Moving around less

There’s an interesting piece in this week’s Economist, confirming that we are moving around less:  It does seem odd given there are record numbers on the rails and on the Tube, and certainly travelling around the country, one rarely sees an open clear road, but the trend downwards in car travel has now lasted much of the decade and there is no doubting statistics

Yet, overall we are making fewer trips than a decade ago. Instinctively, the statistics feel wrong. Of course the economic situation has reduced demand for travel, as have high fuel prices, but the downward trend started before the economy bombed and the cost of fuel soared. The Economist struggles  somewhat to find a coherent explanation behind the figures. Internet shopping, the fact that people multitask when they go out in their cars – doing a bit of shopping while visiting friends, or buying things in several stores at retail parks or town centres – and rising costs are all part of the explanation.

But as the article points out, the experience of travelling has mostly improved. Cars are far more comfortable, and so are trains and even bikes require less energy to pedal. There are counter trends,too – more centralisation of medical facilities, the closure of local shops – which make people travel further when they do make a trip.

The statistics suggest that there is a reluctance for people to increase the amount of time they spend travel.This has implications for transport planners and politicians. Do we really need the infrastructure they are so keen on providing for us? Are we really moving to a world where people see less travel as a good thing? Simply extrapolating previous rising trends may well prove to be an expensive mistake.


  • “Simply extrapolating previous rising trends may well prove to be an expensive mistake.” So why don’t you tell us all how you would predict future transport usage? All I see you do is moan about how the demand may not be there for HS2, but what about if it is there? Would you have us running around on a crippled transport network just in case our best estimate turns out to be wrong?

  • “there is a reluctance for people to increase the amount of time they spend travel” = there is a desire to reduce the amount of time they spend travelling. Thats the “value of time” – upon which the business case fr HS2 is based!

  • Get me somewhere quickly, I’m likely to go there.  Get me somewhere slowly, I’m not.  There’s plenty of places I’d like to visit but I don’t have the time to spend getting there. I’d like to spend more time in the Lake District but the train times from London mean that it’s a huge time outlay for a weekend.  So I spend time closer to home.

    Similarly though, the slow alternative is useful.  Sleeper trains allow great distance with a bed to boot.

  • Richard Baffoe-Djan

    I agree with Ian’s point about the value of time. However in the case of HS2 I think there’s a somewhat weak case economically and socially for it’s route to Birmingham, with no intermediate stops. The real benefits come in Section 2, which for what it’s worth, might as well just skip Birmingham all together and go through the east midlands where the real benefits of faster connections to London could be realised.

    There would be wider benefits by proper planning and expanding Birmingham’s metro systems to serve a increasing percentage of the population, encouraging investment and enterprise zones in run down areas especially in the railway lands encompassing the city for not just large enterprises but also small and medium businesses.In the meantime, there’s a perfectly good Chiltern mainline that would be worth upgrading. 3/4 cars to 6/8 cars will demonstrate to potential customers that there is sufficient capacity to meet future demand. Additionally highlighting the benefits of good customer service, which Chiltern themselves have done remarkably with their Mainline Services (Free Wifi and in particular the Business Zones) It’s comfort and the ability to do work while on the move that’s the biggest impact on ‘value of time’ along with feeling safe while on the train, and being informed when things go wrong.As a young professional, I wouldn’t mind investing in Birmingham and that can only happen on a larger scale when outsiders no longer see it as a place to shop or a convenient place for White Van Man and frankly, a little bit of a dump.

  • Simon Hickman

    I regularly pop up the Lakes for the weekend from London – it’s less than two hours 40 minutes from Euston to Oxenholme, and not too expensive if you plan ahead.

    Spontanious trips are out of the question with high walk-up fares, of course.

    But the speed of service is good. I can catch the half five off Euston on a Friday, do a simple change onto a Windermere train at Oxenholme and be having a pint in Kendal by half eight.

  • Friday’s easy – it’s coming back on Sunday that’s a nuisance – getting back at a reasonable time and being ready for work the next day.  Arriving home at 10pm is too late for me! 

    Then there’s the time taken to get from Euston to my house!  All adds up.  No, if I do it, I prefer to do it in three days.  Lopping an hour off the journey time would make it much easier.

  • Percy

    I’ll just leave this here.

  • Percy

     Its lovely to see you and your £££££ spend while your up here in the Lakes does help the local economy but on the other hand its even nicer in the winter when there’s no one around and you get an idea of what Wordsworth was talking about with his 19th century anti rail stance. Should it be easier to get here or should it be special enough that you have to make an effort? sometimes if something is too easy you don’t value it, maybe faster travel from London wouldl devalue Cumbria, It may also bring more well off southern based people as well as American & Japanese tourists to spend locally which although good in some ways unfortunately has its downfalls as well as its positives. If it all ended tomorrow the big groups and incomers who own tourist related businesses here would go somehwere else following the money, the seasonal and East European workers would as a rule disappear and the local economy would adjust to something else, maybe more rural,  possibly more poverty stricken but never the less probably more authentic and less like a theme park. One of the reasons Cumbria is so pro nuclear in the west is that Sellafield provides thousands of what some locals would call real jobs as opposed to seasonal service industry minimum wage opportunies in fact  quite a number of locals would like to see more quarries and heavy industry for that reason but obviusly that doesn’t go down well with the National Park or the National Trust who many local people dont’t like. Its all a double edged sword really, for and against, theme park or working environment, each with its own negative consequences and downsides.

  • Thomas

    Heres an interesting article from the Westmorland Gazzette

    Cumbria is set to loose its semi fast regional rail services to its main regional city & airport.  Is this because the County is seen as a Leisure Economy and therefore is viewed in Political circles as not part of the real economy or is it just the lack of decent local political representation fighting the case for Cumbria. If you look at the Northern Hub website there are lots of
    improvements listed as far as Newcastle / Middlesboro in the NE but in
    the NW it all ends at Preston and Blackpool – the writing has been on the wall for some time and Cumbria has done nothing until its almost too late.  Instead of buiding the semi fast network, using the energy coast proposals to invest in the infrastructure of the Cumbrian Coast line and extend semi fast services from Barrow to Whitehaven,  Workington & Maryport there is a scaling back of provision both on the coast and to Windermere, meanwhile at the eastern end of the trans pennine network coucils in Hull, Scarborough and Middlesboro are up in arms about the possibilty of electrification not being extended to their branch lines and reports in the railway press suggest wiring up is being considered to preserve the network. The double standards are proabably down to poor political representation and the fact that cumbria is viewed as a leisure park and not as part of the industrial / commercial economy.

  • Rich

    Good luck with getting an answer to that from CW. According to him and other HS2 naysayers, increased immigration, increased life expectancy and the fact that rail travel is rising in a recession means that the present rail network patched up a bit will do for the the next 100 plus years.

  • Steve Ashford

    An interesting article. I have also read recently that there has been a big fall in the number of young people driving. Of course, economic factors probably play a big part (cost of learning to drive and running a car), but I sense a slight cultiral shift as well. My 16 year old has no interest in learning to drive, and I know a few other young people who think similarly.
    I also read recently in the Guardian that the company that runs the M6 Toll loses huge amounts of money and that the number of vehicles using the M6 Toll is falling quite sharply.
    As to rising numbers on trains (and in some cases, buses), given that public transport’s share of most markets is quite small, it only takes a modest shift from car to train to give a big percentage increase in rail use. Perhaps people are finding long car journeys boring, and technology now gives public transport an advantage. Think how many people you see using laptops, tablets and smartphones whilst travelling.

  •  Another factor in the difference is possibly that the government/civil service is a major employer in the north east and so there is a need for senior civil servants to travel between Newcastle-on-Tyne and London.

    I suspect that, in the minds of London-centric people, Cumberland and Westmoreland (Cumbria if one must) are defined as being “The Lake District” and therefore, as you say, tourist country.

    Sadly, such people overlook, or are simply not aware, that the tourist industry is a major earner of foreign revenue and the broad range of normal everyday commercial activities that tourists use, even before they leave home.

    I was on a course a few years ago and offered the following as an example of the facilities used by tourists:-

    A young family (not car owners) decide to go on holiday in the UK. They have no idea where to go, so they go to their local newsagent to buy some magazines.

    They pick on a destination and phone some hotels/B&Bs and make a booking. They send an email to confirm and receive a response. They book train tickets online.

    Come the day, they get a cab to the station, board the train, settle down and enjoy the ride.

    They arrive at their destination and use another cab to their hotel. After checking in they need some baby type stuff and go to the local shop. In addition they buy some additional batteries for their camera, suntan lotion and other bits and pieces.

    Naturally, during the rest of their stay they visit local cafes, restaurants, shops etc. They don’t have much spare cash so avoid tourist attractions.

    They use the same cabs and train on their return home.

    When one considers the range of facilities and shops etc used, how many of them can be solely attributed to the tourist industry?

    I suggest just the one, the hotel, which being a small private establishment, buy goods from local suppliers.

    Thus, by ignoring the “tourist industry” the powers that be are overlooking the benefit of tourists to the wider economy.

  • Strawbrick

    You write that “Cars are far more comfortable, and so are trains…”.
    The last time I travelled on a “new train” (a Desiro) the facing -pair seats were so close together that knees and feet had to interwoven, the pitch on the “airplane” type seats was some 75 mm less than on the preceding Ryanair flight, and they were all much harder and less comfortable. Add to that the 3 plus 2 configuration which means that you are either all squeezed up, or one bum is partly in the air. The heating is pre-set at the start of the units diagram (not controlled by the conductor) and I have to listen to repeated announcements about this and that safety requirement etc. Compared with a Mark 1 …

  • padav

    I wouldn’t argue with the basic thrust of this article; namely that people are travelling less – the most probable cause to me (I haven’t researched this so my feeling is based purely on gut instinct) being simple economics – the cost of motoring has increased relative to the general standard of living in the last decade.

    However, what is an undeniable trend in recent times is the increasing percentage of young people who don’t drive – again this may well be a cost orientated factor, as this RailNews article highlights. In addition the trend in air travel is now one of relentless decline in favour of rail.

    So, whilst the total numbers travelling may well be on the wane, it seems that demand for railborne journeys is due to continue its uninterrupted upward trend over the next few decades.

    Conclusion: If the final sentence in this article “Simply extrapolating previous rising trends may well prove to be an expensive mistake” is a thinly veiled potshot at High Speed Rail and HS2 policy in particular, Mr. Wolmar is (once again) well wide of the mark!

  • So many of my friends and colleagues work from home at least two days a week.  IDC estimate 30% of the population will work from home by 2015.  This could reduce commute journeys.  My personal experience is that there are many days when the only travel I do is walk to the neighbours or the local shops!!

  • rationalplan

    As more people work from home for part of the week, then more people will consider commuting further for the remainder. This trend has been present for a long time, as people opt for a nice house a couple of hours of London and keep a small studio in town for three/four nights a week and then off home for the rest.  It’s this trend that has driven the rise of the super commuter and the growing number of long distance season tickets sold by the rail companies.

  • Christian Wolmar

    Chris Tolmie – do you have any firm evidence for that. It’s very hard to get any.