10 Days Later: what did I learn from my low-carbon commute to the Netherlands?

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The image is split into two pictures. On the left, a man in cycling gear sits sideways on a bike, a grinning child behind him, in front of a building labelled 'management school'. On the right a black bicycle, with luggage strapped to the frame and beneath the saddle, rests on the sign for Nyenrode Business Universiteit. © Photo by Adam Mitchell

On 25 June, I set out from Lancaster University Management School, bound for Nyenrode Business Universiteit, host of the 2022 EFMD Marcom, External & Alumni Relations Conference. I had a self-imposed challenge of travelling in a way that minimised my environmental impact. The next day, I arrived in Breukelen, having ridden 200 miles and taken an overnight ferry from Hull to Rotterdam. Three days later, I’d reverse the route, arriving in Lancaster on 30 June, with another 200 miles in the legs and a carbon impact, estimated by the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business, 93% lower than had I flown.

What did I learn, and is cycling really a viable solution for sustainable business travel?

Firstly, commuting in a non-conventional way requires a different approach, a different mindset even. This is especially true when you need to utilise every last inch of limited luggage space. As a presenter at the three-day conference, I’d have ordinarily taken blazer, smart shirt and trousers, and smart shoes. Instead, I compromised by taking two shirts, trousers and lightweight trainers. Other clothing included a pair of jeans (the heaviest item of clothing), shorts, three t-shirts, a jumper and underwear (obviously), as well as a second full set of cycling clothing. I kept my toiletries to a minimum, squeezed in a bottle of travel wash (for washing both sets of cycling kit), chargers, passport and an iPad (no way was I going to take a laptop; another practical adjustment necessitated by my chosen mode of travel).

There were a few things I learned from this way of packing. Firstly, it doesn’t really matter how you’re dressed at a conference. What’s more important is the way you present yourself in terms of networking, raising the profile of the University and the Pentland Centre, and delivering a session that went down well with fellow delegates. I’d have performed no better wearing formal clothes. In fact, I might have ‘hidden behind them’, failing to be authentic to myself.

Secondly, also related to the wardrobe, is never to trust a hotel iron. With clothes tightly rolled up, my shirts in particular needed an iron, just not one with some sort of melted plastic on it, instantly ruining one shirt. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, I handed the remaining shirt to the hotel’s laundry service for overnight washing and ironing; at least I could wear a shirt for my presentation, even if I’d not had one on the first day. Good theory. In practice, the shirt didn’t get delivered until the final day, the day after I’d presented. But it didn’t actually matter one iota, and traveling by bike, where every gram counts, I regretted taking any shirts at all, and even felt quite pleased to leave a ruined one behind!

Away from packing – and I must thank my good friend and fellow cyclist, Simon, for the specialist bike bags – other challenges included booking the travel itself. Using the University’s travel portal, it was notable that the only options for international travel were flight or train. There was no option for booking a ferry, let alone a ferry with bike. My travel colleagues found a solution, finding and booking the ferry for me, and maybe next time (!) I’ll be able to self-serve, just as I’d have been able to for more conventional bookings. Similarly, I’ve discovered that when claiming mileage for cycling, there’s an arbitrary maximum of 25 miles, well short of my actual total of 411 miles. Just like the travel booking, I’m sure this will be resolved manually, but it highlights again a gap between the desire to encourage staff to travel green, and the reality of systems and processes.

In terms of time and cost, travelling to the Netherlands and back by bike added two days onto the journey time, meaning I was away from home for six days rather than four. But it was efficient insofar as I didn’t have a single airport queue to contend with and the two extra nights were spent on the overnight ferry. Budget-wise, the ferry cost £350 for a return crossing with all meals and a cabin for both nights. Considering the taxis, trains and flights required for a conventional journey, there was very little difference in total cost.

Finally, and returning to my opening question of whether travel by bike is a viable solution for sustainable business travel, I think travel by bike can be part of the solution, along with many other contributions, including making train the default choice ahead of flying. Clearly what I did is not realistic and my ‘commute’ was an extreme one, designed to draw attention to an extremely important topic for all businesses and organisations. However, I do think that cycling can play a part, especially if staff could be incentivised to make short journeys by bike. Of course, there are concerns about safety on the roads, and the lack of dedicated cycling infrastructure in the UK (unlike in the Netherlands, which is exceptional), but some of these concerns can be overstated in my opinion and must be balanced not only with the environmental benefits but with the benefits to physical and mental wellbeing too.

A challenge I gave to fellow delegates was that if each of them undertook just one small journey per week using a bike (or walking) instead of using a car, the cumulative impact would soon far exceed my return trip. Indeed, I know this first hand, where over the course of the last seven years of working in Lancaster, I have commuted to and from home more than 500 times, saving 13,000 miles of driving. I’d love to see more of us travelling in a more environmentally sound way, whether for business travel or personally, and doing what is realistic for each of us to make a difference, together.

Happy riding!

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