Published 2021-04-21

This post is also available in Swedish

Surprising travel behaviour in wake of COVID-19

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected travel in Sweden? And how can we make the most of positive changes? The purpose of the study Alternativa resepraktiker? – Potentiella beteendeförändringar i spåren av Covid-19 (‘Alternative Travel Practices? Potential behavioural changes in the wake of COVID-19’) was to boost understanding of changes in travel behaviour regarding business travel and commuting. But some of its results have surprised researchers.

How did the coronavirus pandemic change business travel and commuting? What climate impacts can be linked to these changes? And what lessons are there on how to sustain changes that are positive from both an environmental and an organisational point of view? These are some of the questions in the project entitled ‘Potential for alternative travel practices? Behavioural changes due to viruses in the short and longer term’.

This Mistra-funded project is based on travel data, staff questionnaires and management interviews involving 11 organisations. Ulrika Gunnarsson Östling, researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), who led the study, says that the driving forces in the project have largely been about seeing positive environmental effects of changed travel habits.

Ulrika Gunnarsson Östling, researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

‘We were interested in seeing not just how travel habits have changed, but whether the changes have led to positive effects or risks, in environmental terms, and what lessons we can keep and build on.’

All the organisations in the study are already working actively on sustainable travel in various ways. A wide range of organisations — rural municipalities and a metropolitan one, service companies and businesses working on digital meetings — are also involved. Gunnarsson Östling’s own employer, KTH, has also been studied. Interviews with employers and people with a particular focus on sustainability issues have concerned changes to date, difficulties and future potential.

Car travel rising and falling

The results of the study show significant effects on employees’ ways of travelling to, from and in the course of their work. Depending on the workplace and job, flexible working methods and digital meeting habits have been applied to a greater extent than before. For the five companies surveyed in Järfälla Municipality, the distance that commuters travelled by car fell by 19 per cent from 2019 to 2020. For the Järfälla Municipality workplace, the number of kilometres driven decreased by 34 per cent between 2017, when a previous survey was done, and 2020.

Nevertheless, the results of the study have surprised researchers to some extent, according to Gunnarsson Östling.

‘The idea many people have is that the pandemic has basically just led to reduced travel. But that didn’t turn out to be the case for employees in two municipalities in the study, Hofors and Ockelbo, where commuting distances driven by car rose by 19 and 24 per cent respectively.’

The interviews revealed some obstacles to working from home due to the nature of the job, for individuals and organisations working on classified information and for people who had difficult conditions at home. Commuting by car has become the first choice owing, of course, to official recommendations to avoid public transport. Some organisations have also offered free parking spaces, while others have cancelled special climate initiatives, such as offers of free public transport or company bikes.

Positive experience of digital work

Regarding climate consequences that can be linked to the changed commuting travel habits, results from the five companies in Järfälla Municipality show that carbon emissions per capita decreased by almost a third in a single week in May 2019, compared with 2020. In the municipalities of Hofors and Ockelbo, where the distances travelled by car rose, carbon emissions increased by 4 per cent.

The study, which has also looked at perceptions of changing travel habits, shows that there has been a successful, smooth transition to working more digitally.

‘Before, some of the organisations had set goals for specific numbers of staff to take a course in digital conferencing technology. And now there’s been a rapid, automatic shift to digital working methods that many people feel positive about,’ Gunnarsson Östling says.

She is keen to study the issues further, especially in terms of what organisations can do now and in future to reduce their travel and thus their emissions.

‘Some people have a job that can’t be done remotely, but we’re also seeing that organisations gave different levels of permission for teleworking. We’d like to take a closer look at that. Another thing that would be interesting to study further is that the proportion of car users increased in a number of organisations. Could it be that employees have got used to that, or will many return to public transport after the pandemic?’

Gunnarsson Östling also points out that other issues that are important to bear in mind are the environmental aspects of digital meetings and the potential increase in greenhouse-gas emissions resulting from greater use of digital technology.

The project was independent but interacted with the Mistra SAMS — Sustainable Accessibility and Mobility Services research programme, which focuses on finding solutions for attaining a climate-neutral and socially equitable transport system in metropolitan regions by 2030.

The report Alternativa resepraktiker? – Potentiella beteendeförändringar i spåren av Covid-19 (‘Alternative Travel Practices? Potential behavioural changes in the wake of COVID-19’) is available, in Swedish, here.