Why do urbanites travel so far?


Photo of city skyscrapers

Residents of the largest cities tend to travel further afield for leisure, even though they are environmentally conscious in other ways. Michał Czepkiewicz and Jukka Heinonen investigated in a systematic review in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

Why did you examine why city-dwellers travel more?

There were several reasons. One is that air travel and tourism have high environmental consequences but this aspect is rarely studied; the research usually focuses on promoting tourism or looking at its impacts on destination countries. Only recently have we realized how high the impact on the climate is. According to a recent study, global tourism is responsible for about 8% of the global carbon footprint and it’s predicted to continue growing in the future.

There is now a lot of knowledge on daily travel in cities and the factors that affect it, such as public transportation, urban density, walkability or attitudes. At the same time, long-distance travel has largely been excluded from the equation. Looking for connections between urban form and air travel might seem far-fetched, but the studies we reviewed and our own research in Helsinki show that there’s a significant correlation. It’s an intriguing new topic that is under-studied and potentially relates to important policies.

The discrepancy between pro-environmental attitudes and amount of travel is another interesting topic that has not been much studied. People who are concerned about the environment tend to travel a relatively large amount, with a high carbon footprint. Many people limit their carbon consumption and use alternatives such as walking and cycling, eating vegan, recycling or avoiding generating waste but on holiday they take a break from being eco-friendly.

Going abroad two, three or four times a year, something that used to be very rare and only reserved for cosmopolitan wealthy elites has now become a norm, a basic need or even a social right

Studying the motivations behind travel for those who otherwise engage in low-carbon lifestyles connects to many interesting issues. For instance, how important is travel to human happiness, and is being able to travel required to live a good life? Going abroad two, three or four times a year, something that used to be very rare and only reserved for cosmopolitan wealthy elites has now become a norm, a basic need or even a social right. These are all intriguing aspects.

What’s significant about your results?

Our results highlight air travel and tourism as important parts of the carbon footprint of individuals and households. They also help to identify the social groups that contribute most to the carbon footprint of long-distance travel: the highly educated, high-income urban-dwellers, often young and without children. These groups have a high proportion of people who see themselves as environmentally-friendly and who have a relatively low carbon footprint on an everyday basis. Finally, the results highlight the correlation between urban density and air travel: the more centrally located and dense the urban environment, the more its residents travel by plane, on average.

What action is likely to result from your findings?

Our findings might help to spread awareness of the high carbon footprint of air travel and tourism. Such awareness might be a good first step for changing behaviour among those who are concerned about the environment. Many behaviours, such as driving, eating meat, not segregating waste etc. are now perceived as “dirty” from an environmentalist perspective. Flying is most often not perceived as such.

Our results may help to target awareness-raising campaigns to certain groups of people, namely young, educated and relatively wealthy urban-dwellers from developed countries. This group is responsible for the largest share of emissions but also many of them are concerned about the environment. As such, they have the potential to change their behaviour: choose a train instead of a plane, travel less frequently, or choose destinations nearby. Such a change – to “consume” only as much travel as is necessary or sufficient – could be part of a broader trend towards a degrowth (or post-growth) economy.

A common suggestion for policymakers is to increase taxation of aviation, not only through a carbon tax but also a value-added tax on kerosene or plane tickets. Private air travel is highly elastic: spending increases with increasing income. So higher ticket prices could limit travel somewhat. However, the effect could be limited to the less wealthy, and as such may not be equitable. Consequently there should be action towards limiting consumption among the wealthier part of society, besides taxation and raising prices.

Flying is also a substitute for private driving that has a high emissions intensity, meaning that if reduced driving comes in parallel with increased flying, overall emissions might well increase rather than decrease. This should be kept in mind when designing greenhouse gas mitigation policies.

There are no strong implications for urban planning but some urban conditions – lack of green space, high noise levels or population density – might provoke people to escape the city and take frequent breaks from urban life. We found some indication of such an “escape effect” in the interviews, so in future we may formulate some more refined suggestions for planners. On the other hand, the link between an urban environment and air travel may also be related to dispersed social networks of urban residents, globalization of their lifestyles, and a tendency to seek diversity and novelty on vacation as well as in their everyday lives.

How will you take your research forward?

We are currently conducting interviews with residents of Reykjavik Capital Region. Some questions are impossible to answer with cross-sectional surveys; we need to talk to people to understand their personal motivations and identify structures that influence their behaviour. The qualitative part will help us to advance the theory, answer questions we are already posing, and ask better questions in the future.

We would also like to replicate our study in more cities. First, we would like to target other Nordic capitals – Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen – and then other regions, including smaller cities without a major airport nearby. Currently, we are mostly interested in wealthy societies because of their high impact, but the growth of outbound tourism and air travel in regions such as Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America is also increasingly relevant.

Speaking personally, I, Michał Czepkiewicz, would like to study this topic in Poland and other Eastern European countries. For a long time, there has been a mentality of catching up with the West in terms of wages, infrastructure, and consumption. The reality is that we have already reached a level of consumption very similar to those in the West, at least compared to the rest of the world, and surpassed sustainable levels of consumption. It would be good if people in Poland realized that we consume too much, not too little – just like the rest of the developed world.


Written by Loknath Das