Less is more: Changing travel in a post-pandemic society

Reading time: 8 minutes


Jillian Anable

Llinos Brown

Iain Docherty

Greg Marsden


The pandemic has had a major impact on how we all live our lives. As we learn to live with Covid-19 without restrictions on how we travel and where we work, we face difficult questions. Society demonstrated enormous capacity to adapt, including to varying restrictions on travel, and many people were able to reorganise daily life to travel less. Some of this came at great cost, such as the inability to attend funerals or the postponement of weddings. Some changes were, in effect, massive accelerations to trends that were already apparent, such as working and shopping remotely. Almost two years on from the initial lockdown, the economy has recovered to pre-Covid-19 levels, yet across society we are still travelling less than before the pandemic. This report, drawing on a combination of national datasets and insights from a ground-breaking longitudinal survey in 10 areas of the UK, asks what have we learnt, and where do we go next?

The findings are clear and remarkable. We have been able to adapt significant elements of our daily travel to do what we want by travelling less. Whereas previously, most policymakers assumed that the path to economic growth had to mean travelling more, this no longer holds. The headline behavioural insights as we head out of the pandemic are:

  • Car traffic is not back to pre-pandemic levels. Weekday car traffic in England stabilised around 10% below pre-pandemic levels throughout summer and autumn 2021 with falls in peak time congestion.
  • Working from home, for those who can, has played a critical part in reducing traffic levels. Even if people who have worked from home go back to travelling for half of their working week, there will still be a reduction of 16% in car commute miles.
  • Car ownership has fallen. The sale of used – and, in particular, new – cars has fallen below pre-pandemic levels. There has been a significant increase in the number of households reducing from two cars to one. The pandemic did not lead to a ‘dash to the car’.
  • Retail spending has been broadly stable but people have visited ‘bricks and mortar’ shops much less often. More intensive shopping and more on-line purchasing have both been a factor in this reduction.
  • Many more people have walked more often. The huge increase seen in October 2020 had been maintained well into 2021.

Car ownership & use has fallen

We title our report “Less is more” because these are examples where society has been able to adapt to the changed circumstances without having to rely on more and more mobility to do so. To meet our climate obligations, it is clear that we will need to travel less by car. As we come out of the pandemic, there is a chance to plan differently for transport, to encourage, where possible, fewer trips, a greater blend of virtual activities and more localised and active travel. Less motorised travel can mean more and quicker progress to decarbonisation, and better wellbeing.

However, there are also challenges to be confronted. Public transport has been impacted more than travel by car, in particular the railways since (office) commuters and business travel have been most likely to switch to virtual or hybrid working. Governments have channelled huge amounts of subsidy into public transport during the pandemic to secure services for key workers and to maintain most of the pre-pandemic service coverage. But the message is now coming through loud and clear that the purse strings are being tightened, and it is ‘last orders’ for additional revenue support. It is no exaggeration to say that the coming months are critical for the long-term future of public transport.

None of the positive changes we have identified in travel behaviour to date should be taken for granted. Nor should it be presumed that they will continue to lead to good outcomes if left to chance. The policy choices that are made in the coming months will be crucial in shaping whether we can embed the positive aspects of change and mitigate the negative. We identify six areas for urgent action by the public and private sector:

  • Act now to stimulate a return to public transport
  • Actively manage the return to the office to kickstart more sustainable commuting
  • Prioritise improving pedestrian environments with the funding and attention it deserves
  • Encourage leisure cyclists to broaden their cycle use
  • Tackle the rise in light goods vehicle traffic
  • Support a shift to lower car ownership

Peak-time traffic congestion has reduced

Box 1: Eight practical recommendations are made for the public and private sector

Recommendation 1: There needs to be an immediate cross-sector ‘welcome back to public transport’ campaign to win back people who have not used trains and buses during the pandemic.

Recommendation 2: Government adopts a ‘whole economy’ approach to understanding the benefits as well as the costs of public transport subsidy post pandemic as part of its consideration of the future governance, regulation and funding of the sector.

Recommendation 3: The Department for Transport should fund a series of innovation projects as part of its Commute Zero programme to ensure that hybrid working is integrated with sustainable access to work.

Recommendation 4: Local authorities should commit staff to support the development of updated commuter travel plans with employers and work with transport providers to identify the right incentives to smooth demand across the week.

Recommendation 5: There should be renewed focus on delivering significant enhancement of the pedestrian environment, particularly in suburbs and local centres, to support walking as the natural first choice for as many trips as possible.

Recommendation 6: Revenue funding should be committed now to support locally-led campaigns and interventions to encourage people back to more regular cycling and to try new facilities.

Recommendation 7: National governments should conduct major studies to understand the growth in light van traffic and then develop strategies to manage it.

Recommendation 8: Employers, HM Treasury, HMRC and the Department for Transport should work together to create a new set of incentives to replace company car benefits, lock in lower travel and support the shift to decarbonising domestic property.

The short-term actions we identify are important, but they are only one part of the debate about where next. There will inevitably be a desire to ‘put this behind us’ and ‘get back to normal’, but it is essential that we learn from this experience in order to be more resilient to future shocks, including fuel price rises, recession and supply chain disruptions. We really have seen that ‘less is more’ in many circumstances: the accessibility of key services locally, easily reached by foot or on bike, has been essential. The replacement of large elements of commuting by digital connectivity and hybrid working was the foundation stone of adaptive capacity for individuals and businesses. These adjustments initially involved significant costs by all and it is crucial, for both ongoing carbon reduction as well as resilience to future shocks, that they are maintained as part of business as usual in the daily lives of many people.

The recent IPCC report on climate impacts reinforces the inevitability of more extreme climate events both in the UK and overseas. The need for a new national adaptation strategy to face up to these realities has been underlined by the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK (Vallance, 2022). Whatever the source of the next significant disruption to society, the further we travel and the more frequently we are required to travel, the more exposed we are to risk from such events. The forthcoming UK Climate Adaptation Plan needs to look beyond simply infrastructure adaptation and take seriously the need to plan for societal adaptation. Such a plan should not just be about how to respond in a hurry, but also how to reduce our exposure to risk over time by living differently. If we could switch away from a paradigm where the only view of development is ‘more growth means more traffic’ to one where we do not have to travel so far or so often but can still do the things we want to, then we may have learnt some of the transport resilience lessons from the pandemic.

We should also ask ourselves whether the fetish for long-term investments which deliver comparatively small journey time benefits for commuters and business travellers needs re-evaluating. We have demonstrated that parts of the economy can work quite differently without relying on this. The pandemic has changed labour markets in ways and at a scale and pace which dwarfs transport infrastructure plans. The emotional impacts of restrictions on meeting friends and family and the criticality of – often low-paid – key workers being able to access their workplaces by public transport are just some of the social needs that the pandemic spotlighted but which transport policy has either underestimated, undervalued, or both. It would be surprising, to us at least, if policy makers were not thinking, acting and spending differently after observing everything that has happened over the last two years.

Download the report


Anable, J., Brown, L., Docherty, I. and Marsden, G. 2022. Less is more: Changing travel in a post-pandemic society. Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions. Oxford, UK. ISBN: 978-1-913299-15-6