ITC debates the need to constrain travel

Do we need to constrain travel?

The Occasion

Dr David Quarmby CBE, the chairman of the RAC Foundation, chaired a panel comprising Tony Bosworth, Senior Campaigner for Climate and Transport at Friends of the Earth, Charles Kovacs, director of HID Radio and an investment expert from Eastern Europe, and Paul Everitt, the Chief Executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. The speakers addressed a select audience comprising leading representatives from the fields of industry, journalism, academia and transport consultancy.

Do we need to constrain travel in order to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century? Organised in anticipation of the government’s creation of a portfolio on alternatives to travel, this was the question addressed at the Independent Transport Commission’s autumn Discussion Evening on Wednesday 6th October 2010. The audience included representatives from more than 30 leading organisations.

The speakers each offered a response to the question from a different vantage point. These included perspectives covering environmentalism, the motor industry, and the problems faced by the restrictions on travel in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Iron Curtain. While there was disagreement on the particular reasons that might cause us to constrain travel, there was widespread acceptance that we should focus on constraining the negative impacts of travel rather than human movement itself.


Do we need to constrain travel? – key issues raised by the speakers:

  • The challenge to limit carbon emissions and climate change is an imperative. If we are to follow the Copenhagen guidelines of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade we need rapid decarbonisation. Transport accounts for about 25% of total carbon emissions. On this basis we should ask not whether but how we can constrain travel.
  • Behavioural change to limit carbon emissions will be necessary before technological advances arrive. While new technologies, such as a move to electric vehicles, will be important, the development of these will take time. Encouraging behavioural change will also be important in limiting carbon emissions from travel. Such measures should include sustainable transport planning, reducing long distance travel, and increased taxation.
  • Travel is an important enabler of freedom. Authoritarian regimes often try to restrict travel of their subjects through such measures as internal passports and limiting foreign travel. In Eastern Europe, the breakdown of such measures was an important cause of the fall of the Iron Curtain. Increased car ownership and foreign travel awoke the people to alternative lifestyles, encouraged social mobility, and made it harder for the authorities to control their populations.
  • Reducing foreign travel will impoverish poor nations. Tourism is an important income source for developing nations, and is often encouraged by their governments for that reason. We should bear in mind that constraining foreign travel could damage livelihoods and decrease prosperity in these societies.
  • Travel is already being constrained in Western nations. We already face restrictions on our ability to travel through a variety of measures, including speed limits, access limitations, and a wide range of taxes (air taxes, for instance, now can now comprise 50% of the cost of an air ticket).
  • We should focus less on trying to constrain travel, and concentrate instead on better managing demand and encouraging more intelligent means of travel. Huge progress has already been made by the automotive industry in reducing their environmental costs, particularly in the fields of emissions and safety. We need to harness technology to better serve our needs, and encourage more investment in its development. This would ultimately ensure that we make more efficient use of our travel networks, and provide greater opportunities for people to travel in more sustainable ways.
  • If we are to change our travel behaviour, we need to be aware of the obstacles we face. First, we need to see a strong degree of political will. Transport ministers have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo since it is often the path of least resistance. Secondly, we need to overcome a lack of investment. Thirdly, we need to be mindful of the practicality of measures: achieving change often rests more on the implementation of simple steps rather than grandiose schemes.

Discussion Outcomes

  • We need to separate the question of constraining travel from the question of constraining the impacts of travel. Decoupling these two issues will be important. Many externalities of travel are not currently transmitted through prices. Several attendees therefore argued for a universal price to be put on greenhouse gases to help measure the level of CO2 reduction which could be ‘found’ by transport.
  • We need to ask if we can square investment in High Speed Rail with the government’s policy of trying to encourage alternatives to travel. Some believed that High Speed Rail would have strong negative impacts, including high externalities, and would only encourage additional travel by high income groups. Others made it clear that High Speed Rail would bring considerable benefits to the regions it served, and pointed to the positive effects of such networks in most developed nations. One guest pointed to the transformational effect that such major projects can bring, such as the role of the M40 in improving the prosperity of Warwickshire and north Oxfordshire. Attendees were counseled on the dangers of viewing travel only from the perspective of metropolitan, and especially London elites, and ignoring the needs of the rural and provincial populace.
  • There are dangers in promoting alternatives to travel. A vision was offered of ‘urban peasants’: individuals tied to their computers, shopping online, and rarely venturing outside their neighbourhood, returning us to the immobile lifestyle of peasant farmers.
  • Travel has an important liberating effect as a result of increasing movement and prosperity. It was noted that globalisation, made possible through increased travel, had also helped to reduce the cost of living around the world. Transport policy in Britain should take account of the fact that global passenger km traveled will continue to accelerate as a result of rapid industrialization in large developing nations.
  • An assumption that travel is ‘good’ is too simplistic. As a generic term, like GDP, ‘travel’ can include both positive and negative dimensions. Sometimes travel can result in a powerfully negative experience, and we should focus on constraining this dimension.
  • We need to consider how we would approach the question if carbon emissions were not an issue. Polls indicate that the public currently place a low priority on carbon reduction, and therefore this thought experiment could be useful. Some suggested we would be facing similar pressures to constrain travel as a result of different factors, such as congestion and noise. Another perspective was that the carbon reduction imperative was itself misguided, since it focused only on the costs while ignoring the benefits that could accrue from a certain degree of climate change.
  • We need to harness new technologies if we are to combat the negative impacts of travel. Real-time networking, smart cards and other technologies should lead to much better journey planning and product offering for public transport. Some attendees expressed frustration that technology rollout tended to have little impact on rural travel.