Moving less, moving on
Over the past few years, people have travelled less. This is not a new phenomenon and pre-dates the pandemic period by several years. It looks likely to endure too and we have witnessed an apparently decisive shift in the mindset of public and passengers in several important ways with, potentially, more to come.
According to Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland, total trips per person per year declined 8% during 2002 to 2018 while vehicle mileage per capita fell 12%. The latest Department for Transport (DfT) estimates suggest that use of transport modes have averaged out below pre-pandemic levels over the period since March 2020 with just two exceptions — usage of heavy goods vehicles and cycling (these are respectively, par and above-par by comparison).
The All change? programme of research by Ipsos for DfT tracked behaviours and attitudes between 2020 and 2021 using a mix of surveys and qualitative inquiry, longitudinal analysis, and app-based research. It found that the pandemic was disruptive and pushed many people out of default behaviours (‘habit discontinuity’ to borrow the lingo of behavioural scientists). In effect, we witnessed two mindset shifts — the imposition of lockdown restrictions prompted the question am I allowed to make this journey? and, as restrictions were eased, the question morphed into do I need to make this journey?
People become more discerning about why, when and how they made journeys. Most obviously, significant increases in working from home played an important role, constraining the use of public transport, particularly in the case of train travel. When restrictions were lifted, there was no mass return to commuting and in November 2021 the proportion who worked from home 5 days a week was more than double the equivalent in the period before the pandemic.
As restrictions were eased, people were able to take part in activities they were unable to do during lockdown. Motivations and opportunities to travel increased, especially those relating to leisure. But All change? found that the average number of reasons for travelling in the previous four weeks was 4.8 soon after restrictions were eased, double the equivalent during lockdown but well short of the 6.0 before the pandemic. It fell to 4.4 in April.
Some modes were more thermostatic than others. By November 2021, 70% of people were travelling by car as a passenger, up from just 43% during the first lockdown. Earlier in the pandemic there was an increase in cycling and walking particularly for recreation, however, despite the benefits, people expected inclement weather and work patterns to challenge active travel.
Overall levels of car driving were mostly static, ranging from a low point of 63% of people during the first UK-wide lockdown to a high of 68% in both May/June 2021 and November 2021. There was no ‘Carmageddon’ — All change? found little evidence to suggest that large proportions of people switched from using public transport to using a car (or more generally, between modes) — but in 2021 the RAC recorded the highest proportion of drivers saying they would struggle without a car since they started polling in 2006.
Use of public transport began to rebuild as restrictions were eased and then lifted but remained significantly lower than during the pre-pandemic period. One consequence of this was the profile of public transport users during the pandemic became markedly different in comparison to the period before it. Younger age groups, those from ethnic minority communities and living in London formed a greater share of those who travelled by bus, train, underground and metro (people with a disability formed a smaller share than before). Public transport became more narrowly public.
Alongside change, however, All change? found considerable continuity particularly in terms of the factors shaping people’s travel and choice of modes. Convenience, comfort and cost, underpinned by habit, were preeminent. Experience matters (as does perception in the absence of experience) and this deteriorated.
Exposure to quieter public transport during periods with tighter restrictions provided first-hand experience of public transport without daily rush hour crowds while the pandemic amplified a pre-existing sense of buses and trains being dirty and unhygienic. Since then, the summer’s heatwave, strikes and staff shortages at airports and elsewhere have prompted another question — can I rely on this journey?
Another frame looms large — can I afford this journey? More than 12 months ago, Martin Armstrong at Statista described the “unsustainable” cost of public transport in the UK. He found that price increases for travelling by rail, bus or coach between 2011 and 2021 were firmly above the rate of growth seen in the cost of living. By comparison, the proportional change in costs for motorists was far smaller. Yet, research by Ipsos last month found rising fuel costs — identified by one in ten people as among the most important issues facing the country — are leading many drivers to change the way that they drive or to use their cars less often. One in five say they have switched to alternative forms of transport.
This takes us to another frame — can the planet afford my journey? The UK public are, generally, on board with net zero policies but support for these can be fragile and drops sharply when potential lifestyle and cost implications are presented. The public have very low levels of confidence in the fairness of net zero policies with particular concerns about those on low incomes and other marginalised groups. Economic incentives and disincentives are seen as critical to ensure green choices are not the preserve of the wealthy.
Attitudes and behaviours remain in a state of flux. The questions people ask themselves and each other about the journeys they make are changing. How they answer them will be both cause and effect of our economic and environmental future.