A moving story

Hypermobility hasn't saved us from the tyranny of travel

In 1950, the average Briton travelled five miles a day. Today, the figure is more than 30 miles and forecast to be double that within 20 years. Damage to the environment is the most frequently cited argument for moving around less. But there are other concerns. Have we become too mobile for our own good?

Are our travel habits creating a transient society, locked into the tyranny of long commutes? And do we prize freedom of movement above democracy, as a recent survey of sixth-form students suggests? When asked to choose between the right to vote and the right to drive, 75 per cent chose the latter.

The most visible losers in the age of "hypermobility" are harassed commuters, particularly drivers. According to the RAC Foundation, Britain now leads Europe for the longest car-commutes, with an unexpected link between insecurity at work and commuting distance. In the past, when people moved jobs, they were likely to move house as well to live closer to work. Today, they are so worried the job may not last that they stay put and commute further.

There has also been a huge growth in weekly commuting, some of it by affluent professionals with second homes, but far more by economic migrants. "On a Friday evening or Monday morning, you'll notice a lot of vans going up and down the motorway as people working in construction move," says the sociologist Tim Butler, professor at King's College London. "You'll find a large number of white vans parked outside cheap hotels on the outskirts of London, where people have come down from the north to fit curtains or carpets or do carpentry in London, and then go back to their families in the north."

Nor has cybertravel rescued us from the tyranny of travel. Virtual travel tends to reinforce people's desire for the real thing. "I was in Vancouver airport," says John Adams, a social geographer who coined the term "hypermobility", "and got chatting to the fellow sitting next to me. He was flying to Toronto to play bridge with someone from Edinburgh, someone from Toronto and someone from San Francisco. They had met and played on the internet, and now needed a real game."

Paradoxically, hypermobile jet-setters have a strong sense of home. Butler argues that the home has become a kind of "command-and-control centre from where all the family sally out each day, whether for school or work, often working different hours and shifts".

While some of us have too much mobility, others have too little. So, although charging more for the use of overcrowded transport infrastructure makes economic and environmental sense, such initiatives may discourage those who already travel least: the poorest people who can't afford to fly or drive - estimated to be 20 per cent of British households. Shouldn't we be helping them to get around more, rather than hiking up the cost? Maybe what we need is not less overall mobility, but a fairer distribution of it.

Oxford's Environmental Change Institute has come up with a solution that hits at both the unfair distribution of travel opportunities and carbon emissions. It suggests a carbon credit card with a personal free carbon allowance for everyone. Every time you buy petrol, pay an electricity bill or book a flight, a number of units, equivalent to that amount of energy, is deducted from your account. If you do not have enough units in your account, the price goes up to cover the shortfall. People who travelled less could cash in their allowance - which would fluctuate in value depending on demand.

The carbon credit card would benefit the poor, but also leave some of us free to trade physical mobility against other energy needs that we rate higher.

Zareer Masani presents BBC Radio 4's "Analysis" on this subject on Sunday 4 March at 9.30pm

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery