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Commuting – same old, same old?

Posted on 10 November 2017 by Alun Humphrey, Director of Household Surveys .
Tags: transport

For many of us, our daily journey to and from work is a big part of our lives. Trying to beat the traffic, squeezing together on a crowded tube train, the frustration of late or cancelled trains (or in my case trying to dodge the showers on my bike) can be a source of great stress. Indeed this week, thousands of rail commuters have been affected by further strikes.

But is anything changing? This week sees the publication of a fascinating report, which looks at how commuting in England has changed over the past 25 years or so. Using data from a whole range of sources (including the National Travel Survey for which NatCen collect data) it looks at how this important aspect of many people’s day has altered. It sets this in context of wider societal changes such as the increase in and shifting structure of the working population.

One of the key findings is that – despite how crowded our commutes might seem - we are actually making fewer commuting journeys than we used to. Between 1988 and 1992, the average worker made 7.1 commuting journeys a week. By 2015, this had fallen to 5.7 journeys.

When digging a bit deeper, this is being driven (sorry!) to some extent by changes in how we organise our working lives. For example, part of the reason for the fall is that more people seem to be ‘trip-chaining’ – e.g. dropping children off at school on the way to work – which means that these journeys aren’t counted as traditional commutes in the data. Alongside that, we are actually commuting on fewer days of the week. This is due to increases in part-time working and working from home, as well as people who have no regular place of work.

The report highlights a number of other changes: commuters are travelling further and are spending slightly longer at work; hence there have been some small shifts in the average times at which commuting journeys are made. For example, we now start our morning commute at 7.51am compared with 7.55am in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  

And if you are fed up with your journey to work, the report does actually have some good news. Some really innovative analysis looks at congestion on the roads. Using National Travel Survey data on journey lengths, the report shows the variability in people’s journeys i.e. how much journey time varies from day to day. Although the variation in journey times is greater for car journeys than other modes, it has actually has improved (reduced) markedly over time. In other words, car commuting journeys are more predictable than they used to be.

For rail commuters, satisfaction with the punctuality or reliability of journeys showed continued improvements in the early 2000s, although there is some evidence of decline since 2012. But there has been no change in the proportion agreeing there is sufficient space to sit or stand.

The report presents a wide range of findings relating to how we travel to and from work. But for me, through the lens of our daily commute, it highlights just how our lives are continuing to evolve, becoming steadily more complex, fractured and varied.

Read the report

Follow me on Twitter: @AlunHumphrey

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