We could make travel fun again - but spending billions isn't the solution

'The principle is that people should travel because they want to, not because they have to'
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The Independent Online

Off abroad on your hols? Take the train to work today? Drive round to the in-laws for Sunday lunch?

Off abroad on your hols? Take the train to work today? Drive round to the in-laws for Sunday lunch?

One of the great puzzles of life is that the greater the opportunities we have for electronic communication, the more we seem to use the old-fashioned physical sort. But travel is not a wholly pleasant experience. What is more, money does not insulate people much from the irritations. You may drive a Bentley, but you still get stuck in a jam on the M25. Fly club class, but you still have to get to and through the airport to the plane.

So we travel but we complain. That is why the largest single increase in public spending announced yesterday is on transport. But we all know it won't make a lot of difference. Nor is it much better abroad. A city such as Paris, that has spent lavishly on public transport, has slower traffic than London. And as anyone who has travelled much on US domestic air services will know, even our charter flights to the Med offer a more pleasant experience than flying around America.

So what will give? Are we condemned by our working habits and our leisure aspirations to an ever-wilder maelstrom of movement, with all the damage to the environment that this would involve? Or is there a saner alternative?

There is no magic wand - it would be absurd to pretend that there was - and anyone proposing even partial solutions has to be sensitive to the democratising aspect of travel. Freedom to move about is one of the central bastions of democracy, which is why totalitarian governments have often discouraged their citizens from having private cars. But try applying this simple principle and let's see what might happen. The principle is that people should travel because they want to, not because they have to. Travel should be for fun, not for duty.

Duty travel falls into two main categories, work and chores. On both areas there are bright opportunities that we can already grasp.

The habit of commuting for long distances is a relatively recent one. Until the railways it was not physically possible to commute more than a few miles. The car enabled more complex journeys, though not longer ones. But now another technology, electronic communications, has bounded along behind the train and the car, and promises to make commuting a much less important part of our lives. It won't abolish commuting, but it will make the rush hour a less-onerous experience.

The Nordics have long been the pioneers in applying communications technology. At the moment 10 per cent of Swedish people do paid work from the home; here the proportion is around 6 per cent. But everywhere it is growing fast. It is perfectly plausible that in, say, another 20 years' time half the workforce here will be doing some work from home. Anyone who works on-screen can, in theory at least, work from home. In practice, of course, we come into offices, partly because we need the human interaction with our colleagues and partly because employers still suffer from "presentism" - wanting to see that workers really are working.

The need for human contact will not change, but company procedures will. As the relationship between employer and employee becomes even looser and more of us are paid by our output rather than the time we put in, expect more and more work to be done from home. A century and a half ago the home was a factory. People made their own clothes, baked their own bread, made jam, grew vegetables in the garden and so on. But then most of us turned the home into a unit of consumption rather than a unit of production. Now, with the PC and the internet, the wheel has come full circle.

If the home is a factory, what is the office? It becomes a club. It is used for staff meetings, briefings, entertainment of customers and so on - all the work functions that need human beings to be with each other. Most of us will still need to go to the office quite often. But we won't need to cram into commuter trains to be there at the same time every day. Result: less pressure on the transport system and hence, for those of us who will still commute, a less stressful journey.

Technology will similarly cut chore travel. More and more people are already using internet delivery services instead of queuing at the checkout. The goods still have to be physically brought to the home, but they can be brought by one vehicle doing the most-efficient round, rather than many trekking back and forth.

Of course, not all chore travel will be eliminated. Despite the efforts of our government to encourage more children to walk to school, there will for many still be the school run. And we will still need to travel for work to meet customers and suppliers. But even here the new technologies will help, for the internet promises to make considerable efficiencies in the supply chain. Yes, we will have to travel to set up new relationships; but once an arrangement is working smoothly, we will only need to travel to fix it when it goes wrong.

If we can trim chore travel, can we make fun travel even more fun? The best hope here is that incremental improvements in technology will enable our travel systems to function more smoothly. We need to work at improving existing transport systems rather than hope there is some new technological fix just round the corner.

Some examples. Start with the car. Do not expect a radical technological change within the next 20 years. The probable successor to the internal combustion engine, fuel cells, will not start to affect our lives for another generation, if then. Do not expect, despite the efforts of "Two Jags", that there will be any significant impact on congestion. But small incremental advances in vehicle design will continue to improve fuel consumption and reduce emissions. Congestion is the problem, not pollution.

Thoughtful investment in existing transport systems will make them nicer to use. Aircraft will become quieter. Trains will be improved even without ripping up the countryside to build new lines. Internet booking of seats is already enabling airlines to use their capacity more efficiently. And it is helping us as travellers to make better trade-offs between time and cost.

A generation from now we will still be frantically travelling about our cities, our countries, about the globe. And we will still be fretting when a train is late or the French air-traffic controllers are on strike. We will still have jams. But if we are thoughtful and plan sensibly, and if our leaders are less ideological and more practical in their approach to transport, travel will become better, not worse. The freedom - and the fun - that it already gives us will become even greater. Happy hols!