for the following 40 days. This year, Cycling UK’s Sam Jones suggests we all think about giving up driving… at least for journeys less than five miles

Let’s be straight from the start, I’m not advocating (or even) giving up driving full stop.

Even if travelling by public transport was a viable option for long distance travel, driving for many people is an essential lifeline and sometimes the only option.

I wish it were not the case, but decades of underfunding, reduction in services, the lack of connectivity at start and end points, and the simple high-cost makes it so.

I’m a relatively new father living in the countryside. The nearest affordable nursery from my rural village is close to 11 miles away. There are no buses, and even if my wee lad could face the hour and a half trip it would take me to drop him off when cycling with his trailer, a three hour round trip which would take in busy roads and rushing commuter traffic for just the morning drop off isn’t feasible or practical.

My only option is to drive and I hate it.

Until public transport across the UK improves – particularly in rural areas (big up the Welsh government that has set such an ambition) There will be journeys, whether for distance or purpose, that for most people the car might be the only solution.

My example isn’t unique, and will be something I’d imagine most of us will have experienced in some way over the course of our everyday lives. There will be journeys, whether for distance or purpose, that for most people the car might be the only solution.

For those that can get round these problems by cycling, then I truly salute you – but for those who can’t there’s no need to feel guilty.

Where we should feel guilty is for those shorter distances, where walking or cycling is possible.

You know what I mean: that short trip to the local shop which would take 10 minutes to walk in the rain or 30 seconds in the dry while driving…that’s the sort of journey I’m looking to give up for Lent, and is the sort of trip you, your neighbours and the majority of the UK should look to give up, too.

It’s something the Welsh Government has recognised could steer real change towards meeting its net zero goals, as stated in the National Transport Delivery Plan (p42) they published on 14 February 2023:

"If every adult in Wales with access to a car chose to only replace one car journey each week with a sustainable journey, we would exceed our modal shift targets for this plan period."

If every adult in Wales with access to a car chose to only replace one car journey each week with a sustainable journey, we would exceed our modal shift targets for this plan period

Welsh Government, National Transport Deliver Plan 2022 -2027

68% of journeys made in the UK are under five miles. That’s an easily ridable distance for most people – and if we all did it, it would make an incredible difference.

Graphic showing person cycling past a house. Text says Did you know 68% of trips in the UK are under 5 miles?

Transport is the biggest source for both air and noise pollution in the UK. According to charity Environmental Protection UK, “In town centres and alongside busy roads, motor vehicles are responsible for most local pollution and most environmental noise.”

According to an article in the BBC in December 2020 when the UK was in lockdown, we saw a drop of 13% of our CO2 emissions as the world collectively saw its biggest annual reduction since World War II.

Professor Corinne Le Quéré, from the University of East Anglia, UK, was involved in the global study, and is reported to have said, “The UK…have a lot of their emissions come from the transport sector and generally have a bit less coming from industry and other sectors.”

It’s clear – the collective impact of driving those shorter journeys where we could perhaps instead walk or cycle is having a damaging impact on our environment.

It’s not just the environment which is suffering, but also our own physical and mental wellbeing due to the increasingly inactive lifestyles we lead. A lack of exercise in our daily lives is putting one in four at risk of a raft of health problems, such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and some cancers, according to the World Health Organisation.

If looking after the future of the planet doesn't quite tip the balance for you, then perhaps the rising cost of petrol will. Currently the average price for unleaded is 154p per litre. That doesn’t look set to drop any time soon, and only piles further misery on top of the high prices we’re paying for everyday goods.

So whether it's the future of the world, your waistline, or your wallet, this Lent is an opportunity to ditch the car (it won’t mind I’m sure) and build more physical activity into your life.

For the next 40 days, Cycling UK is encouraging everyone to aim to cycle (or walk) for those shorter journeys where you might have been tempted to drive previously.

It’s easier said than done I’m sure, especially if like a lot of people, your riding is more focussed on the leisure or sporting side of cycling. Bringing the bike into your everyday routine can be a challenge – but a worthwhile one.

Photo of a bike outside a shop

One adventurer who is up for sacrificing their car habit this Lent is Chris Duncan, husband to Cycling UK’s social media guru, Hannah.

“I’ve always loved cycling but tend to do so for adventure – exploring new places on my bike is something I massively enjoy, especially out in the countryside,” said Chris. “However, we mainly use our bikes for leisure at the moment. We’ve been trying to make more of an effort to use our bikes for local trips, too, but realise we still have a long way to go.

“That’s why I’m really keen to take on this challenge for Lent and make a conscious effort to reduce the number of journeys I make by car.”

A man stands with his bike in front of a car

One of the biggest challenges to giving up the car (and carbon) for Lent is that it is going against decades of accepted and normal practice. Whether we think it is right or not, driving short distances is, as the figures show, normal behaviour for most people.

Behaviour change won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all if we don’t even try; sometimes we just need a little motivation.

“Changing my mindset is probably going to be the toughest part – it can be easy just to jump in the car without even thinking about it,” said Chris. “But the reality is that I’m 30 and healthy, so cycling a five-mile round-trip to the shops should be something I could easily do.

“This Lent challenge is just the motivation I need. Cycling short journeys is a small change to my lifestyle but something I know can make a big difference to the planet – plus it’s fun and keeps you fit at the same time! I’m looking forward to giving it my best shot.”

Choosing to cycle or walk those shorter distances is something we should all be aiming to do. It’s not anti-car to do so, it’s pro-cycling, pro-walking and ultimately pro-you.

Take it up this Lent and encourage others to do so as well – and who knows? Maybe this Lent you’ll begin, and even better, encourage others to begin a beneficial habit of a lifetime.

Up for the challenge?

Graphic showing person cycling past a house. Text says Leave the car at home. Cycle or walk your sub 5 miles trips for Lent

We'd love you to share your ride photos and experiences with us over the next 40 days (and beyond) using the hashtag #DriveLessCycleMore.

Tag Cycling UK on Twitter or Instagram and we'll choose some of our favourite pictures to share from our own channels.

Together we can inspire and encourage more people to choose active travel for short journeys this Lent.

Five top tips for giving up the car this Lent

1. Do the weekly shop by bike

Impossible you say… but not according to these ingenious individuals!

2. Combine those short trips with your daily exercise

Sounds obvious, right? But use that errand as an excuse to get your bike out of the shed or don your running / walking shoes

3. Reward yourself

Cake is a well-known reward for cyclists, so if you’re riding instead of driving, having a bigger slice than normal is surely justifiable in the eyes of the Lord? If you need some help with a tasty recipe, then we've got you.

4. Gear up

Think ahead to what you’re going to save in terms of petrol over the course of the next 40 days, and invest in a decent breathable waterproof. It's a British winter - it's going to rain. Just because you’re making a sacrifice, it doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable while doing so. If you're stuck where to look, our gear reviews should help you.

5. Don’t give up!

You fell off the wagon of good intentions and had to drive on day three… don’t let that stop you from carrying on trying for the rest of the 40 days. This isn’t a competition, but a chance to change normal accustomed behaviour. Take encouragement in the words of late great US President Teddy Roosevelt who said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”