Staycation Surge or Back to Business as Usual?

As the summer winds down, I can’t wait to learn what September will bring in terms of transport use.

The lack of traffic, and therefore air and noise pollution back in late March through most of May was an incredible silver lining of lockdown. It meant that during the sunniest spring on record, we were lucky enough to be able to enjoy clean air and quiet on daily family walks and cycle rides either along every street, cul-de-sac and cut-through within a 2-mile radius, or through the woods that permeate and separate the towns and villages that make up our corner of the Home Counties.

Yet over the summer, traffic has returned, until, according to Department for Transport statistics, vehicle levels are almost ‘back to normal’ compared to an equivalent day in the first week of February 2020. However, are these trips for the same purposes as they were in February? Do they represent the window of opportunity closing for long-term travel behaviour change to be captured from the short-term, mass disruption?

Anecdotal, survey and big data sources all indicate that there remains a substantial proportion (20-30%) of the population who continue to stay at home, so it is hard to believe that the rise in traffic is solely due to people returning to work as encouraged by Government. Even if some commuters have switched modes from public transport to car (due to unhelpful messaging around the risk of infection on buses and trains compared to other risks, e.g. of road accidents), the rise in unemployment and ongoing telecommuting makes it unlikely that commuters are responsible for the return of pre-pandemic traffic.

Furthermore, in transport modelling, you would never compare August to February anyway. August is not an average month. It is prime holiday season, particularly, though not solely, for families with school-age children and those who work in education. Thus, traffic levels, especially in the morning and evening peaks, are usually less in August than in February. It may be that there is actually MORE traffic this August than during an equivalent day in August 2019.

I don’t know have the data to say for sure, but call it an educated guess. Holidays are usually much more spread out in time and space than they are this year. Most spring holidays were cancelled, but employers are not changing their annual leave roll-over policies. Going abroad is an incredibly risky business with constantly changing quarantine rules. And alongside staycation tourism, people are also catching up on visiting friends and relatives around the country who they may not have seen for months.

People may even be taking more leisure and social journeys in order to use up mileage on leasing contracts. There is some evidence that concerns about the ability to take occasional long-distance leisure trips unduly influence perceptions of the practicality of electric vehicle adoption and range anxiety.  So are such concerns any less likely to influence decisions on mileage allocations in leasing contracts?

The point is that traffic levels are never a product only of commuting trips, the school run, and other ‘necessary’ and ‘essential’ travel, which tends to happen locally. Leisure trips often have outsized impact and involve longer distances. Thus, my hypothesis is that the current high levels of traffic are not a reflection of life returning to pre-pandemic patterns, but rather a staycation surge. Any evidence to support this hypothesis is welcome, but the real question for transport planners wondering if the time to lock-in local, active travel patterns has passed, is: What will happen in September?

Anything but the commute

I have two full-time jobs, but I don’t ‘commute’ at all. I thought that was unusual, but now I’m not so sure.

One job is research, as I work towards a PhD. The other is my role as mother, wife, and general domestic organiser.

I generally work from home for the former, but I make rather a lot of trips for the latter.

If I were filling in a travel diary for my average week, it would include lots of short walks escorting the children to and from their primary school, a little over 1km away; other errands completed on foot on the way there and back: grocery shopping at least twice a week, visits to the library or playground; more short trips by bicycle or car to take my daughter to her dance classes twice a week… you get the picture.

Meanwhile, for my research work, I would only record a 1-2 hour train journey at most once a week and sometimes only once in a month.

None of these trips would count as a commute, a journey from home to a regular place of paid employment and back again.

But then the majority of journeys made by the majority of people are not regular commutes by the same mode, along the same route, at the same time, 5 days a week. Children and pensioners obviously don’t commute. But even though many working-age, employed people still organise their day around their work schedule, the minority are regular commuters. Ever greater proportions work flexibly in space and time – sometimes from home, sometimes visiting clients or customers, sometimes at a remote office; sometimes shifts, sometimes part time, sometimes longer but fewer days (compressed hours); sometimes even part days in different places. Never mind the number of journeys to work that are not defined as ‘commuting’, at least here in the UK, because they are part of longer trip chains, dropping the children at school or picking up the groceries on route. No wonder the numbers of commuting trips, defined as a journey from home to work and back again, have been falling for years here.

So what’s my point? First, my lack of commuting is not as unusual as I thought. Second, my travel patterns enable me to lead a fairly sustainable (ignoring long-distance travel, but that’s another blog entirely), active lifestyle.

And putting the two together, if there are many people like me who don’t have a daily commute, are there also many people whose daily travel is sustainable and active? Or if there are not, why not? Answering the latter, are there too many people who live in places where schools, food shopping, pharmacies, playgrounds, post offices, libraries, etc., etc. are not easily accessed on foot, at least in part because there has been too much focus by transport and land use planners, modellers, and researchers, never mind developers and investors, on the commute and access to work?

Sure, where employment is concentrated in offices or factories, it should be accessible to residential areas, preferably by public transport. But let’s plan a bit more for access to all those other destinations if they are such a greater share of individual travel. It might be the route to more sustainable, active lifestyles becoming mainstream, which, as a mother, I want to see for my children. And it might make people more resilient to disruption too, which, as a researcher, is what I’m tasked to investigate.