We are all sophisticated travellers now

Mobility options these days offer a mind-boggling array of choices. We need to be ready to take advantage of them

Home Life Sustainability mobility We are all sophisticated travellers now

When media manager Sam Jones got a job in London he decided to buy himself a fold-up Brompton S2L. “It was perfect,” he says with a happy sigh. “I could cycle to work in 15 minutes – half the time it took on public transport – and zip around town to see friends. I didn't even have to lock it up. I just carried it with me into bars and cafés.”

Perfect, that is, until he moved to the London suburbs. Suddenly, the journey was longer and the answer to his fresh mobility challenge was a new bike – a Pashley Guv'nor. “A beautiful bike,” he says. “Three gears and really comfy to ride. Much better over longer distances.”

Later, Jones got a new job and a new house in Surrey and had to tackle a new journey to work – a six-mile trip along a traffic-free green highway built on a disused railway line. The answer? A steel-framed tourer, the Surly Disc Trucker, with handy basket at the front.

A growing range of options

Jones's personal peloton is an extreme example of the lengths some people go to in order to perfect their commute (he actually has a fleet of six bikes and his next goal is an electric model), but it reveals another truth: that many of us are making increasingly sophisticated decisions about the transport we use.

We may soon have autonomous vehicles, smart motorways and automated heli-taxis to add to our personal travel options. It's an exciting prospect, but also critical. As attitudes to work and leisure shift post-pandemic, we will be forced to look into different options as we try to minimise the pressure on our roads in general and public transport in particular. Many people took to cycling for exercise in their brief periods of respite from lockdown – and it will be good to maintain some of that momentum as we return to our workplaces.

What do we know about the way we choose to get from A to B? Research shows that most households base their mobility decisions on practicality. A hierarchy of factors – from living standards and sustainability to connectivity and personal health – also shape our transport choices.

Making travel decisions

A long-term choice to have a large family, for example, may lead to a medium-term decision to live in the suburbs and buy a people carrier. Shorter term, day-to-day decisions about how and where to travel can, basically, be broken down into trips that we have to make (commuting, school travel), maintenance trips (shopping, medical appointments) and discretionary trips (holidays, visiting family and friends).

In turn, each mobility decision is then influenced by a blend of practical, psychological and social factors that can be difficult to unravel. “Psychological factors include emotions such as the extent to which one enjoys driving or walking,” according to a 2019 UK government report on the future of mobility. Meanwhile, social factors include “how much other people matter in one's choice (eg peer opinions)”.

And then there is our in-built reluctance to change our habits. Daily travel is usually routine and repetitive and we tend to change our form of transport only in response to a trigger – such as a change of workplace or a new cycle lane. In recent months the workplace has been the home and, as we return to the office, we are finding that many cities are implementing changes to their transport infrastructure to aid the uptake of self-propulsion.

Triggers for change

It will be great to see some of our cities with new cycle lanes and areas for pedestrians. Here digital technology will have an important role to play – with connectivity making sharing transport possible, from bikes to cabs, and apps that do the thinking for us. Tap in your priorities and an app will help select the most sustainable or efficient or peaceful transportation options to get to your desired destination.

Hopefully, we can all take advantage of an exciting future of mobility with new and improved forms of transport. Even so, it will be some app that delivers anything as specific as Sam Jones's varied and bespoke sets of wheels. Leaving plenty of room, for the time being at least, for the vagaries of individual choice.