The Road Less Travelled: What London’s changing travel habits tell us about how we work, shop, and live

By Kat Hanna, Associate Director, Urban Change

The decline of travel, and the rise of non-travel

Three years ago, something odd started happening in London. Despite significant population growth, public transport ridership in London started dropping. Previously, this may have just been seen as a sign of economic decline – the canary down the Jubilee line, if you will. But there is increasing evidence that this drop off in ridership reflects structural and not just cyclical changes.

Public transport ridership across London continues in line with what is now a two- to three-year trend. In the 12 weeks to the end of May, journeys on the underground fell 0.6 per cent – in excess of 660,000 fewer than the previous year, or a drop of nearly 8,000 per day. Bus ridership, over the same period, fell 1.8 per cent.

A comparison of National Time Use surveys from 2014 and 2000 shows that Londoners now spend less time travelling, and more time at home. A more detailed look shows that an increase in time spent on activities with no travel earlier in the day, be it for employment, leisure, or shopping purposes. The evidence suggests we are increasingly a city of homebodies.

We still work. We still shop. We still visit friends and family, or make time for leisure activities. What has changed, however, is where these activities take place. And what happens in our home dictates what happens in our cities.

Trip rates for shopping and personal business have been declining since 2007/08, by a total of 35.4 per cent between 2007/08  and 2016/17

Armchair Critique:

If an Englishman’s (and of course Englishwoman’s) home is their castle, then the armchair is undoubtedly their throne. And technology means we really can all live like a king, summoning the finest delicacies to our homes and selecting court entertainment without moving an inch from the seat of power.  This is the armchair economy.

Almost half of US households are subscribed to Amazon Prime[1]

When online platforms such as Uber, Amazon, and Netflix emerged, they had two defining features that stood them apart from the economy in which CRE has traditionally operated:

  • A network effect: Having more and more users does not just mean an economy of scale, it means being able to offer a better service. More users means more data, allowing platforms to target customers with advertising, personal recommendations, in a constant process of product refinement.
  • The fact that they have no inventory, and as such don’t need to worry about the cost of bricks and mortar retail or storage.

The armchair economy is growing not just because it’s convenient, but because it is increasingly personalised. Staying in to get a takeaway and watch a film is hardly new. Thanks to platforms, the ease with which we can now do so, and the choice of products at are fingertips is.

More recently, however, these defining features no longer quite hold true. An increasing number of platform companies no longer just match customers with suppliers – they create the content or provide the service themselves. If your customer data is telling you Mile End residents cannot get enough decent Korean Fried Chicken, or that UK audiences really love crime drama, you don’t simply wait for supply to catch up with demand. You provide it yourself. That’s pretty much what Netflix Originals do. It’s also the rationale behind Deliveroo’s Rooboxes, or as they have less favourably been called, ‘dark kitchens’. These are temporary kitchen facilities, often located in shipping containers, where businesses can adopt a ‘straight to Deliveroo’ strategy.

The armchair economy is may be technologically enabled – primarily by smartphones, and online platforms, but its impact on real estate should not be under-estimated.

Remote control

The impact of the armchair economy is not limited to retail and leisure – how we work is changing too. The decrease in tube ridership has been at least in part attributed to growing numbers of people working from home, or a ‘third space’ such as coffeeshop.  By journey purpose, trip rates to London residents’ usual workplace have declined by 14.2 per cent since 2006/07. Trips made to other destinations for work increased by 5.1 per cent over the same period.[2]

Rather than heralding the somewhat tired prediction of the ‘end of the office’, a closer look at non-travel data suggests individuals are increasingly consolidating their travel time. A notable reduction in respondents who travelled on all of their recorded days could reinforce evidence of a rise in flexible working. Indeed, the biggest change in travel habits has been among those who used to travel extremely frequently and now travel very frequently.

In other words, working from home is shedding its inverted commas. Part driven by a rise in longer commutes (with house prices no doubt a factor), part by technology, and part by changing workplace culture, flexible working is far less exceptional than it used to be.

Finding meaning in mixed use

The fact that we are still spending similar amounts of time on activities, while travelling less, is not completely explained by a tendency to spend more time at home. It also reflects the rise of the multi-purpose location, or as the sector tends to call it, mixed-used development. Time and place are no longer delineated along the lines of a single activity, carved out along the lines of ‘work’, ‘shopping’ or ‘leisure’ – a phenomenon that is particularly evident in urban centres. Our time spent travelling between activities is reducing not just because we may not want to, but because we may not have to, thanks to improvements in densification, use mix, and urban design.

So while declining tube-ridership, and an increase in non-travel and armchair spending may give the CRE sector cause for concern, the same data also suggests that the sector can respond to changing lifestyles and preferences. This means addressing two factors:

  1. At a time when people are travelling less, landlords are at an advantage if they can encourage people not just to get out, but to stay out. This means making the most of the multi-purpose trip, so that travelling means not just an afternoon in the office, but a visit to the gym followed by dinner with friends, all in a single location.
  2. The armchair economy may offer convenience, and even cost efficiency, but it cannot really match the best destinations when it comes to experience, and more fundamentally, meaning. Even the most seasoned Instagram stars struggle to make an evening spent arguing about what to watch on Netflix look like an enjoyable or edifying experience. An Ocado delivery may be convenient, but gives consumers little chance to experience their local communities and culture, whether it’s a family trip to the farmers market or a pop-up art exhibition in a meanwhile space.


While announcing the death of retail/the office/the high street may make for good headlines, such narratives tend to both overlook and overcook changes to how we use space. But by looking at data beyond simply what is spent in a specific bricks and mortar box, and looking at how and why we carry out our daily activities, we can better understand what is happening in our cities

[1] https://retail.emarketer.com/article/nearly-half-of-us-households-now-amazon-prime-subscribers/5a72304cebd40008bc791227

[2] http://content.tfl.gov.uk/travel-in-london-report-10.pdf

Kat Hanna, Associate Director, Urban Change

Follow me on Twitter: @Kat_HannaLDN


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