Background Increasing walking and cycling, and reducing motorised vehicle use, are increasingly recognised as health and environmental priorities. This paper examines levels and trends in the use of different commute modes in England and Wales, both overall and with respect to small-area deprivation. It also examines how far commute modal share can serve as a proxy for travel behaviour more generally.
Methods 25.1 million adult commuters reported their usual main mode of travelling to work in the 2011 England and Wales census; similar data were available for 1971-2001. Indices of Multiple Deprivation were used to examine socio-economic patterning. The UK National Travel Survey 2002-2010 was used to examine correlations between commute modal share and modal share of total travel time in 150 non-overlapping populations defined by region, year band and income.
Results Among commuters in 2011, 67.1% used private motorised travel as their usual main commute mode (-1.8% change since 2001); 17.3% public transport (+1.4% change); 11.3% walking (+0.4% change); and 3.0% cycling (0.0% change). Walking and, to a marginal extent, cycling were more common among those from deprived areas, but these gradients had flattened over the previous decade to the point of having essentially disappeared for cycling. In the National Travel Survey, commute modal share and total modal share were highly correlated for private motorised transport (r = 0.94), public transport (r = 0.96) walking (r = 0.88 excluding London) and cycling (r = 0.77).
Conclusion England and Wales remain car-dependent, but the trends are slightly more encouraging. Unlike many health behaviours, it is more common for socio-economically disadvantaged groups to commute using physically active modes, but this association is weakening and may soon reverse for cycling. At a population level, commute modal share is reasonably highly correlated with total modal share, enhancing the value of the census data in characterising background trends and evaluating interventions.
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