The internet is reducing the need to travel for a range of activities. How should the public transport world react to this trend?

In London the number of trips made per person per day began to fall from 2006


Build a new road and cars will use it, and in plentiful numbers. Now nobody prior to the opening actually knows for certain that will happen, although our transport planners will have modelled it. And certainly I am not aware of any road that has ever been opened that has attracted no traffic, although the M1 in fact took some time to get going back in 1959.

We all assume cause and effect in certain situations without even thinking about it. But circumstances change. There was for example always an assumption that increased growth would mean increased energy consumption and increased carbon emissions, but that link has been broken over the last 20 years, as growth has powered ahead, while carbon emissions have been cut.

In the transport world, there has been a similar assumption: the richer we become, the more we will travel, both for leisure and for work. It is taken for granted that travel will increase, and the spotlight has been simply on the competition between modes. Train vs plane, car vs bus, cycle vs car.

Yet unnoticed by most, this assumed linkage is being broken, just as the one between growth and carbon emissions has been.

In my ministerial days at the Department for Transport, one of my portfolio roles was as Minister for Not Travelling.

In my ministerial days at the Department for Transport, one of my portfolio roles was as Minister for Not Travelling. Indeed I think mine was the first such appointment, not just in the UK but anywhere in the world.

In 2010 both parties in the coalition recognised that there were environmental and economic gains to be made from reducing travel, (even if later on George Osborne was to rubbish anything environmental as “green crap”).

For example, a great deal of people in business were taking long, expensive and carbon-busting flights to attend meetings far away when the technology existed to facilitate video conferencing. Indeed so good was the technology, even back then, that with a big screen and buffeting eliminated, you could forget you were talking to people continents away. I used this on a number of occasions while at the Home Office when I was undertaking an international comparison of different approaches to recreational drugs.

The policy of reducing travel, originally introduced as part of our carbon reduction strategy, took on a more urgent edge as we approached the London Olympics in 2012. It was obvious that the existing travel networks simply could not cope with the huge influx in visitors to the capital and handle all the usual passenger traffic as well, even if all engineering works were suspended, and all available rolling stock was used to increase frequency and lengthen trains.

So a public campaign was launched to persuade people to minimise their travel during the Olympics, for example by working from home. The campaign was a great success, travel to work dropped sharply and the Olympics was a logistical triumph. Meanwhile business carried on with few downsides and quite a few upsides.

A lot of the credit must go to Transport for London and today they are again at the cutting edge as one of the few transport outfits ahead of the game in recognising the trend towards reduced travel.

In September 2017 an analyst called Hannah Groot produced an excellent fact-filled report for TfL entitled “Are people travelling less and if so, why?”. Not a particularly snappy title, it must be confessed, but it is an accurate guide to the contents.

Her report shows that in London from 2006, the number of trips made per person per day began to fall. It is down 12% over the period to 2016, a substantial reduction. Interestingly, the distance travelled overall has fallen much less, suggesting that those who are travelling are travelling further. The continuing growth in rail and tube travel (and especially in cycling) masks the overall decline, which has hit motorised road transport badly, with private car journeys down 22% over this period.

London’s experience is mirrored to a large degree by evidence in the National Travel Survey. This also shows a 12% reduction in trips between 2006 and 2015, again with both time taken and distance covered much nearer to their 2006 points.

There is no question that working from home has, after the Olympics, now become much more common and the attraction of doing so maybe one day a week is growing. The proportion of people not travelling at all on a given day is up from 17% to 23%.

Yet the surprising finding in the study is that the drop in trips has not come primarily from changes in work practices, but from changes in leisure habits. Shopping trips in London are down 27% over this period, which reveals the inroads Amazon and others have been making into the traditional High Street.

Yet the data shows that right across the range of activities, from education to employment, shopping to leisure, the amount of time an individual spends in each area has not really changed. It is just that it has become less necessary to travel to do what people want to do. In short, the internet is reducing the need to travel.

So how should the public transport world react to this trend?

There needs to be recognition that for increasing numbers of people, the old nine-to-five, Monday to Friday pattern no longer fits

Firstly, there needs to be recognition that for increasing numbers of people, the old nine-to-five, Monday to Friday pattern no longer fits. If people are working one day at home, they do not want a rigid weekly season ticket for the train, or an inflexible weekly pass on the bus. What they do want perhaps is the same discount deal for days of their choosing, over whatever period. If they travel in the rush hour to get to the office but off peak to come home, they want that factored in too. The starch needs to be taken out of the ticketing regime.

The Rail Delivery Group has made suggestions for changes which chime with these trends, but there is as yet no guarantee they will be implemented. Some will require primary legislation to unpick the 1993 Act. What can be done quickly, however, should be done. Bus companies can of course react much more speedily.

Secondly, the ability to use a bank card to pay for transport should be universal. In the middle of writing this article, I broke off to pop into a pub for literally a swift half and a card swipe machine was brandished at me when I came to pay. The barmaid (can we still use that word?) was taken aback when I offered her coins. Using a bank card is how people want to pay for everything these days and the transport world cannot be left behind.

Thirdly, train companies need to look at their rolling stock practices and their timetables. Trains which are chock-a-block off peak are now becoming more common, but the train companies all too often still seem to think short formations and long frequency gaps outside the traditional rush hours is all that is required.

Fourthly, for buses, this underlines the need for a more flexible, dare I say taxi-like approach, to be able to meet a whole variety of different needs across the day and night. TfL have cut back their journeys in central London and promised more for the suburbs. They are probably right to do so.

Lastly, and more generally, transport operators need to abandon any assumption of universal relentless growth as the background norm, analyse these trends and consider what it implies for the services they provide.

If you are ScotRail running out to Kyle of Lochalsh, you are running on a route which is stunningly beautiful, and the potential destinations for passengers are unlikely to lose their attraction. This can only be experienced in real life as opposed to online. As disposable income increases, as we might assume it will (although that too may be a lazy assumption), then this route should prosper.

If however you are used to running a high frequency bus service into a traditional shopping centre on a Saturday, will the passengers still be there in the same number?

If you are a train company carrying commuters, does the expansion of home working suggest there is a case for a different timetable on a Friday? If the evening rush hour begins earlier on Fridays, should the timetable reflect that?

Why, if you are running trains into London, is a Saturday timetable in February, when fewer people want to venture out, the same as a Saturday timetable in July when people want to pile into the capital to see exhibitions and the like?

People’s habits are changing, and the transport world needs to change with them. Trying to sell someone a landline phone when they want a mobile is not a good business approach. Neither is offering them the wrong kind of travel ticket at the wrong time on the wrong service.

About the author:
Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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