People are travelling less often, particularly by car. But Britain has not become a nation of hermits
DOMESTIC travel has got a lot easier in the past 40 years. Vehicles are faster and more efficient; far more people have driving licences; many households now own two cars. Public transport has improved. Even bicycles are lighter and zippier. The broad perception is that the country’s transport networks are creaking under the strain of so many people.
Yet, oddly, people are travelling less. Car and van mileage has fallen over the past four years, mainly because of the economic slump. Yet this comes atop a longer-run trend: for around 15 years, Britons have been making fewer journeys (see first chart). According to the Department for Transport, the average person now goes on only slightly more trips than he did in the early 1970s, mostly by car. Between the mid-1990s and 2010 individuals made 19% fewer shopping outings. Jaunts to see friends dropped by fully 22%, thanks to a fall in visits to private homes (see second chart). Why?
The trend is not entirely restricted to Britain. There has been a roughly concurrent decline in shopping trips in America, for example, as well as a fall-off in commuting and business trips. But the British trend is particularly stark, partly because Britain collects unusually good, timely data on how its people move.
The drop in shopping trips is fairly straightforward. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says there has been a switch from frequent, short journeys on foot to longer, more occasional car trips. Despite the previous Labour government’s “town centre first” policy to promote shopping in urban areas, since 2000 the number of out-of-town stores has continued to grow, whereas more than 45,000 town centre and neighbourhood shops have shut, according to Verdict Research, a retail consultancy.
Shops are bigger and farther apart. Changes in how food is grown, packed and stored mean some foodstuffs last longer; more people have big freezers to keep supplies. Yet the growing dominance of well-stocked chain stores even in town centres reinforces the trend towards fewer trips, both for groceries and for other products.
Internet shopping has also taken off in the past 15 years. Almost nothing was sold online in 1995. Now e-commerce, worth £68 billion ($110 billion) in 2011, accounts for 17% of all retail spending in Britain according to IMRG, a consultancy. This has also shifted a class of travel from personal shopping into freight, where vans or lorries do multiple drops as the final stage of a logistic process, says Phil Goodwin of UCL and the University of the West of England.
The decline in visiting friends and family at home is harder to explain.
Inflation-busting petrol prices may have deterred people from making social trips, whereas they have to keep shopping and going to work. Because new cars are more fuel-efficient than old ones, and because their price has risen less than other items, the cost of motoring has actually fallen in real terms. But, since many people focus on the cost per litre of petrol, rather than the cost per mile, rising pump prices may have had some effect on travel patterns.
Another explanation for the drop in social trips could be the rise of women in the paid workforce, from 42% in 1971 to 68% now. “Couch and kitchen socialising has basically died out,” says Jonathan Gershuny, a sociologist at Oxford University. The decline in home visits over the past 15 years may be part of a much longer-run trend, in which case it is the tail end of that bigger societal change. Unfortunately, there is no comparable data for the years before 1995.
Another possibility is that people are better able to entertain themselves at home. Television, by far the most time-consuming leisure activity, has certainly become more varied: the number of homes with multichannel TV has increased from 7.6m to 25.7m since 2000. Yet television-viewing increased by only 20 minutes a day on average, to four hours, according to BARB, which measures ratings. It can account for some of Britons’ reluctance to go out, but not much.
As with retail, the internet is the biggest innovation of the past two decades. In 1995 few households had internet access; e-mail was just starting up. Now more than three-quarters of houses are connected to the web, according to Nielsen, a research outfit; internet users spend an average of 50 hours a month online at home. Social-networking sites are used by 60% of all British households, and account for more than a fifth of all time spent on the internet.
A rise in hours spent staring at computer screens and televisions—and a concurrent decline in journeys to see friends at home—does not necessarily mean that Britain is becoming a nation of hermits. Mr Gershuny argues that those who engage with friends online also tend to see them more in person, even controlling for age. The internet may make socialising more “efficient” and diverse—people can research and plan where they are going, or what they want to buy, eat or do when they are out. In fact, many trips to visit friends at home are being replaced by jaunts out with friends, reckons Oriel Sullivan of Oxford University.
The ONS’s national well-being survey suggests that socialising with friends is still one of the most popular pastimes. People spend more time chatting on the phone too. Yet the travel data may obscure such engagement because socialising is increasingly combined with another activity. The number of trips to meet friends outside their homes has held steady. Other types of outing have become more popular, such as what the ONS describes as “entertainment or public activity” and “day trips”, all of which are likely to include friends or family. For many people, work is also a social encounter.
Retail travel also follows this trend. Despite the decline of the high street, there are more grocery shops at transport hubs such as railway stations, which makes buying fresh food possible without a special outing. “Multitasking” has become a popular shorthand for the predicament of modern workers. It may increasingly apply to their leisure time too.