TAPAS.network | 6 March 2023 | Commentary | Phil Goodwin

Is all our travelling just a basic human need - or are some of us simply justifying unrealistic expectations?

Phil Goodwin

Movement is inherent to life, and travel is often regarded as a basic human right. But does this apply to all travel, at all times, by everyone? Can we prove scientifically that travel is an essential characteristic defining humanity? And what follows in a world where it is so unevenly available, and can be damaging as well as enlightening? Phil Goodwin examines the subject with a critical eye.

A FEW MONTHS AGO, I was talking at a conference on how to reduce traffic, for reasons of the environment, economy, and health. One participant said that all this talk of reducing travel was wrong. He had just read a book that proved that travel was genetically built into human beings and was essential. Therefore, he argued, to try to reduce it went against the grain of what it is to be human, and would inevitably be unsuccessful.

I tracked down the book, whose publication in 2021 I had missed at the time due to other preoccupations. It is ‘Why Travel? Understanding our need to move and how it shapes our lives’, edited by Matthew Niblett and Kris Beuret, both of whom are well known figures in transport policy discussion. Indeed, Matthew wrote about the book in LTT last year, available on TAPAS here.

I have known Kris in particular for decades, and also Glenn Lyons, author of one of its chapters, with whom I’ve collaborated on many projects. The summary of their position I got from their supporter at that conference didn’t seem to square with what I knew of them. Surely, I thought, they are keenly aware of the damage that excessive travel has caused, and creatively committed to reducing some of it?

So I bought the book last month, and read it from cover to cover. The first thing to say (especially in view of some criticisms I shall make below) is that it is definitely worth reading: interesting, instructive, and with a clear overall theme, more consistently applied throughout than is often the case in books made up of separately authored chapters.

Its premise is that we can only understand transport policy issues if we understand why people travel. The route to that understanding the book takes is by studying how travel emerged in human evolution. Each of the 15 chapters is a specialist contribution from writers in biology, psychology, physiology, philosophy, economics, sociology, religion, the arts, anthropology, technology and cross-disciplinary approaches, all addressing the question of ‘why?’. The editors provide a good paragraph or so summary of each of the separate chapters, at both the beginning and end. I won’t repeat all those here, but just select those which express the main central theme, and then consider some problems of analysis which explain, I think, why my conference protagonist, and I, come to opposite conclusions about the implications.

green quotations

One participant said that all this talk of reducing travel was wrong. He had just read a book that proved that travel was genetically built into human beings and was essential. Surely, I thought, knowing the editors, they are keenly aware of the damage that excessive travel has caused, and creatively committed to reducing some of it?

Are we ‘Hard Wired’ to travel?

A repeated phrase is that the need to travel is ‘hard-wired’ into human beings, mostly used as a metaphor for genetic or instinctive. It’s first used in a foreword by Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of that great promoter of travel, Lonely Planet. He opens by describing the 14 countries he visited in 2019, and five in 2020, before it all went wrong due to Covid, and he couldn’t travel at all. “‘Come back, we miss you’, has been the message from an awful lot of tourist destinations, and most emphatically from those developing world destinations whose tourist income was a huge part of the local economies’” he states. He suggests that “travel is such a fundamental – even hard-wired - part of human existence that it’s inevitable it will bounce back”, just as it did from economic shocks, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and previous pandemics: “On every occasion travel has bounced back”.

The Editors’ Introduction sets the book’s objectives. It is to challenge the common assumption, especially among transport professionals, that travel is not demanded for its own sake, but is derived from the desire to participate in social, economic and personal activities somewhere else. This underpins all those calculations of a ‘money value’ to be gained by making travel faster to save time. Instead, the book seeks to replace this by a ‘more holistic and realistic picture of travel’, playing diverse and complex roles in people’s lives. “The human need for travel is often instinctive and can be a pleasure in itself”.

‘Travel’ is defined very broadly in the book – not only car and rail journeys, flights, ocean travel, cruises, commuting and the rest - but any inherent desire for movement, even if not going anywhere in particular. It is compared to dogs who ‘go for a walk and break into impromptu runs in the park… because of the sheer exhilaration of movement and the drive to know what is around them… many humans find the act of walking a positive therapy as they pace the office or take a short walk in the lunch hour’. Similarly, it is contended, ‘We cannot really know the environment without travel, whether to the end of the road to buy a loaf and post a letter, or to the ends of the Earth to experience other environments and reflect on our own.’

The successive technical chapters elaborate a theory of how this developed, starting with a key evolutionary change which enabled our branch of the ape family to walk upright, which improved vision, released the hands for tool making and use, and eventually improved the quality and depth of thought. So as a result

‘As a species, humans are the world’s great travellers. We have travelled to every continent on the planet, and even to the moon. On an individual level, over a billion people travel outside their own country every year. Every day most of us will make a journey of some sort, usually spending about an hour on travelling, regardless of our country or culture of origin. (Marchetti, 1994). It seems common sense that such a ubiquitous behaviour must have some sort of biological basis: that travel is in some way ‘hard-wired’ into us”
(Charles Pasternak, on p13 of the book).

Pasternak, a Biochemist, illustrates his hypothesis with a map (a version of the one which anybody will recognise who has sent off a sample of their saliva to find out where they came from), with arrows showing the route from African origins to everywhere else, another example of which we reproduce here.


Mankind’s first significant travels - the exodus out of the cradle of evolution in East Africa

Tony Hiss author of many books including on biodiversity, continues this theme, describing human evolution as ‘50,000 years of wandering’ as hunter-gatherers, which evolved into 11,500 years of settling down as farmers. But it is the wandering which still shapes our mind, he believes, and that we should ‘use this understanding to improve and expand – rather than minimise – our daily travel experiences’ (p 35).

Extended into those contributing to the book from other disciplines, there is a common thread. Not only is travel enjoyable, but we are hard wired, or genetically programmed, to do it. The advantages of this evolutionary attribute are seen as profound: health, the ability to think, scientific discovery, escape from poverty or famine or oppression. Being deprived of freedom of movement is often regarded as almost the definition of punishment, tantamount to being in prison. In contrast, travel is perceived to bring social status and respect. And education: in his foreword, Wheeler writes “The ‘gap year trip, that first big experience of independent travel, was almost an essential part of growing up, a more valuable spell of education, than years of school.”

What about the disadvantages?

The book does also recognise that there are some disadvantages, and that something must be done about these, though it is fair to say that the treatment of this dimension is brief, and does not seek to be comprehensive or profound. Anthropologist Tom Selwyn contributes an interesting and somewhat troubling discussion of the role of anthropology as a discipline of scholars from civilised countries inherently engaged in travel to observe ‘less civilised’ indigenous people. Kris Beuret and Roger Hall add a sociological perspective, especially that travel has enabled social mobility, and escape, though ask another disturbing question, ‘how does sex tourism fit into this theme of ‘escape’.

Most of the chapters mention the environmental impact, and some mention health and safety, though at no great length, and not as existential imperatives. I had the sense that this had never been seen as the main purpose of the book.

The Editors’ own conclusion is that ‘It is clear that travel is essential to achieve our human need for self and group identity’ (p215). So travel has an intrinsic utility, and therefore ‘the opportunity to travel should be considered an essential aspect of social equity’. ’We must find ways of making travel environmentally sustainable as well as offering a more equitable future for mankind’, they conclude.

Thus the thesis is that understanding ‘why’ will help to decide what to do, but disappointingly there is hardly any discussion about specific policies or initiatives that the new understandings might help us to implement, which were not available under the old understandings. So Glenn Lyons discusses technologies which can offer alternative ways of engaging in social interaction, work, and indeed shopping, requiring less physical travel. But to me that seems an application of the old ‘travel as a derived demand’ approach, rather than based on the proposed new one, unless some future forms of virtual reality might involve being ‘wired in’ as technical fact, rather than a scientific metaphor.

The main flaw here seems to me that by treating all travel, from short walks to global migration, as examples of the same inherent universal human need, there is a missed opportunity to consider exactly how, or even whether, that need can be fulfilled with less damage. There are some intriguing hints that if short walks are fulfilling the same underlying desires and needs to travel as distant holidays, then we can seek to replace one by the other, though this might not be a proposition that all the various authors would sign up to.


The world’s airline routes mapped digitally

Image: Jpatokal, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons  


Travelling in search of peace and quiet is not always entirely rewarded...

It’s nice to go travelling, but…

I’d like to now pick up on how the book left me thinking more generally, and offer some challenges to it. Most basically, I suppose, there is the question of the nature of the evidence. It does seem to me a mistake to build too much on that constant ‘hour a day’ travel time statistic found in surveys, which is an average of many people, not a genetic property of individuals. Even the average varies by age, gender, car ownership and especially income, which makes it more like learned, economic or socially determined behaviour than genetic. It is very sensitive to definitions: the hour omits all the travel done as part of the jobs of vehicle drivers, sailors, pilots and stewards, who are surely central to the book’s theme. It raises the question of what conclusion we draw about the variability of travel from individual to individual, which I’ll return to below.

But even setting that aside, I am not entirely convinced by some of the underlying narrative for the ‘hard-wired to travel’ concept, which has the feeling more of a creation myth than a tested hypothesis. Take the initial spreading of homo sapiens throughout the world, travelling tens of thousands of miles in tens of thousands of years. That arithmetic implies colonising the world at an order of magnitude of around a mile a year. Allowing for the obvious fact that it was never an uninterrupted or smooth process, it would follow that for many generations, people stayed in the territory where they were living, with much movement on foot certainly, to hunt and fish and gather, but on familiar trails, returning at night to settlements of some sort or another for as long as the life was good. When times got hard there would need to be long marches - even 40 years in the wilderness - but for most of the time, for most people, the horizon seen by the grandparents would be much the same as the horizon seen by the children. We have no written records of the time, but we do have paleoarcheology. I venture to suggest that as language developed, a word for ‘home’ must have developed very early on. Great cities may have had to wait for farming, but caves and huts and tents did not.

So I could imagine another book, with the theme of Sinatra’s song that it’s nice to go travelling, but it’s nicer to come home. Its thesis would be that ‘As a species, humanity are the world’s great Settlers’. The argument would go that even nomads and wanderers want a base, which they would be hard-wired to find or adapt. By extension of the same logic, this would explain how when we are travelling we instinctively set up a temporary ‘home’ as soon as we can, even if it’s our hotel room or our seat on the train. It would also explain why car use is so pervasive, not because it keeps us moving, but because it enables us to think we are at home, which also seems an inherent part of our humanity.

Of course, this is just a creation myth as well. But I think it matches and balances the one which sees travel as defining what makes us human. There is no evidence that the desire for travel (or anything else) is the same for every individual. Thus a set of explorers and adventurers can coexist side by side behaviourally with a population of home-makers and nest builders – sometimes separated by gender, or by caste, or by class, or by physique, and with fuzzy boundaries certainly. But the idea that only the explorers are fully ‘human’ would be impossible to defend, and much of our experience seems to be that they are in the minority.


Flying away is sold as an adventure, but the experience can be a nightmare

The dark side of travel

A lot of the book’s argument about the ‘humanising’, civilising and educational influence of travel is quite convincing, though relative to context and people’s individual circumstances rather than a universal experience.

There are some very specific gaps in this simple conceptual idea, of which the first and most obvious is the complete omission of two of the largest aspects of intercontinental travel we know of, namely slavery and the forced displacement of people. It would clearly be quite wrong to describe the slave trade as people travelling to escape. It was quite the opposite. The slave ships were a type of hell, and the life they were transporting people to was unforgivable. Similarly, the other meaning of the word ‘transportation’ is for imprisonment and removal as punishment. People who travel because a colonising or invading power has burned or stolen their homes are not choosing to undertake an educational activity to widen their experience of the world or seeking a better life. Even people’s own Governments have forcibly displaced them on numerous occasions, or left them impoverished and forced to seek somewhere better to live. Famine and natural disasters have had the same effect. That there are children who have to walk miles every day to carry dirty water for their families is not a humanising experience. It is true that many of the slaves, convicts and refugees survive and they, or their descendants, develop the strength and experience to build a better life, but one would never, ever, have the appalling manners to say to them ‘look, it did you good, didn’t it?’.

War is another problematic aspect of travel. Until the current period, probably the main way in which young men (other than the richest and most educated, who took the Grand Tour) experienced travel outside their own locality was in the army or navy, not all as volunteers. There was a culture – we have nearly forgotten it – of patriotic glorification of war, especially during the period of Empire building. (Though I do not discount the difference between a just war and an unjust one, however difficult it is to agree which is which). Military recruiting advertisements now tend to emphasise the opportunity to learn a trade, extend your skills, see foreign places, and enjoy the camaraderie of young people like yourself, rather than bombing and fighting.

But there is indeed an argument very reminiscent of the book’s thesis, that fighting is also ‘hard-wired’ into humanity. So there is a third class of book, which starts ‘As a species, humanity are the world’s great warmakers’. It states that it is impossible to understand history without understanding the underlying reasons for war, and sometimes emphasises the way it has contributed to science, engineering, the arts of persuasion, and great literature. In past times – and still, in some places – it was often asserted that you could not be a real man unless you had experienced the excitement and achievements of war. But the idea that war should be fostered as a civilising influence, or to fully develop as human beings, is not now an argument that would be accepted unchallenged.

The Special Case of International Air Travel

Whether hard-wired or not, it is certainly true that a great number of people are deeply attached to a life-style which includes, or is built around, international air travel. It brings them exciting experiences and indeed provides much employment to those servicing it. It also, manifestly, does a great deal of damage. That duality is not dismissed by the argument that travel is an inherent human desire. International air travel has a special focus in the picture of travel as learning about other cultures, and understanding the world, but it is also special in another way. It is inherently inequitable. ‘Over a billion people travel outside their own country every year’, it is said. Yes, but that means that nearly seven billion people do not. The overall global average works out at about one flight per person per year for the whole population of the world, but the bulk of flights are made by frequent fliers in the richest countries. In the UK 70% of all residents’ flights are made by frequent flyers, comprising 15% of the UK population. At the global level, the most frequent fliers represent just around 1% of the world’s population, and account for more than half of the emissions (Hopkinson and Cairns 2021).

Turning that round, at the other extreme, less than 20% of the world’s population has ever set foot on a plane, and on current economic and social development trends only a minority of the global population ever will. Thus making air travel ‘environmentally sustainable’, as well as ‘equitable’ will not in practice provide an appealing solution to most dedicated travellers as it implies the introduction of a high level of rationing. Something perhaps like the ‘Contract and Converge’ concept suggested by the Global Commons Institute, allowing a small allocation of flights for about one foreign trip every two or three years for everybody, at the expense of a very large reduction of flights by all the frequent fliers who are currently responsible for most of the emissions. This would quite inevitably be resisted as a restriction on the ‘freedom to travel.’

Conversely, even if zero emission flying could enable the whole population of the world to aspire to the lifestyle of the present frequent fliers, without an even more damaging distortion in provision of food and energy, the statistics do not work for another reason. The capacity of the planes, airports, hotels, restaurants and tourism venues would have to increase to a level that economies cannot provide, and the experience would not be anything like that (already unrealistically) promoted now. Deserted beaches, open roads, romantic open spaces, relaxing personal space are the message of advertising, though increasingly hard to find, and inherently dependent on limited numbers. There is even a language for that – ‘unspoilt’ (as yet) and ‘fast-disappearing’ (so be quick). I note there is already a significant academic debate around the concept of ‘Over Tourism’.

Alongside that huge (and demonstrably damaging) set of activities the demanding structure and voracious appetites of international tourism use more individuals providing services than those who do the flying. I imagine a fourth book, ‘As a species, humanity are the world’s great servants.’ It would argue that history shows that the majority of us, must enjoy being in service, which is wired into our genes by evolution. It gives us the opportunity to experience other cultures, learning from those we serve. But I don’t think anybody would write that one. Or buy it either.

Who are ‘We’?

Uncomfortably, the most common pronoun to be found in the book is ‘we’, in sentences seeking to describe humanity. But it is really a book all about a very particular us: you and me, and ‘people like us’, at a very particular time. Educated, rather well-off people in the developed countries, who write books and have gap years and commutes and frequent foreign holidays and international conferences, and business meetings by train, and drive their children to school, but can’t let them play in the street.

‘Acknowledge your privilege’ is a new axiom, and I must openly confess that in the past my life was very like the descriptions in the book (except never the bit about driving to school). I remember a train journey overnight from a research project in Amsterdam to a conference in Trieste soon after I went to Oxford. It was a joy. And the time I flew to Australia, to speak at a conference sponsored by a bus company who provided first class air seats. And travelling to Europe often enough to justify buying a little flat in Paris.

Yes, I felt all that was described truthfully by ‘Why Travel?’ So I acknowledge my privilege, and worry how to compensate for it now things have changed. Perhaps, even more importantly, it has become a privilege that we cannot plan to be passed on unchanged – let alone extended - to the next generations. On current trends, in our grandchildren’s world travel is more likely to be marked by mass population movements to escape floods and fires, or search for water, and by disrupted economies, and competition or conflict to capture the remaining safe and pleasant places. So yes, if understanding why people travel can help us to prevent that, it will be very valuable indeed. But only if it addresses which people, and what travel? Perhaps that should be the next book.

We are hard-wired to eat, after all, and we can easily prove that this is a defining feature of humanity, and a vital part of our cultures, and a basic human right. But if we eat too much, or the wrong food, it does us harm.

References and Links:

Phil Goodwin is Emeritus Professor of Transport Policy at UCL and UWE, and Senior Fellow of the Foundation for Integrated Transport.

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT864, 6 March 2023.

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