Car and van mileage has fallen over the past four years, mainly because of the economic slump. Yet this comes atop a longer-run trend: for around 15 years, Britons have been making fewer journeys. According to the Department for Transport, the average person now goes on only slightly more trips than he did in the early 1970s, mostly by car. Between the mid-1990s and 2010 individuals made 19% fewer shopping outings. Jaunts to see friends dropped by fully 22%, thanks to a fall in visits to private homes.
The article is accompanied by a couple of really useful charts which start to break down the difference between trip numbers and distance travelled, and then looks at which types of trips are increasing and decreasing the most: The decline in trip numbers is discussed at length in the article, which looks at long term cultural changes such as people grouping together shopping trips much more, a general reduction in “Couch and kitchen socialising”, the rise of the internet and higher petrol prices making think twice about ‘discretionary’ trips. Yet the article also argues this does not mean Britain is turning into a country of hermits:
A rise in hours spent staring at computer screens and televisions—and a concurrent decline in journeys to see friends at home—does not necessarily mean that Britain is becoming a nation of hermits. Mr Gershuny argues that those who engage with friends online also tend to see them more in person, even controlling for age. The internet may make socialising more “efficient” and diverse—people can research and plan where they are going, or what they want to buy, eat or do when they are out. In fact, many trips to visit friends at home are being replaced by jaunts out with friends, reckons Oriel Sullivan of Oxford University.
The ONS’s national well-being survey suggests that socialising with friends is still one of the most popular pastimes. People spend more time chatting on the phone too. Yet the travel data may obscure such engagement because socialising is increasingly combined with another activity. The number of trips to meet friends outside their homes has held steady. Other types of outing have become more popular, such as what the ONS describes as “entertainment or public activity” and “day trips”, all of which are likely to include friends or family. For many people, work is also a social encounter.
Retail travel also follows this trend. Despite the decline of the high street, there are more grocery shops at transport hubs such as railway stations, which makes buying fresh food possible without a special outing. “Multitasking” has become a popular shorthand for the predicament of modern workers. It may increasingly apply to their leisure time too.
There is an interesting debate to be had, I think, around the extent to which we might expect trends like these to continue into the future. I do wonder whether there’s a risk of us over-building transport infrastructure – particularly new roads where volumes are very much static (unlike booming PT patronage) – because our future projects are based on past assumptions which simply no longer hold true.
I feel the real test will be what happens to travel patterns and traffic volumes once economic growth properly returns (assuming it will do so).