Handling Holiday Travel

We once travelled to South Devon on the late May bank holiday weekend to celebrate the wedding of some friends. It took us a tortuous 8 hours to travel less than 200 miles. But it wasn’t a surprise.

We expect certain bank holidays or weekends at the beginning and end of Christmas and summer holidays to be the busiest travel days of the year, and yet holiday travel does not seem to come within the remit of transport planners, nor does it ever seem to be a major consideration in surface transport infrastructure strategies.

Tourist destinations make plans to accommodate visitors, but not the journeys they take to get there, and aviation strategy tends to sit in a separate silo from surface transport.

And yet, long distance travel is responsible for a larger share of climate emissions from transport than shorter distance travel, and the further you go, the fewer the options to travel in a more environmentally friendly way. Furthermore, as we come out of a period which has shown how efficient video conferencing can be for businesses, the likelihood is that long-distance travel will be increasingly synonymous with ‘holiday travel’, even though that includes the varied purposes of tourism, visiting friends and family, attending events, or participating in leisure pursuits.

So transport planners need to start thinking about how to plan for holiday travel when we plan for strategic transport infrastructure, when we target travel behaviour, when we model impacts or appraise projects.

This has to be about more than aviation. Whilst I stand by previous blogs arguing for that long haul flights are necessary and important, if not guilt-free, especially for someone like me who lives an ocean away from close family (and the pandemic has definitely demonstrated to me that online interaction is NOT a replacement!), there are few realistic alternatives other than managing demand through measures such as the frequent flyer tax.

Short haul and domestic travel is another story. It is worrying that new domestic aviation routes are being introduced and at prices well below train travel. And the price / time comparisons between air and train are incomplete without also considering where each mode terminates, how people travel the rest of the way (or to the airport or train station in the first place) and then how that compares with travelling by road.

Remember those interminable bank holiday traffic jams I described at the start? Traffic flow affects emissions, as does car occupancy, weight, age, engine type / fuel and use of heating or air conditioning. Taking the train might still be a more sustainable option, but as the emissions link above shows, car travel is not a monolithic behaviour or emitter – and the characteristics of holiday car travel are more difficult to pin down than a daily car commute.

Meanwhile, households do consider their holiday travel when making long-term choices, even if transport planners are not thinking of holiday travel strategically.

This is particularly noticeable when researching the motivations and barriers to switching to battery-powered vehicles. Consumers may realise that the range of most electric cars is perfectly adequate for their daily travel, but worry they will not be able to visit dispersed family. Others see the lack of electric vehicles large enough to pack the gear or to tow the trailer for their annual camping trip as a reason to postpone adoption. Still others worry about the availability of charging infrastructure when going somewhere unfamiliar. Some households even keep a fossil-fuel powered car after they have switched to electric, specifically for occasional, ‘holiday’ travel.

Whether providing for or managing travel, transport planning has long focused on regular, necessary trips, especially the commute, but also accessibility to key goods and services, such as food, education, and healthcare. But holidays happen, are impactful, and are integral to some of the bigger choices, such as car ownership, that affect travel behaviour. We need to start thinking about how to handle holiday travel.

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