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Planning must look at why people travel

31 July 2018 Author: Professor Greg Marsden

The National Infrastructure Commission’s recently launched first National Infrastructure Assessment has much to recommend it in my view. First, it proposed integrated analysis of housing, employment and transport infrastructure needs for cities and it suggested an increase in funding for city transport and greater devolved responsibility for spend. It is only by entrusting those people responsible for places with creating those places that we will really see an integration between people, movement and place.

There is a temptation to presume new technologies will be the game changing developments of the decades to come.

However, one of the more curious issues absent from the report was the nature of the future demands for travel. Much is made of the ever increasing demand for data and what that means for fibre optic provision. There is a useful discussion of the potential demand for electric vehicles and what needs to be done to stimulate that. The report also suggests that preparations need to begin now for more connected and autonomous vehicles.

But what will we be using those vehicles for? What sorts of lives will we be living?

Most people are travelling less

The Commission on Travel Demand looked at a wide range of evidence on changing travel trends in the UK and internationally. It found that on average we make 16% fewer trips than we did in 1996 and travel 10% fewer miles per person than we did in 2002, and even spend less time travelling each year than we did a decade ago. This is particularly marked in the 18-30 year old bracket but is also true for 31-59 year olds. Indeed, it is only the 60+ bracket that are travelling more than previous cohorts as the baby boomer generation retire with higher levels of car ownership than before.

Why is this happening? This ought to be the start point to look at the changing nature of the activities we take part in.

Work for the Department for Transport on commuting showed that there has been a 20% reduction in trips per person. This is a result of changing employment types and increased part-time work, employment insecurity as well as greater working from home. Shopping trips have also been declining. This began at least a decade before the rise of on-line shopping, but this is now being accelerated by the shift on-line with 16% fewer miles travelled per person than a decade ago for shopping.

Infrastructure investment could be wasted 

There is a temptation to presume new technologies will be the game changing developments of the decades to come. However, from a planning perspective we have to get a better handle on what the worlds of work, healthcare and shopping might look like and how well resourced future  generations will be to access these activities if we are to know how to plan better for the new technologies that are coming.

The Commission’s report suggests that we could be wasting billions of pounds on new infrastructure if we do not change what we invest in. Yes, there is need to catch up. We should not overlook the combination of investment backlogs and population and employment growth which make parts of our road and rail networks very unsatisfactory for users. These will continue to be worthwhile investments and there is a need to accommodate significant housing growth.

But what the Commission also says is that we do not need to build these new schemes with the mindset that we have to do it because this is the only way to unlock growth. Instead, we should try and seize on the reduction in trip making and travel distances and try and encourage greater accessibility, better places and fewer longer trips.

Changing the policy narrative around investment

That way, we will better be able to marry up our need for active lifestyles with the potential of communications technology substituting some of the longer trips we used to make. It is not so much a paradigm shift but bending our policies to focus on the positive trends which exist, and making it easier, more comfortable, safer and more reliable to live more localised lives.

These trends have now been evident for 20 years but do not form part of received wisdom nor the policy narrative around investment. I will be addressing the RTPI Annual Lecture for Yorkshire and the Humber in September to help try and change the terms of the debate. I will elaborate on these themes but also to think about some practical policy opportunities that this generates for a forward looking and integrated set of transport and planning outcomes.

The RTPI Yorkshire Awards Reception and keynote address by Professor Marsden will take place on Thursday 13th September at Sheffield Town Hall. Further details and bookings here.  

Guest blogs may not represent the views of the RTPI.


Professor Greg Marsden

Professor Greg Marsden

Greg Marsden is Professor of Transport Governance at the University of Leeds.