Translating Trends from the National Travel Survey (UK)

Britain’s National Travel Survey (NTS) has been analysed in depth to show a decline in car trips and mileage, both per head and in absolute terms. Despite job growth, commuter trips are down, again resulting in a reduction of vehicle mileage. The youngest cohorts are applying for drivers’ licences and becoming car owners later and in lower numbers than the previous generations. So can we declare a major victory for transport demand management – battles still to be won, but a turning point reached?
However, it’s not all good news. Other studies of the data from the NTS show less multi-modality, that the fewer trips for purposes like shopping, errands, and visiting friends are mainly due to a reduction in short distance trips, and that the reduction in trips may also indicate underemployment and less human interaction. So are the trends an indication of good or bad things to come in terms of transport demand management, resilience, and healthy, sustainable lifestyles?
The NTS may not be able to tell us. Every year, a large, clustered, random sample of households, and the individuals within them are surveyed, including an extensive interview on their travel behaviour and a seven-day travel diary, to record trip purposes, distances, travel times, and modes. There are a few questions about internet access, including frequency of working from home and online shopping, but the catalogue of online activities is general and incomplete. There is also only one day of data collected on short walks, defined as those under 1 mile. Finally, although the sample is determined by geography, there is little geographical context in terms of land uses, public realm, or environmental quality.
Naturally, the potential for trends to result in a more sustainable and better quality of life is very much dependent upon all types of accessibility, including online or within a mile of one’s home. And understanding the geographic characteristics of neighborhoods, such as population density, pollution, mix of uses and services available, to name a few, is essential if planners, policy-makers, and other professionals want to make more places that will encourage healthy, sustainable travel and lifestyles. Still, the NTS data does offer perspectives of the potential trends might have if some of these other aspects are in place.
For example, my research shows that rail commuting and telecommuting are growing (whilst car and bus commuting are falling), and that those who say they regularly telecommute (at least once a week) are also more likely than other groups to say their regular commute mode is rail. They are more likely to record more short walk trips per person than the general population, and most of these trips are for purposes other than commuting. Finally, they take only slightly fewer trips (by all modes) per person than those who do not regularly telecommute, but more of those trips are for business, escort trips, or errands, and to participate in sport or recreational activities.

To put these trends together, more people have the opportunity to work from home more regularly using ICT than ever before, and more of them also take trains and walk in their local neighbourhood than the general population. Such people also make a similar number of journeys, but for non-commuting purposes. Thus, telecommuting needs to be encouraged (or telecommuters encouraged to live) in mixed-use neighbourhoods with plenty of activities and services locally so that online work access can be balanced with healthy, sustainable pedestrian access to as many other activities and services as possible. The NTS sample sizes and information about local land uses might not be sufficient to determine if this is already happening, but there is definitely enough data to say that, with vision and planning, it can.

Some references of studies using the NTS (there are also a few academic articles if interested!):
Chatterjee K, Goodwin, P, Schwanen, T, Clark, B, Jain, J, Melia, S, Middleton, J, Plyushteva, A, Ricci, M, Santos, G, Stokes, G. (2018) Young People’s Travel – What’s Changed and Why? Review and Analysis. Report to Department for Transport. UWE Bristol, UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/young-peoples-travel-whats-changed-and-why.
Headicar P, Stokes, G. (2016) On the Move 2: Making sense of travel trends in England 1995-2014: Technical Report. Independent Transport Commission. http://www.theitc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/OTM2-Technical-Report-FINAL.pdf.
Le Vine S, Polak, J, Humphrey, A. (2017) Commuting Trends in England 1988-2015. Department for Transport. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/commuting-trends-in-england-1988-to-2015.
Marsden G, Dales, J, Jones, P, Seagriff, E, Spurling, N. (2018) All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning. The First Report of the Commission on Travel Demand. http://www.demand.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/FutureTravel_report_final.pdf.
Stillwell D, Cummings, J, Slocombe, M. (eds). (2018) Analyses from the National Travel Survey: Statistical Release. Department for Transport. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/674568/analysis-from-the-national-travel-survey.pdf.
Stillwell D, Kelly, A, Slocombe, M. (eds). (2019) Analyses from the National Travel Survey: Statistical Release. Department for Transport. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/775032/2019-nts-commissioned-analyses.pdf.

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