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Report: Running to stand still

Running to stand still – the role of travel time in transport planning

The means of transportation available to people have evolved dramatically since the first European cities were built. Over the past 200 years alone we have gone from walking, to horse riding, to driving vehicles. Public transport networks have developed to help us get where we need to go, faster and more comfortably. However, the time we allocate for travel has not changed significantly. Rather, the distances we travel have been extended. The report “Running to stand still – the role of travel time in transport planning” explores the concept of the travel time budget and its implications for urban planning.

The existence of a travel time budget has long been recognised by many researchers. Studies of travel time show that, on average, we have allocated the same amount of time for travel over many decades. People’s daily use of travel time varies from 1 to 1.5 hours, averaging around 70 minutes of travel per person and day. Intuitively, the introduction of faster transport modes, such as trains or cars, would imply that travel time nowadays takes up less of people’s daily lives. However, findings in recent years suggest that the travel time budget, if anything, appears to be increasing rather than decreasing. This increase is not necessarily a result of faster travel, but may also be related to cars’ increased comfort level, greater diversity in daily life, or increased options for combining travel with phone or computer use.


The role of the travel time budget in urban development

A city’s size is most often defined by its population, density or area coverage. The travel time budget concept suggests that city size should be measured as ’70 min width’ – i.e., the distance that can be covered with a means of transport used by most of the city’s inhabitants. Put differently, a city is basically as big as the speed allowed by its transport system.

Historically, many cities have grown at the same rate as that enabled by increases in travel speed. Through the mid-19th century, European cities were structured almost exclusively around the speed of walking. The introduction of regional rail and local tram traffic allowed cities to grow out of their 2-3-kilometre radius. With speeds of up to 40 km/h, these innovations fostered the creation of a new urban structure with higher density around stations, while sparing areas in between. Further, the introduction of cars changed cities into more sparsely populated structures with a less pronounced concentration of jobs, housing and activities around stations or other nodes.


Figure 2. The motorisation of the 20th century greatly increased the average distance travelled in the same amount of time (~70 min). For instance, in Sweden the daily distance per person increased from around 4 km in 1930 to 45 km after 2010. However, the rate of growth of this distance has declined in recent years. Although conceptual and somewhat simplistic, this figure shows what may be the most profound physical transformation of cities in the 20th century.

Figure 3 Cities’ size is often largely a result of the average speed of their transport systems.


Different cities have different means of transport

Cities develop different travel patterns over time. Historically, this has resulted in different infrastructure for travel offering people roughly the same level of access. To use an example, we can assume that European cities are dominated by three differing urban structures, each built around a specific means of travel: walking, driving and public transport. Owing to the close relationship between travel and land use, a city exclusively based on walking can offer the same access in everyday life as a city based on driving.

Although there are currently no large European cities structured solely around walking, driving or public transport, we can look to Bilbao in Spain, Lyon in France, and Zürich in Switzerland as fairly good illustrations of these patterns.

Table 1 Conceptual comparison of different urban structures with respect to e.g. size, street structure and density, even though average time use for travel may differ only slightly.

Table 2 Comparison of cities in Europe



Travel time affects the size, characteristics and function of a city, as well as the way its citizens structure their everyday lives. How can we use this knowledge in our work with urban development in European cities? Five important conclusions can be drawn from findings on travel time budgets.

  • Travel shapes land use, and vice versa
    The travel time budget acts as a land use regulator. The fact that increased access encourages additional travel does not mean that investments in faster transport are in vain. A city that grows inwards rather than outwards – with a transport planning policy supporting this idea – can allow a greater variation of travel speed without hindering some groups of citizens from enjoying an urban lifestyle.
  • Acknowledge that low speed cities can be equal and effective
    The travel time budget forces us to have a wider perspective on how (and if) travel time can be saved. Contemporary planning ideas such as densification, mixed-use development and urban renewal are all measures that can increase the proximity between destinations in cities – and should be treated as time-saving policies, as are ‘traditional’ investments in transport infrastructure.
  • Treat citizens as co-producers, as much as users, in urban development
    Travel should be seen as a contribution to urban life, not least because time spent on travel appears stable. Rather than merely being minimised, travel should be pleasant, reliable and effective for the user and, preferably, contribute to well-being for people in the vicinity or otherwise affected by it.
  • Connect travel time use to sustainability issues
    Travel time should be taken into account when planning sustainable transport. For instance, future implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals ought to include (travel) time use as a vital factor in working with e.g. energy efficiency, gender equality, well-being and urban planning.
  • Future transport innovations may affect the travel time budget
    Several trends have the potential to affect the travel time budget in future. For example, there are some indications that car use is in decline in some European cities. Also, our smartphones and tablets enable us to use travel time for work, shopping, reading and communicating. Some research shows that this increases commuters’ travel time acceptance.

We have yet to see whether our travel time budgets will remain the same over the next hundred years. We can be certain, however, that our cities will keep evolving, adapting to citizens’ needs and preferences. Our travel patterns will remain a crucial factor in this development.

About the author

David Lindelöw

PHD, Transport planner

David Lindelöw is a transport planner at Sweco in Gothenburg, Sweden. He holds a PhD in Transport Planning from Lund University. His thesis concerned pedestrian planning in urban areas. Since joining Sweco in 2016, David has been working with walkability, urban planning and the connection between land use and travel behaviour. David is interested in how active travel can become a natural part of the urban realm and everyday life.

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