ITC explores the implications of demographic change

Demographic Change: what will this mean for transport in Britain?

Ann Frye OBE addresses audienceThe Occasion

The Office for National Statistics has forecast that the UK population will increase to over 70 million over the next two decades and predicts we are on course to become the most populous nation in the EU. Due to an ageing population the ONS also expects that the number of over 65s will increase by more than 5 million over the same period. Meanwhile household composition is dramatically changing, driven by factors such as later parenthood, high house prices, and migration to South-East England. How will these changes affect transport and land use in Britain over the years ahead? And what do we need to do in order adequately to prepare our transport systems for these changes?

To debate these issues, the ITC invited leading experts to a Discussion Evening on 19th February 2013. Kris Beuret OBE, ITC Commissioner and Director of Social Research Associates, chaired the evening. Discussion was preceded by short presentations from a distinguished panel comprising: Dr John Disney, Senior Lecturer at Nottingham Business School; Ann Frye OBE, a Visiting Professor at University College London; and Peter Headicar, Reader in Transport Planning at Oxford Brookes University.


Demographic Change and Transport in Britain – key issues highlighted by the speakers:

  • John Disney focused on changes affecting young people, and noted contrasts between the generations. While the ‘baby boomer’ generation tended to see car ownership as a key rite of passage when young, he noted that the current generation of under-30s were now more interested in mobile technology. He added that major changes were affecting the travel behaviour of young people relative to their parents, including greater participation in higher education, high accommodation costs, poorer employment prospects and higher costs of travel and car insurance. Dr Disney stressed the need to better understand these dramatic lifestyle changes, and requested that the DfT incorporate more demographic information into their data collection.
  • Ann Frye spoke to participants about the effect of an ageing population on transport. She noted a correlation between age and disability which made it likely that the number of mobility impaired people would increase. At the same time, she stressed that travel was an intrinsic need and helped sustain social, mental and physical health for older people. It was therefore crucial that there was adequate provision for mobility-impaired travellers, using universal and intuitive design to ensure that suitable infrastructure was built. In addition, she noted it was important to recognise that the ‘baby boomer’ generation were strongly wedded to the car and were often reluctant to use public transport, and measures should be taken to address this.
  • Peter Headicar explored the relationship between demographic change and land use patterns. He illustrated the dramatic rise in urban living that had accompanied the sharp rise in population growth since the 1990s. While there had been migration by middle-aged and older people to the shires, younger people and migrants were increasingly choosing to live in cities. If these trends continued, he argued, they would have profound consequences for transport, contributing towards a stagnation in car travel, and increasing the need for urban public transport provision. He added that we should be aware of the possible effects of policy drivers behind these trends, such as the encouragement of brownfield development in recent decades.

Sir Patrick Brown in debate

Key issues raised in discussion:

  • We need to investigate further whether or not current trends will continue. A number of attendees noted the difficulties of predicting whether or not current trends would continue. Some were sceptical about relying too heavily on recent changes, and questions were raised whether the current economic malaise was permanent or temporary. The implications of current trends for both transport and infrastructure investment were profound, and further research would be important.
  • It will be important to adapt transport provision to accommodate changing needs. A key theme in discussion was the ability of operators to adapt to changing needs, particularly for older people. One key approach was to hide the complexity of transport provision to users: this was likened to the way that Apple trumped Microsoft by developing a more user-friendly interface. Another solution was using innovative means to make bus travel more appealing to young and old.
  • Are changes in behaviour driven by socio-economic or attitudinal factors? A number of attendees questioned whether socio-economic or attitudinal factors were more important drivers of behavioral change. Some suggested that an economic paradigm shift had taken place with the result that it could no longer be taken for granted that younger generations would become wealthier than their parents. Further research in this area was requested.
  • We should consider the impact of technology on older people. Some guests warned that we should not assume older people were technologically illiterate. An illustration was given of the way home deliveries, ordered online, were an increasingly popular choice for older people. In addition, transport should become more demand-responsive, with better provision of taxi and minicab services.
  • Will differences in urban and rural demographics continue to widen? A number of guests pointed to differences between trends in cities, especially London, and in rural areas. It was observed that recent planning policy had apparently been successful in encouraging urbanisation. Others questioned whether there was a limit to the ability of London to grow further. A further observation was that globally cities were becoming increasingly similar, and less like their hinterlands. Operators that adapted well to increasing urbanisation would, it was suggested, be those most likely to succeed in a competitive environment.
  • We should also consider what has not changed over recent decades. In spite of the focus on demographic and behavioural changes, delegates were warned to remain attentive to issues that had not changed. These included the observation that average daily travel time remained about an hour per day across societies. While our choice of modes might change, the need to provide for regular travel might not diminish.