Peter Smith, 18 October 2007
Being ‘well-travelled’ has traditionally been considered a positive attribute, along with characteristics such as being ‘well-read’. Travel and mobility are essential to the development of society, and the modern world itself is associated with a move away from the limited horizons of the local to a more global outlook. Mobility is also important for the development of the individual. Being cosmopolitan in outlook and experience is something many aspired to. Indeed, those that stuck to their immediate surroundings, never venturing far were considered to be lacking in imagination.
Many of us have upped sticks and moved - be it to study at university, for our jobs and careers, for relationships, or simply to face new experiences and challenges. Some of us have, or will, retire to other places, even other countries. For leisure and work, millions of us travel further and more frequently than ever before. Take any measure from car ownership, to rail use, to the rapid growth in air travel and the picture is clear: people embrace opportunities for increased mobility (National Statistics 11.4.2007, 5.4.2007, 4.12.2006). (Footnote 1).
Air travel, in particular the growth in cheap air travel over the last 20 years, has opened up mobility for ever-larger sections of the population. Travelling to the world’s great cities and sights is no longer restricted to the wealthy. Millions of us are able to travel abroad and visit historical and cultural destinations, or just lie on a beach and relax. We are increasingly able to maintain relationships across long distances and emigrants are able to return home to visit family where previously contact was limited.
Many of us have staked more than the cost of a holiday on our ability to live a more mobile life, with second home ownership in countries such as Spain and France no longer the preserve of the super-rich (DirectGov 11.12.2006). Indeed, more people than ever are deciding to move permanently overseas (National Statistics 22.8.2007). Likewise, the number of foreign visitors to the UK is at an all time high (National Statistics 8.11.2006).
The results of increased mobility are all around us: from tapas and Thai restaurants in every high street, to foreign students attending our universities. Mobility has created a more cosmopolitan society and increased the possibilities for human social interaction. Globally we are more social as a result of increased opportunity to travel, particularly cheaper air travel.
Yet at precisely the time when mobility is more available than ever before, there are calls for us to rein in our mobile lifestyles. There is a growing discrepancy between the public’s embrace of, and appetite for, increased mobility on the one hand, and discussions within academic, campaigning and political circles on the other.
Mobility, and the social change associated with it, can often be disconcerting and it can certainly throw up challenges. It’s worth remembering, however, that in the past the experience of travel was seen in overwhelmingly positive terms. Today, influential voices discuss mobility in purely fearful terms: the ‘local’ is preferable to the international; flying is something that causes environmental destruction or even death in developing countries; and mobility brings hordes of immigrants to our shores.
Academics characterise the public as ‘addicted’ to air travel (Black 30.8.2007), or warn society of the consequences of our ‘hyper-mobility’ (Adams 21.11.2001). Vocal environmental campaigners insist that much of our flying is ‘unnecessary’ (Mann 24.4.2004). (Footnote 2). More ominously, with regard to taking weekend trips in Europe and buying property overseas, a leading environmental organisation warns that ‘ending or changing these patterns of behaviour is all the harder to do once they are established’ (Hickman 28.1.2006).
Yet despite the negative characterisation of mobility and the demand to make travelling more guilt-ridden, in the real world driving or flying is unlikely to be banned, as the more extreme critics of mobility demand. The real problem today is the authorities’ lack of confidence in developing mobility further or planning for a future that meets our appetite to travel.
Despite claims to the contrary, in the UK there is no real ambitious government plan to expand airports (a couple of long overdue runways are not exactly a forward-looking programme of mobility development) and road and rail building is a rarity today. The odd development such as the new high-speed rail extension to Eurostar services, as welcome as it is, will not be enough to accommodate our desire to travel more.
Without a clear and bold vision for the future our existing infrastructure will simply become more and more overcrowded, and various measures will be introduced to moderate our usage of it, including higher taxes and road tolls. The current state of UK airports is, if anything, a taste of the future rather than a temporary blip that can be managed away by overhauling the British Airports Authority.
Meeting demand for mobility through a ‘predict and provide’ approach fell out of favour with the election of New Labour in 1997. Since then it is difficult to identify any model of provision beyond the seemingly endless discussions over ‘sustainable’ transport. The twenty-first century answer to mobility trumpeted by transport planners seems to be the bicycle. Meanwhile the politics of London centres around that other bold transport vision: the bendy bus (Johnson 4.9.2007).
The real worry in the current period is that the demand for more mobility will not be matched by the vision necessary to meet people’s aspirations.
If we use public transport in the UK as an example, the difficulties we are currently facing result from a limited imagination in the past. Chronic under-investment and a failure to factor in increased demand have given us a transport system that we are embarrassed by, rather than one others are envious of. Given what passes for transport planning today, in 20-30 years time we will look upon our transport infrastructure a little like the way we look at the UK’s creaky rail network today.
Arguably, you have to go some way back for an example of a greater vision of mobility. The speed and luxury of Concorde offered a glimpse of how we once liked travel to be. Sadly only available for the few, it was a worthy ambition nonetheless, at a time when mobility was more than just a slow slog. Mobility, we should remind ourselves, is also defined as rapid and comfortable ease of movement, not just movement per se.
Commitment to supersonic travel was a fitting sign of the optimism of the late 1960s. Today it seems that all that ambition, like Concorde itself, is history. The bicycle and bendy bus are scant consolation for the lack of a vision to meet our evident desire to live increasingly mobile lives.
Peter Smith is a lecturer in Tourism and Tourism Management at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London.
1. The proportion of households in Great Britain with access to a car rose from 52 per cent in 1971 to 75 per cent in 2004. Rail use has been increasing since the early 1980s to 2.2bn rail journeys in 2005/06. The number of passenger kilometres flown by UK airlines increased from 80bn kilometers in 1985 to 287bn in 2005. Around 97 per cent of the 2005 total was accounted for by international travel.
2. See, for example, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner Richard Dyer: ‘The vast majority of flights are discretionary, for leisure… these are not essential’. Cited in Mann (24.4.2004).
Adams, J. (21.11.2001). ‘The Social Consequences of Hypermobility’. RSA Lecture.
Black, R. (30.8.2007). ‘Brits “addicted” to cheap flights’. BBC News website.
DirectGov (11.12.2006). ‘One in ten Britons live abroad’. DirectGov.
Hickman, M. (28.1.2006). ‘Cheap flights threaten UK targets for carbon emissions’. Independent.
Johnson, B. (4.9.2007). ‘Why Londoners should vote for me’. Daily Telegraph.
Mann, D. (24.4.2004). ‘Calls to control low-cost flights’. BBC News website.
National Statistics (8.11.2006). ‘International travel’. Office for National Statistics.
National Statistics (4.12.2006). ‘Air travel’. Office for National Statistics.
National Statistics (5.4.2007). ‘Bus and rail journeys’. Office for National Statistics.
National Statistics (11.4.2007). ‘Car access’. Office for National Statistics.
National Statistics (22.8.2007). ‘UK population grows to 60,587,000 in mid-2006’. Office for National Statistics News Release.
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