On not travelling at Christmas

Don’t blame the system or the season for travel chaos. “Stay put. Hypermobility is now the opium of the people, an obsession that wrecks communities and planet. There are no free trips.” So writes (22 Dec 09) Simon Jenkins, responding to complaints by snow- and ice-bound European travellers.

My solution to winter travel chaos? Don’t travel. Stay indoors. Build a fire. Live and shop within walking distance of civilisation. Associate with neighbours. See distant relatives some other time of the year.

In geographically large countries like Australia, Canada, the US and China, moving across country is not just a local move, it’s a migration. When my forebears migrated from the UK to Australia and New Zealand, they expected never to return. The most recent such migrant was grandmother in 1921. She subsequently visited England just once, by sea, of course. The journey was expensive and took months. Most long-distance journeys now take mere hours and are more affordable. But they remain costly.

Above all, do not complain if you insist on laying siege to motorways, stations and airports and the weather or the labour force let you down, as they do every year. It is not their fault, it is yours for being there. Of all human activities that bring out the selfish in mankind, nothing compares with travel. […] I am a free and independent spirit innocently enjoying the right to roam; you are a travel-mad lemming who thinks he has a God-given right to tarmac, train or plane just when I am there. Get out of my way. […] Traveling does as much damage to the earth’s atmosphere as all other domestic activities put together. Yet powered movement is a craving no government is willing to curb. Hypermobility is the totem of personal liberty. […] Meanwhile the government pursues a policy of closing such local institutions as primary schools, cottage hospitals and post offices and encouraging out of town shopping and rural housing estates. All lead to an increase in the need for motor travel. If a hospital visit requires a drive of 50 rather than five miles, the NHS does not pay but someone does; indeed everyone does.

Having just returned from overseas it would be hypocritical in the extreme for me to condemn all travel. Yet it’s wise to try to live, work and socialise in the same neighbourhood. It’s not essential to travel just to be with people to no great purpose. Now is the first time in my life when I have been within walking distance of my local church, and of shops, markets and services adequate to my needs.

As the geographer, John Adams, points out, mobility may seem “liberating and empowering for individuals”, but it also destroys the propinquity essential to more efficient living and to community and civic cohesion. Like the internet, which paradoxically appears to boost travel by making it more efficient, hypermobility has replaced real neighbourhoods with pseudo ones.
People rush anywhere that delivers a new experience, from a weekend break to a global warming conference. Hypermobility is the opium of the people. It panders to instant gratification while dulling a sense of community.

Yes and no. Some ‘pseudo’ neighbourhoods are real communities. The members of our small church come from an area about 60km across, yet they are very much a family.

Since hypermobility both dilutes a sense of place and (mostly) increases carbon emissions, governments should be charged with curbing or at least not promoting it. This means planning the town and country so as to minimise the need for ever longer journeys. It means rationing travel capacity by congestion or by price. Since governments are scared of price, most choose to ration by congestion. Summer and winter “road and rail chaos” is the result, with blame conveniently attaching to operators. Everybody thinks it is cars, trains and planes that cause gridlock—when in reality it is people. There is no absolute right to roam. There is no free trip. We must initiate the rebirth of domestic space.

Just so. There is no right to travel, it’s a costly privilege.