What does the National Travel Survey tell us about how much we travel?

London Bus
Tom Ellerton

The Government recently published the National Travel Survey, one of the annual highlights in the calendar for transport researchers such as myself. Contained in the cells and tabs of the 77 spreadsheets served up in the survey (as well as, to the credit of the Department for Transport, its accompanying commentary document) is a statistical nirvana on how we, as a nation, are travelling. So what does it tell us? One of the most interesting highlights is that the number of trips made by residents of England increased to 986 trips last year, 11 more than the year before and the highest number since 2009. Following a long period of decline, we have started to record more trips in the last couple of years.

Which modes are seeing growth?

Much of this recent increase can be accounted for in walking trips, which are now at their highest level since 2006. Walking has been the big winner in the last couple of years, with the apparent under reporting in short walks being corrected for since 2016. We’re now seeing 39 additional walking trips per person since 2014. Great news for active travel advocates such as ourselves. Less good news, particularly from a climate perspective, is that the number of trips as a car or van driver increased to 395 (up from 390 in 2017), reaching their highest levels since 2010. Last year also saw a large increase in the number of young people with a driving licence, reversing the recent trend. However despite this recent increase in car or van trips, the actual distance travelled as a car or van driver decreased over the last year and is at its lowest level since 2013, with the average trip length falling to 8.2 miles (from 8.4 miles the previous year). The number of trips people made by car in urban conurbations also fell in the last year (4 less trips per person), mirroring trends we have seen in local cordon counts. Surface rail hit a new high for the number of trips per person (22). This is a small increase on the previous year (21) and continues a long standing trend of steel wheel success.

Which modes are seeing decline?

Both inside and outside of London the bus did badly (two fewer trips per person in London and four fewer trips for the rest of the country). This disappointing but largely expected news leaves the bus at a low point in the last decade, with only population growth preventing further falls in patronage. When it comes to two wheels, national figures once again show a somewhat bumpy ride for cycling, with numbers hovering around 17 annual trips per person on average for the last few years. This is despite local evidence in our city regions which shows large scale growth where high quality infrastructure schemes are implemented. This suggests that whilst there has been a lot of good work in this area, there is still more to do to emulate the success of places like London - where cycling has been the fastest growing mode of transport in since 2000 - on a nation-wide scale.

The impact of the car on our mobility

Another fascinating tidbit to emerge is the relationship between car ownership and travel. Households with a car continue to make more trips overall (986) than those who don’t own one (737), with the main car driver in the household making the highest number of trips overall (1,163). Car ownership also impacts on the distance travelled, with a household with no car averaging 2,760 miles per year compared to a staggering 6,530 miles for a household with a car (and 9,163 for the main driver of the car in the household). Whilst there are likely to be a number of factors that impact on this trend (households with no car can range from wealthy city centre dwellers to households experiencing high levels of poverty), the presence of a car has a significant impact on how households travel.

What does this mean for our cities?

While the national statistics are undoubtedly interesting, looking at the number of trips in isolation doesn’t tell the full story. A major success story from our cities over recent years has been the reverse of long-term population decline and the revitalisation of their economies. With ever more people wanting to travel into and within our major cities, it is important that we are able to encourage them into higher capacity modes. In this sense, the increase in walking levels and rail are welcome trends. If we do choose to look at our major cities in isolation, it seems that their trends are different to that of the national picture. Cordon counts are showing a decrease in the number of cars recorded in the morning rush hour into some of the largest city centres. Cities such as Birmingham have seen the total number of people commuting in the morning peak increase and have achieved this with a decrease in the number of cars over the last five years. The Urban Transport Group is currently undertaking a research programme which explores changing travel trends and has a particular focus on improving understanding of the factors driving the decline in bus patronage. Our annual Number crunch report and online transport data tool, the Data Hub, go into greater detail as to the trends that are taking place in our cities.

Dr Tom Ellerton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group