All Change? A new vision for UK travel demand

Transport accounts for a higher share of overall UK greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector of the economy. As the Commission on Travel Demand publishes its first report, the CCC’s Transport Team Leader Ewa Kmietowicz, says the time may now be ripe for policymakers to reframe their approach.

The Commission on Travel Demand has just published its first report, ‘All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning‘. 

The Commission, an independent group of experts assembled by the Research Council UK funded DEMAND centre considers a string of questions, including: how people are travelling today compared with the past; what’s causing those changes; and whether new trends in travel demand are here to stay. Crucially, they also provide a perspective on how their findings might be used by decision-makers. The study, completed over 18 months, saw the Commission take evidence from a wide range of local, national and international stakeholders with some surprising results.

The project was welcome news to the transport team here at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) when we first heard about it. Our reports to Government have long highlighted the almost continual increase in travel demand among the key modes – cars, vans and trucks – since 1990 – and the need to change assumptions of continued growth in the future. Increased travel demand is one of the key reasons why emissions from transport haven’t fallen, despite an improvement in emissions per km travelled. The Commission’s work shows that the overall increase in travel demand masks a plethora of other factors that are transforming the way people travel. This is best captured in one of the report’s key findings that, per head of population, we are travelling substantially less today than we did two decades ago. In fact, the aggregate picture of rising demand is driven largely by population growth.

If we consider how we go about our daily lives, both work and leisure, perhaps this isn’t so remarkable. The internet has transformed how we shop and how companies do business. We’ve seen a rise in van journeys whilst personal shopping trips have reduced. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have enabled us to be more connected more often, reducing the need to always be in the office. There are also big societal changes that impact the way we travel: the rise in house prices means young people are often living at home for longer; more people are working part-time and fewer workers are commuting five days a week; more young people are in education than ever before – and are more likely to show off their latest iPhone than a new car.

All of this matters for our work at the CCC, advising the Government on the UK’s long-term strategy to reduce emissions. Although we have always considered the drivers of travel demand from an economic perspective, taking account of income growth and prices, these factors are becoming less relevant and less effective as an explanation of the trends we’re seeing today. This means we will need to dig even deeper to explain how travel is evolving and build these societal and transformational changes into our modelling capability. This is crucial when it comes to developing appropriate strategies and policies to help tackle the emissions resulting from these changes. The ‘Uberfication’ of transport and even driverless cars will need to be considered and accommodated in our scenarios accordingly.

The Commission also gathered evidence from local planners in the UK and abroad, highlighting the changes that are possible to deliver through active urban planning and design: car-free city centres; park and ride; improved provision for cyclists; active lane management to tackle high volumes of traffic; car sharing schemes; congestion charging; and incentives to encourage the use of electric vehicles (EVs) such as free parking, use of bus lanes and installation of chargers. The traditional “predict and provide” method of assessing travel demand is changing in favour of “setting a vision” of what we want to achieve. All players – locally and nationally – will need to work together to grasp this unique opportunity to shape how we want to travel in our cities, towns and countryside in the years and decades ahead.

This is key, not just for the UK’s carbon budgets, but for air-quality, congestion and our general health and well-being. It’s a long-sought after win-win that we should not ignore.