Environmental impact of our leisure travel; a structure-agency perspective!

Helene Dyrhauge |

The summer holiday season is over and everyone are back at work. Many people have taken a plane to somewhere nice, sunny and warm or driven to a faraway destination or been on a road trip. Yet this leisure travel, which we take for granted has a negative impact the environment. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t go on holiday, but how many stop up and consider the environmental impact of our leisure travel! Although, airlines will ask us if we want to offset our carbon emission, it does not prevent us from flying, indeed paying a few euros to offset our emission has the same feel good effect as buying dark organic fair trade chocolate. This clearly begs the question of how to adopt more sustainable transport behavior.

From a sustainable mobility perspective it is important to make a distinction between transport needs and wants. Basic transport needs are defined as transport to work, education, health facilities and food shopping[i], by comparison transport wants are defined as leisure travel, which include going to the gym/sport, socialising and visiting family. Crucially holidays and weekend breaks, where people might choose to fly, are clearly a transport want not a transport need. The distinction between transport needs and wants is tied into the principle of free movement, which most of us take for granted, and which is central to any democratic state. Indeed free movement (goods, persons, services and capital) is integral to the EU.

Our daily transport pattern is determined by the distance between home and work/education, our working hours, the opening hours and location of children’s daycare/school and availability of public transport or road network. Here the structure of our lives influence our mobility patterns, as such we have limited agency over our daily mobility compared to our leisure travel, where we have more agency to choice how we would like to spend our time. The choices we make in terms of our leisure travel, i.e. transport wants, is just as important as our choice of how to meet our transport needs as leisure travel contribute negatively towards the environment.

During the summer, there are queues on the German autobahn and on the motorways in France as people choose their car as the main mode of transport for their summer holiday, this not only puts pressure on the infrastructure but also impact the environment negatively. During the summer charter flights take people to their holiday destinations although, some people choose a staycation to explore their own country.

Crucially, we decide how we want to spend our leisure time this agency is not available in our daily lives. Yet how many make decisions about where to go on holiday based on how much their holiday will impact the environment? Most holiday decisions are made based on affordability and personal interests e.g. beach versus active, city versus country versus sea holidays.

In August I took the train to Munich from Roskilde (town near Copenhagen). My decision to take the train for this leisure travel was influenced by three factors. Firstly, it was a question of which transport mode pollutes the least here the train had clear benefits[ii] (see figure below). Second it was a question of avoiding taking 2 days off work for travelling, although the train journey is 11 hours compared to 1 hour and 40 minutes by plane, there is no security checks and waste time in the airport instead you get on the train in the morning and start working. I chose comfort over speed. Third, the economic cost of travelling by train and plane were the same.  The option of driving was not part of my decision-making, and as the figure shows cars, and road vehicles in general, are the most polluting modes of transport. Significantly, road transport account for around 83 percent of all passenger transport in EU28. Thus, how can we change our travel behaviour and what are the politicians doing to encourage more environmental conscious transport behaviour?

carbon emission train


One idea would be to introduce an individual carbon footprint, similar to the existing EU Emission Trading System. Whilst the introduction of individual carbon footprint would be an effective method to help people quantify their emission[iii], it is not an idea supported at the political level on the contrary restricting personal mobility contradicts the EU principles of free movements. Significantly, the past 30 years of liberalization of transport modes have encouraged more travel, especially cheap air travel, which has increased our personal agency in terms of leisure travel. Several EU member states are currently planning to invest in new high speed railways and new road networks to facilitate the increased demand for travel. Importantly, new infrastructure investment will give us more choice and encourage more travel. Yes, some national policies attempts to regulate transport behaviour through pricing, e.g. making public transport cheap. The theme for the annual EU mobility week (18-22 September 2015) is multimodality, which encourages people to think about their patterns of mobility and explore new means of travelling but does not integrate the environmental dimension.

Overall, policies seem to encourage and support increased level of mobility due to demand, these policies do not solve the environmental crisis. Thus, there is a need for alternative ideas about a future more sustainable transport paradigm to emerge and challenge the current paradigm, here personal agency is important not only for changing transport behaviour but also for making sure alternative ideas are put to the fore of the political debate.

[i] Holden, E., K. Linnderud and D. Banister (2013) ”Sustainable Passenger Transport: Back to Brundtland” Transportation Research Part A  volume 54, pp. 67-77

[ii] http://reiseauskunft.bahn.de/bin/query.exe/en?application=ECOLOGYINFO&start=1&dbkanal_007=L01_S01_D001_KIN0001_qf-umwelt_LZ003&S=M%FCnchen+Hbf&REQ0JourneyStopsSID=&Z=Hoeje+Taastrup+st&REQ0JourneyStopsZID=A%3D1%40O%3DHoeje+Taastrup+st%40X%3D12268801%40Y%3D55648621%40U%3D80%40L%3D008601031%40B%3D1%40p%3D1438767591%40&date=Mo%2C+10.08.15&time=09%3A00&timesel=depart&returnTimesel=depart&qf.mobil.button.umweltmobilcheck=1

[iii] For a discussion of individualisation of carbon offsetting see Paterson, M & j. Stripple (2010) “My Space: governing individuals’ carbon emissions” Environmental & Planning D: Society and Space vol 28, no 2 pp 341-362