Emotional Transport Tolls

We had to wait until just 20 hours before our flight to be sure we could get on a plane to see my family in the United States for the first time in almost 3 years. That’s a level of uncertainty and anxiety beyond any I’d experienced travelling before the pandemic. And because the trip was so important to me and my family, the uncertainty and anxiety bubbled away in the background for a good two months before we travelled as I tried to plan who we would see and when – assuming we got over at all.

In fact, I partially blame the uncertainty and anxiety for not only forgetting to write a blog for two months, but also for not even noticing I’d forgotten.

The added mental energy required to move around in recent months is not confined to aviation. Most forms of public transport (including commercial flights) have suffered from reduced passengers and have reduced frequencies as a result. Connections are trickier, finances are more fragile for both the operators and the passengers, and cancellations are common due to ongoing bouts of staff shortages.

Meanwhile, motorists have been facing fuel supply disruptions and price hikes on and off for nine months. No longer can it be assumed that petrol or diesel will be available or affordable when arriving at the pump. Nor should it be surprising that this uncertainty has sometimes resulted in panic-buying.

There have also been ever-increasing shortages, delays and uncertainties around buying or leasing a vehicle. The manufacture of microchips is lagging way behind demand, supply chains have been disrupted, and prices have been going up. There are even shortages of used cars, so their prices rise, but the price of buying a new car has gone up even more.

Moreover, if you’re hoping to switch to electric to minimise the fuel uncertainties, you may have a long wait. Some say that the auto market constraints currently caused by the microchip shortage are tiny compared to the much bigger limits the electric vehicle market will face due to the low availability of battery materials and components, and that we should all be looking for better alternatives.

Likewise, a recent news item on potential train worker strikes did not exactly give me confidence that the uncertainties of current services would be getting back on the rails any time soon.

There are other examples I could discuss, but not to put too fine a point on it, it is worth asking if anxiety and uncertainty is the new normal for medium- and long-distance travel. The anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic has already taken a huge toll on people’s mental health over the past two years – what will be the impact of an ongoing emotional toll on transport?

Will it change how much people travel? Like most transport planners and researchers of travel behaviour, I know people’s travel behaviours and practices need to change, and change quickly, if we are going to have any chance of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees. We need to reduce air travel and medium- to long-distance road travel. And yet, I’m not sure reducing such travel can really be seen as a silver lining to ongoing uncertainty and anxiety, even if it does have that effect (which it may not).

Financial tolls on those who can afford them are more sensible than emotional tolls on those who can’t. The way that our transport systems are structured in terms of tax and spend needs a massive re-think, but solutions are out there – from frequent flyer levies to road pricing to restructuring public transport ticketing to reflect changing work schedules. Taking clear, fair steps to make these changes would reduce uncertainty and anxiety, whilst still giving people the freedom to travel where and when they need to… even to see family abroad!

Flying: more or less

I just got back from America. We had a great time seeing dozens of family and friends. Yet, every time I fly, I feel a pang of guilt. Well, pang might be overstating it, but definitely a twinge.

After all, a major part of my professional life is advocating for sustainable transport and taking action to increase travel options that are friendlier to the environment and society. I tend to practice what I preach as well. I have commuted by bicycle, by train, and now mainly work from home. I walk my daughter to school and my groceries home from the shops. There are many benefits to making such choices, but I would not shirk from saying that reducing my carbon footprint is one of those benefits. I have learned about and believed in climate change for decades.

Yet I continue to fly. Regularly. As do many others. And although I feel a twinge of guilt, I wouldn’t want to see air travel severely restricted, even as I want to see the nations and cities of the world come together to fight climate change. In fact, if flight was restricted, wouldn’t the coming together of nations for whatever purpose be restricted as well?

So what place does flight have in the future of movement? Is the recent trend of more flights to more places carrying more passengers set to continue? Or will it come to an abrupt halt in our lifetimes?

Many argue for the importance of air travel on economic grounds, but only 19% of airplane passengers are travelling for business.

Yet flying for tourism, cultural exchange, exploration, international experience and involvement is not bereft of value either, not least economic value. Even if that value accrues to other countries more than my own.

And I would argue that flying for family has inestimable value to the positive development of our world civilisation. I previously suggested (https://go-how.com/2014/04/14/flying-for-family/) that leisure travel to visit family rather than for pure tourism likely accounts for a greater percentage of air passengers than commonly considered. Over 8 million people or 13% of the resident population of the UK in 2014 were born elsewhere. It would be fair to assume that a large number of these people, whether UK citizens or not, have family outside the country to visit, perhaps regularly, even if they can’t all boast of the numbers I saw this trip.

So flight must have a future. But perhaps its future requires more endeavour to remove those twinges of guilt.

The car is accelerating towards new technologies much faster than the airplane, but there is some progress to report. A solar airplane has flown over halfway round the world and is soon to complete the rest of its journey; http://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/three-unusual-ways-solar-soaring. Solar power is gaining traction in other areas of the sector as well.

Meanwhile, NASA and commercial aircraft manufacturers are reported to be researching the future of supersonic air travel, with the aim of not only economic viability, but less emissions too: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/supersonic-flight-concordes-successors-are-in-the-works-15-years-on-from-the-paris-crash-10415912.html.

Trends in other forms of transport are emphasising the sharing economy and utilisation of idle capacity. With more cooperation between nations, cities and airlines, I am certain that air travel too could become more efficient. Whenever I read about the debate around hub airports and expanding London’s Heathrow, I always wonder what could be achieved if Heathrow, Amsterdam’s Schipol and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airports could collaborate to better serve the flying public and the local communities, never mind the environment. If they no longer saw themselves as competitors, perhaps an analysis of flight paths and filling seats could translate to significant fuel savings. There could be apps that guide passengers to journey choices that enable flights and airports to operate at optimum capacity in near real-time. Such application of current technological trends and use of big data is surely more likely if conglomerates of airports are involved.

I would like to believe that human flight is a 21st century trend that is and can be sustained. But that will only be the case if air travel can supress its extensive emissions and I can fly, without the guilt.