TAPAS.network | 16 May 2022 | Commentary | Matthew Niblett

Why travel? Rethinking our need for movement in an age of crises

Matthew Niblett

Behavioural responses required to mitigate the impacts of Climate Change and adjust to the implications of the Covid 19 Pandemic, have added further dimensions to discussion about the underpinnings of travel demand and its rationale and sustainability. A recently published collection of essays on the topic provides a timely reality check for us all on the various ways of looking at what lies behind our human quest for constantly moving around. Matthew Niblett considers the authors’ different takes, and what general message we can maybe draw from them

‘TRAVELLING IS A FOOL’S PARADISE’, wrote the nineteenth-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in his celebrated essay on Self-Reliance. ‘The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet’, Emerson continued, criticising those who travelled merely to amuse themselves or as some form of escape. Emerson’s attack on the casual traveller stirred controversy amongst his contemporaries, and might seem even more strange today in a world where long-distance pleasure travel dominates many people’s bucket lists and holiday aspirations, especially after a period of lockdowns. Yet in an age of seemingly continual crises, from a global pandemic and climate change to European war and rampant inflation, Emerson’s perspective is surely relevant in challenging us to reconsider the reasons behind much of the travel we do. 

First, though, we need to consider what it is that motivates us to travel. When asked to identify the most basic elements of human existence, common responses usually include breathing, eating, drinking or perhaps reproduction. Movement, in spite of being as fundamental a part of human life as these other activities, is a less frequent answer, yet remains crucial for the functioning of society and our daily lives. But what drives human movement, and especially our propensity to travel? On the surface such a question can appear obvious, but on deeper reflection it unfolds as an issue of complexity; and as such has exercised human minds for millennia. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, thinking two and a half thousand years ago about the motion of animals, described voluntary movement as the product of other desires: having determined the object or objective we desire, we then move to pursue it.

In the transport world, the idea that travel movements are inspired by our desire to do something else has become commonplace. Many modern textbooks on transport planning describe the demand for travel as a ‘derived demand’ - in the sense that travel is not pursued for its own sake, but as the result of our desire to access activities in another location. This utilitarian view of mobility assumes that travel is actually the secondary product of other primary goals. As such, the time we spend travelling is frequently treated as a cost, or a disutility, that needs to be minimised as far as possible, and offset against the positive benefits of arriving at a destination. This pervasive view in transport planning is evident in many appraisal methods, through which transport schemes are assessed by attributing a monetary value to travel time savings. This leads us to a position in which, at the same time as we design and build new infrastructure to facilitate travel, we imply that spending less time travelling is a good thing, and a slow speed journey is thereby intrinsically sub-optimal.

Is there perhaps a case to see travel and mobility as more than merely a means to an end? Might there be occasions when travel itself has positive benefits? Is there evidence to indicate that travel might be the product of some more fundamental sense of restlessness and desire to explore and generate new experiences? To answer these questions the Independent Transport Commission (ITC) commissioned a study to explore the fundamental motivations that drive human travel and develop a deeper understanding of their origin. Drawing on a much wider range of expertise than usual, from evolutionary biology, to sociology, anthropology and economics, the study resulted in a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the drivers that underpin our travel behaviour. These were compiled into a multi-authored book with chapters by more than a dozen leading experts, published last year by Bristol University Press as Why Travel? Understanding our need to move and how it shapes our lives. 

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Travel and the human character

At the centre of the book’s exploration of these motivations is the work of the internationally eminent biologist Dr Charles Pasternak. Dr Pasternak has spent much of his career investigating how the evolution of various attributes has shaped humankind’s unique behaviour. In his chapter, he explains that one behavioural characteristic, although shared by most animals, has advanced in humankind beyond all other: the propensity for curiosity. This trait, manifested in our ability to search, to seek and to discover, has enabled humanity to adapt to a vast range of environments in almost every corner of the globe. Dr Pasternak explains how our bodies are well designed for this process of searching: our upright stance and legs have developed to enable us to cover long distances, while our process of sweating allows us to do this without overheating. Indeed, over certain long distances, some scientists have suggested that humans are capable of outrunning almost every other animal on earth. Meanwhile our arms and precision grip enable more than adequate proficiency at climbing, swimming and using helpful tools to negotiate difficult terrain. In this way, it might be said that humankind is the ultimate travelling species: we are not only well fitted mentally and physically for movement over great distances, but also our innate curiosity motivates us to find new means of and reasons for travel.

Similar conclusions about the importance of travel as an innate characteristic of the human species are revealed through the other chapters in the book. Tony Hiss, the renowned expert on cities and landscapes, has been fascinated by the way in which we often encounter a heightened sense of awareness and alertness when we travel. Hiss explores in his chapter on ‘Travel and the Mind’ how leading neuroscientists have identified a link between the development of the human brain and prehistoric travel across the great savannahs of Africa. It was an advantage to be able to scan the horizon and develop a deep sense of situational awareness while travelling long distances across these grasslands: as a result, humans appear to have developed a neurological capacity to process a huge quantity of information whilst on the move. Elsewhere in the book, academic Emily Thomas demonstrates how travel fulfils our intrinsic appetite for exploration, while anthropologist Tom Selwyn and sociologist Kristine Beuret investigate the ways in which travel has shaped societies and cultural habits across the world. Architect Deborah Saunt reveals how the essential role of travel in our lives has shaped the places where we live, while transport economists Alex Jan and Matt Dillon explain how the utility of travelling is forcing us to reassess economic assumptions about the value of travel. A number of chapters reference the important research by Venetian systems analyst Cesare Marchetti, who examined human travel behaviour and settlements across millennia, and discovered that the average time we spend travelling has remained about an hour per day since the earliest civilizations. Why might we have kept up this habit in spite of our travel methods becoming ever faster, and in spite of a decreasing need to travel for essentials such as food, water and fuel? The striking conclusion reached by Marchetti was that personal travel appears to be as much under the control of our basic instincts as it is of economic drivers. 

The book challenges, therefore, the idea that travel is wholly derived from demand for other activities. It provides fresh evidence that much travel behaviour is actually rooted in the desire to move as a purpose in itself: an issue determined by social, physical, psychological and cultural factors. Furthermore, there is growing evidence of strong links between travel and our mental and physical health, with the authors demonstrating that challenge and novelty are beneficial to our cognitive abilities, including creativity, and that we could not have flourished to the same extent as a species without widespread travel. Even if the derived demand for travel could practically be met by some form of virtual communication, the consequences of preventing travel could well be serious both for individuals and society. This might well make sense to many after a period when the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically constrained travel. Confined and limited in where we can move, people across the world have developed a fresh appreciation of the importance of travel for our mental health and fulfilment. 

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At the same time, the book recognizes that twenty-first century travel often generates substantial external costs, and has been heading in an unsustainable direction. Hazel Andrews writes about the challenges of over-tourism, which can bring significant environmental and social damage to those places affected by a massive influx of temporary visitors. Today, war and supply chain shocks have pushed fuel prices upwards, meaning that many are having to reconsider how much travel they can afford to do. And, as Terry Hill reveals in his chapter on travel and the environment, an even greater challenge now is the impact longer-distance travel has on climate change and airborne pollution, with transport responsible for more than a fifth of carbon emissions globally. Moreover, transport infrastructure under current methods produces an enormous carbon footprint, chiefly due to the use of cement. As was evident during the pandemic, less travel can also mean cleaner air and safer streets, improving the quality of local neighbourhoods. Reconciling our fundamental desire for travel with the need to live in a safer, cleaner, greener world, presents a massive challenge. 

With that in mind, it seems worth returning to Emerson’s challenge that travelling is a ‘fool’s paradise’. It can certainly seem that way, when stuffed onto an overcrowded train or tube carriage with your face squashed into some stranger’s armpit, and elbows digging into your side every time the driver applies the brakes. And there can be few who derive pleasure from long queues at a busy airport, or squeezed into an undersized budget airline seat for hours behind a parent struggling to stop their baby screaming. The rewards of the destination need to be substantial indeed to make up for such penalties. At a time when inflation is at 30-year highs and living standards are falling at their fastest rate in living memory, the time seems ripe to consider whether all that travel is really necessary, or justified. Importantly, Emerson was not opposed to all travel, and he believed that there were good reasons to make journeys, such as improving one’s character; as well as equally poor ones, the most frivolous of which had made ‘travelling ridiculous as a treadmill’. Moreover, he believed we should seek more meaning in our immediate surroundings, finding beauty in that which we encounter on an everyday basis. On this basis, it is easy to imagine Emerson today advocating more local and active travel as a substitute for international sightseeing. 

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It might be said that humankind is the ultimate travelling species: we are not only well fitted mentally and physically for movement over great distances, but also our innate curiosity motivates us to find new means of and reasons for travel

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One route to avoiding ‘travel as a treadmill’ can be found in the slow travel movement. This has its origins in the Italian Cittas low network created in the 1990s which advocated improving well- being through a slower and more thoughtful pace of life. By reducing the speed of mobility and taking more time to enjoy one’s surroundings, slow travel and tourism has great potential to achieve more of the benefits of movement outlined above, while at the same time reducing carbon emissions and travel costs. Moreover, it can apply to our everyday movements as well as to longer periods of holiday travel. Interest in the slow travel concept has been given a boost as a consequence of the pandemic, with more people discovering the benefits of staying local, of active travel and pausing to reflect on the necessity of their journeys. Perhaps this helps to explain why leisure travel has recovered much more robustly than commuting and business travel in the post-pandemic world.

This is certainly not an esoteric discussion. It sensibly ought to be built into better policy making. For a start, the value of being mobile as an end in itself, improving mental well-being and bringing health and social benefits, should arguably be given more weight in policy appraisal, while somewhat less weight could be given to travel time savings. Moreover, local and active travel might reasonably be given a higher priority as a way of achieving this, given that these means are more affordable, more sustainable, and potentially can help to revitalise local areas. Planning policy meanwhile has the potential to assimilate these needs, by ensuring that local public realm investments incorporate low-carbon mobility, beauty in our immediate built and natural surroundings, safety and security, a sense of belonging, and sustainability. On such a basis, we might yet avoid Emerson’s fool’s paradise, since less travel in the future might also mean better travel, improving our well-being without costing the earth.

The answer could well be found in trying to detach distance travelled and speed, from the pleasure and sense of fulfilment we imbibe from moving around and finding new kinds of experience: benefits that do not necessarily need to involve the consumption of huge transport resources. 

Why Travel? Understanding our need to move and how it shapes our lives was published last year (2021) by Bristol University Press.

Dr Matthew Niblett is Director at Independent Transport Commission (ITC)

This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT845, 16 May 2022.

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