A trillion reasons to think about how much we travel

Today marks the launch of the first report of the Commission on Travel Demand, All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning. It marks the culmination of 18 months of evidence gathering and debate with contributions from industry, government, NGOs and academia.

This is not a report about flying taxis or futuristic promises of systems that can get people to further flung places faster. It is a report grounded in the realities of today and it challenges some of the taken-for-granted narratives which define the transport system.

First, in the UK, per capita there has been a decline in how often and how far we travel for the past two and a bit decades. Even though, for example, we have had population growth and employment has never been higher fewer commute trips are made now than in the late 1980s. Shopping trips have declined 30% and, whilst some of this is due to the shift to on-line (now 17% of retail sales) the decline predates the on-line shopping era.

This must be wrong of course, the dip in traffic in the late 2000s was just the recession and we have seen growth in the last year right? You have to lift the bonnet a bit further to understand why rather than slowing or flattening, travel demand has not been further in decline. First, the decline in distances travelled per person has happened in every part of the country (see image below and analysis). Yes it is more marked in our cities where more people are living and where the options to not drive are better but these changes are everywhere. Second, they are most pronounced in under 30s but also in the 30 to 60 age band. The ONLY age range in which mileage per capita is growing is in the over 60s. This was anticipated, as the baby boomer generation reach retirement and retire with a lifetime of driving behind them, replacing a generation that was far less car dependent. What was not expected was the wave of reductions in the travel of younger people following on behind.


Whilst the traditional factors used to explain growth in travel such as income and fuel remain important, they are becoming less so. The activities we travel to access are themselves changing as are a range of other social trends which mean that the necessity and meaning of travel is also on the move. Work by Kiron Chatterjee and colleagues shows that for younger people a whole set of factors are changing which contribute to the reduction in travel such as living at home longer, more people staying in education for longer, delaying parenting (see their report). Scott le Vine and colleagues describe how work is changing with fewer people with one fixed place of work, more people working from home and fewer commuting five days a week (see image below and their report). The changes are not transport changes so we cannot hope to just find the explanations by looking in the same places we used to when the growth in car ownership was one of THE big social changes.


So, does any of this matter? It matters for a whole host of reasons – whether that is the need to meet carbon targets, improve air quality, the need to invest in the right sorts of projects or the need to address the chronic lack of exercise in the population. How we travel and how much we travel really does matter even though governments typically find it difficult to talk about. This is not a debate at the margins though. In 2015 the Department for Transport produced a set of road traffic forecasts in which the assessed what would happen if the recent trends for reducing how often we travel continue or stopped. The answer was, by 2040 a difference of 70 billion vehicle miles per year or, over the period up to 2040 a cumulative difference of over 1 trillion vehicle miles.


Let’s imagine that either of those futures is possible. What would need to be done to bring them about? What would our towns and cities look and feel like with such radically different levels of growth? How different would our investment priorities be? These would be the sorts of questions I would like to see being asked and which I will return to in my next blog. In the meantime, I hope this gives you a trillion reasons to think again about how much we travel and challenges at least one pre-conceived idea you held about travel trends.

Professor Greg Marsden is Chair of the Commission on Travel Demand and holds a chair in Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds.

All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning is available to download at www.demand.ac.uk/commission-on-travel-demand where you will also find all of the evidence.


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