Getting under the skin of why people travel

Time and cost are often seen as the principal factors that influence our travel choices, but a new anthropological study by the Connected Places Catapult suggests that the factors involved are, in fact, much more complex and often highly personal.

Rather than relying on the ‘big data’ approach, the project zoomed in on a dozen inhabitants of one commuter village in central England to examine not just the ‘where people travel’ and the ‘when’ of people’s journeys but also the ‘why people travel’.

With the study’s key findings now published, project member and trained ethnographer Stephen McConnachie explains the benefits of this in-depth approach.

Ethnography is not a new approach to scientific research. Indeed, its roots can be traced back to early 20th century anthropological studies. Characterised by long-term, detailed, immersive examinations of specific social groups and communities, it was originally used by European and North American social scientists engaging in research outside their home continents. Nowadays it is being used much more widely, including within the business world, due to the power it affords to uncover valuable insights into how people think and behave, as well as why they do so.

In order to see what ethnography could tell us about travel and, specifically, why people choose different forms of transport, our ‘Uncovering the Value of Travel Time’ study selected the West Midlands commuter village of Balsall Common with the aim of discovering what mobility (and immobility) means in the context of the lives of people living there.

The rural-urban fringe community

Surrounded by farmland, but within a short distance of both Birmingham and Coventry, Balsall Common is a prime example of a ‘peri-urban’ or rural-urban fringe community where residents typically face the challenges of rural areas (such as lower frequency public transport), offset by the ease of access to neighbouring cities. Relatively high levels of car ownership (1.7 cars per household compared to the UK average of 1.3 in peri-urban locations), the presence of a train station (Berkswell) and some day-time bus services to Coventry and Solihull also made Balsall Common an attractive site for our study, since it allowed us to examine the travel decisions of people who have different modes of transport available to them.

We used local social media channels and community noticeboards to recruit 12 study participants aged from 18 to 75 and with a gender split of seven women to five men.

The first research phase consisted of a week-long diary study, completed by email or WhatsApp, designed to give an initial insight into residents’ mobility patterns in Balsall Common. We then arranged to join eight participants on a journey typical for them (e.g. a commute, the school run, or a walk), followed by an interview lasting 1.5-2 hours, usually in the participant’s home. Finally, we invited a total of ten participants to two group discussion sessions, one focusing on the topic of ‘time’, and the second exploring the social dimension of travel.

Understanding thought processes

Running such an in-depth study is clearly quite resource-heavy and, as a result, involves far fewer participants than you might see in an online survey. But actually spending time travelling with the research participants, and building up a rapport that allows them to feel actively involved in the project, offers far greater insight into the thought processes that influence their travel decisions. It also provides far greater detail, accuracy and levels of complexity than you usually get when people are asked to explain their travel decisions after the event, either by filling in surveys or attending focus groups.

Travelling with the research participants also helped us to glean valuable memories and stories that were triggered as they made their journeys. For example, we travelled with one commuter on the journey back home to Balsall Common from her office in Birmingham, and the first leg of the journey took us on the shuttle bus to the company car park. Taking this bus prompted the participant to tell us how she typically hoped to avoid sitting with colleagues on the journey – to avoid the need for awkward small talk, and to have a few more minutes to herself. When we arrived at the car park, she pointed out how the commuters could see the bus coming from the comfort of their vehicles and how, on rainy days, they would all sit and wait in their cars to shelter from the weather.

Attributing value to travel time

These types of conversations gave us many interesting insights into how people experience the time they spend travelling – and how they attribute value (both positively and negatively) to that time. Even within the constraints of the study’s relatively short time-span, we were able to identify seven different ways that people valued their journeys (from “me time”  to “wasted time”) that were not directly related to the amount of time spent or the financial costs involved.

While the methodology underpinning our study was markedly different from the big-data, large field approach of many transport studies, it is important to note that our ethnographic method is designed to complement those wider types of research rather than compete with them. Indeed, we relied on quantitative data from sources such as Office for National Statistics censuses, the Open Street Map, Ordnance Survey and the UK National Travel Survey to help identify Balsall Common as a suitably ‘typical’ peri-urban community and to create the general framework on which we could overlay our own more qualitative findings.

Combining Quantitative with Qualitative Research

We believe this combination of the quantitative and qualitative is essential in the data-driven, measurement-focused world of today. Transport providers may already know where and when their customers are travelling, but the ethnographic approach can help to also tell them why they are travelling in that way, as well as how they might wish to travel in future if the right options are available to them. While our study looked at the participants’ very general travel behaviour, a similar approach could also be taken to develop a much more focused study – for example, one that looks at people using the services of a particular travel operator.

The overall premise behind the ethnographic method is that it can give innovators a better understanding of the different ways in which people attribute value to mobility, and thereby help them to develop products and services that recognise and tap into those values. While we may only have started with one commuter village in the heart of England, even this single study has produced findings that appear to be much more widely applicable.  The eventual aim is to use the same approach to help the whole of the UK identify new business models and transport options that can be sold successfully around the world.