Commuting is dead, long live commuting!

George Windsor, January 3, 2018 5 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech City UK website.

Train fares are rising – but does this spell the downfall of the commute, or does it suggest that people will look to travel to work by different means?

In the UK, many of us are all too familiar with the daily grind of commuting. As the cost of travel for many people continues to increase, we want to know – how are people travelling to work, and where are they going?

What data are we using, and what does it tell us?

This post uses data from the UK Census in 2011 and 2001 in which respondents are asked about their travel to work habits. Although the data is from at least 6 years ago – it gives a window into the travel habits of UK workers, and is a useful test case for the use of this type of survey data in evaluating the relationship between travel, physical infrastructure and work. Respondents were all aged 16 and over, and in employment the week before the census. By looking at the usual place of residence of these workers, and the location at which they work, we are able to understand commuter patterns. And when we add their mode of transport into the equation, we can see not just where they work in relation to the place they live, but how they get to work too.

Here, we are looking at respondents who are working in all parts of the economy, rather than just those people working in the tech sector. However, in the Tech Nation report 2018, we plan to shed light on the hidden underwiring of the UK’s digital tech sector – delving into the role that physical infrastructure – like public transport links – and digital infrastructure – like broadband availability and speed – play in sustaining the health of the tech industry. We will also be looking at the way in which people meet, formally – through planned events – but also informally, through casual gatherings and shared interest groups.

No train, no gain

From Figure 1 below we can see that London experiences over three times its own train travelling resident population entering the region from outside by train to work. The top four regions outside of London that people are travelling from by train to work are the 1) East of England, 2) the South East, 3) the East Midlands, and 4) the South West.

We heard yesterday that average rail ticket prices have increased by 3.4% in the UK for 2018 – the largest price hike since 2013. This has lead to speculation that some commuters will soon be priced out of train travel.

Nonetheless – the 2011 census data suggests that train travel will not quickly become redundant as a result of price rises – it is a vital infrastructure for all UK regions, and in London it forms the commute for people not just from the home counties and adjacent regions, but from right across the country. This is reinforced by the Department for Transport’s 2015 Transport Statistics, and Census data from 2001 to 2011 – which shows that 57% of rail travel is for business or commuting purposes, and across all regions travel to work by train increased. Alternative transport would arguably be more expensive, and/ or take a longer time.

The phenomenon of inter-regional commuting by train is not isolated to London. We find that people travelling by train significantly boost the working populations of many UK regions. In the North West just under 10% of the train travelling population that usually resides in the East Midlands enters the region to work, and the equivalent figure for commuters from Yorkshire and The Humber is nearly 5%. In Yorkshire and The Humber, 6.2% of the train travelling population that usually resides in the East Midlands enters the region to work, and 7.5% from the North East. In fact, the working population of the East Midlands is highly mobile, the majority of people (59.2%) who usually reside and travel by train to work move outside the region.

On your bike

We can also look at non-motorised forms of transport – when we do, we see interesting patterns. For instance, we find that of the people from Wales who cycle to work, nearly 2% of them travel to the North West – and 2.6% of people who cycle to work, and usually reside in London travel to a job in the South East. From the 2014 National Travel Survey we see that the average distance travelled by bicycle has increased by 26% from 1995/97 to 2014 (and up to 37% when we look at data from 2002 to 2016) – however, the number of trips decreased over the same period, by 8%.

On foot, the distances that people are able to travel decrease notably, as such, we see that the vast majority of walking commuters are doing so within the region they usually reside.


In Figure 3 below, values are highlighted where over 3% of the driving commuter population of one region travels to another. The table totals along the rows – so 2% of people who travel by car or van from the East of England go to work in the East Midlands, and 3% from the East of England travel to the South East. In the grey cells, showing intra-regional commuting, we can see that driving is far more common place as a method for getting to work in regions like the North East, and Wales – perhaps due to the more rural locations and types of jobs. 11% of people who usually live in London drive to the East of England for work, and 4% of people who live in the East of England drive to London for work. But in London, only 69.9% of people who live in the region also drive to work. As with many major cities in the UK, the cost and availability of parking space near to work, and the presence of developed underground and tram infrastructures are likely to have a part to play in this trend.

Figure 3 Inter and intra-regional travel to work by car or van (2011)

* Some values at 3% are not be highlighted due to rounding
** Some regions are supressed due to low counts

Most interestingly, we have seen a widespread decrease in car or van commuting from 2001 to 2011 – particularly in London and the South East. In more rural regions, like the North East, Wales and Yorkshire and The Humber the frequency of journeys using a car or van as a mechanism to get from the place of usual residence to work has continued to rise.

What next?

Though far from comprehensive, this data gives an indication as to how different forms of infrastructure contribute to working lives of individual people, and UK regions. Furthermore, this post is a timely reflection on the changing nature of commuting, given the media attention that has recently been given to rail fare rises. We will be getting access to, and analysing more granular forms of data in coming months, and using this to flesh out the picture of communities, connections between them, and the culture of clusters for the Tech Nation report 2018.

Data & research, Tech Nation Report 2018