Mobility after COVID-19: the lure of travelling versus "flight-shaming"

Young people in particular are keen to get back on planes after the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, though, significant numbers of people across the age spectrum plan to fly less often in future. Factors influencing individuals’ choice of mode of transport include pricing, speed and CO2 emissions. A comparison highlights the importance of assumptions and the need for a wide-ranging consideration of all the factors affecting Switzerland’s future mobility system.

COVID-19, and more particularly the measures taken by government to tackle it, have radically transformed mobility since the start of the pandemic over a year ago. Temporary lockdowns, the instruction to work from home and other restrictions reflected the government’s aim significantly to reduce daily commuter journeys and to shift transport to private vehicles, at least for short journeys. Long-distance travel, especially air travel, has been hit hard by travel restrictions imposed not just by Switzerland but also by other countries. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that global air travel has fallen by around 76% over the past year, with a loss of revenue of around USD 500 billion. Swiss Airlines is currently losing around CHF 2 million a day, and revenues are down around two-thirds over the past 12 months. Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) has also been impacted, with passenger numbers still 50% down on 2019 levels. Large swathes of the population are impatient for a rapid end to the pandemic and the travel restrictions it imposes, but the entire travel and tourism sector is longing for a return to business as usual. However, the key to opening up the sector is not just open borders but also people’s future travel decisions and mobility patterns. Deloitte carried out a representative survey of 2,000 working-age people living in Switzerland to explore how flying for leisure and for business is set to change.

Chart 1. Private air travel by age-group

Around half of those surveyed who travel by air for private journeys report that they have no plans to change their behaviour after the pandemic by comparison with pre-pandemic levels; 29% expect to fly less and 18% expect to fly more. Across all age groups, respondents are around 10 percentage points more likely to indicate they will fly less than to fly more. However, there are significant differences between different age-groups. Young people (those aged under 30) are more likely to report that they will be flying more: in this age-group, in fact, there is a small net balance (3 percentage points) in favour of flying more.

The urge to travel versus “flight-shaming”

The survey findings reveal two trends. The under-30 age group in particular clearly feels a need to “make up for lost time” following a year of travel restrictions. Lifting these restrictions may well fuel a short-term boom in air travel. On the other hand, considerable numbers of people report that they wish to fly less. One key driver here is the trend towards greater sustainability in various areas of people’s lives. For many, flying has become increasingly unacceptable: there is even a term for this – “flight-shaming”. However, apart from the moral and environmental arguments, this group may also be influenced by fear of infection or the practical difficulties connected with additional documentation, such as a “vaccine passport” or the need to demonstrate a negative coronavirus test result before travelling.

The situation in relation to air travel for business is similar. Overall, 8 percentage points more respondents indicate they plan to fly less than plan to fly more. This relatively small difference is surprising: the video calls, webinars and widespread digitalisation of working methods that are now standard across many companies demonstrate that travel is not essential to doing business. It is reasonable to assume that the findings are driven by employees’ desire to travel at their employer’s expense. However, cost pressures on companies and their desire to project a more sustainable image will keep this desire in check: IATA estimates that air travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

Car, bus, train or plane?

When the destination is not overseas, travellers have alternatives to air travel, of course. But how do the different modes of transport perform, and how do individuals choose their mode of transport for longer journeys? A few years ago, the key factors were time, cost, comfort and flexibility, but as the debate around climate change has intensified, many travellers have added sustainability to that list. And now, fear of infection and additional bureaucracy, such as the need to demonstrate a negative coronavirus test result or proof of vaccination, muddy the waters further. These factors are all interlinked and evolve over time, and individual would-be travellers weight them differently. Those planning a long journey ultimately have to decide whether they wish to travel by car, bus, train or plane.

Chart 2 below illustrates the time, cost and CO2 emissions involved in each mode of transport for a sample journey between Zurich and Vienna. Our example does not quantify the other factors listed above.

Chart 2: Forms of transport compared by time, cost and CO2 emissions

Sample calculations of the kind in Chart 2 are based on a number of assumptions that need to be spelled out. The results vary considerably according to the journey: Vienna is fairly easily accessible by train, and both Zurich and Vienna have an airport near the city centre. Transfers and check-in and waiting times at airports actually make up most of the total journey time on shorter journeys. For the Zurich to Vienna journey, air travel is faster than other modes of transport, but long-distance buses or cars are cheaper, depending on how the figures are calculated. This reflects the occupancy of buses or cars and whether a cost per kilometre of CHF 0.70 is assumed – a figure that, according to Touring Club Suisse, also includes fixed costs and depreciation – or whether solely fuel costs and tolls are included.

Assumptions are crucial

Calculating CO2 emissions is even more complex. Variant 1 omits emissions generated from production and infrastructure and focuses on a range for each variable. Emissions from air travel depend crucially on occupancy, whereas emissions from journeys by train and electric cars also depend on the national energy mix. The range is greatest with car travel: a small electric car with all its seats occupied emits just 3 kg of CO2 per capita for the sample journey according to Ecopassenger, the best performance of the modes of transport compared, whereas an older, large petrol-driven car with no passengers actually performs worse than a full aeroplane. Key factors are therefore occupancy and drive type, along with energy mix. However, average values show that air travel generates around two to three times as many CO2 emissions as a car, while a car produces around five times as many emissions as a train.

Variant 2 reflects the entire life-cycle of vehicles, with the variables set at average values for Germany. Under this variant, a train is about four times more efficient than either a plane or a car. Long-distance buses have the lowest CO2 emissions once other variables are taken into account. In terms of potential risk of infection and flexibility, however, private cars unsurprisingly come out on top. Ultimately, the weighting given to these factors underpins individual choices, and no one mode of transport outperforms all the others on every single criterion.

Looking ahead: technological advances and true-cost pricing will be crucial

Underpinning the design of optimal transport infrastructure is an understanding of how individual decision-making criteria are likely to evolve in future as travellers adapt their behaviour. For many journeys, speed of travel is unlikely to change significantly in the near future or may actually increase slightly. For example, Switzerland, along with Austria, France and Germany, plans to improve interconnection of its high-speed rail routes, while processing at airports is becoming faster.

In terms of CO2 emissions, meanwhile, technological progress, efficiency and the energy mix will be the key factors. All modes of transport become more efficient over time, and electric trains and electric cars generate less CO2 than their non-electric counterparts. The origin of the electricity is important, however: some electric modes of transport may be “clean”, but not all are, or not automatically. Air travel researchers are also looking into electric drives, and these are already being used for smaller aircraft. However, it will be many years before alternative drives are fully developed and can be rolled out economically on a large scale.

Over recent decades, the cost of air travel has fallen substantially, whereas the cost per kilometre of car journeys has remained largely unchanged and the cost of train travel has risen. These costs reflect merely the individual cost of travel, not the full social cost of travel by each mode of transport. However, the full cost is relevant to infrastructure planning, and here, there are major differences between modes of transport. The Swiss Federal Statistical Office has found that transport users typically pay 86% of the total (internal and external) cost of travel by road using a car or bus, 80% of the total cost of air travel and just 45% of the total cost of rail travel. The remaining costs are subsidised by the general public. It is therefore likely that costs will rise in response to political pressure in the form of environmental levies and the rollout of further external effects, as it would be the case with the air ticket levy resulting from new legislation on CO2 emissions. Similar debates are ongoing in neighbouring countries around a kerosene tax. The extent to which this would change behaviour would depend particularly on the level at which the tax was set and trends in the cost and availability of other modes of transport.

In a recent article in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Reiner Eichenberger and David Stadelmann argue in detail that true-cost pricing would be a way of tackling many of the current challenges facing transport policy, such as environmental pollution and traffic congestion. If transport users had to pay the full cost themselves, they argue, this would probably refocus the debate about different modes of transport: the average external cost per passenger kilometre are CHF 0.073 for private road travel but more than three times that – CHF 0.245 – for rail travel. And it is important to remember that as well as environmental benefits, sustainability also reflects social factors and cost-effectiveness, making it a public service and ensuring viable long-term financing.

A comprehensive approach is needed

Mobility is closely interrelated with issues of infrastructure, energy, technology and sustainability, so any discussion of future mobility systems must also include these components. It must also, though, reflect the targets set out in the Paris Agreement and Switzerland’s Energy Strategy 2050 – and resist mere symbolism and virtue signalling. A comprehensive approach will also need to include costs and what the public really wants by way of mobility options. It is important that there is no unnecessary delay in launching new technologies – and also that no one mode of transport is universally ruled out, as they all have pros and cons, depending on the topography, distance and level of demand involved in individual journeys. The increasing use of driving assistants of different kinds and the eventual roll-out of autonomous vehicles in the medium to long term will bring about significant changes, including enabling individuals to make more flexible use of their travelling time. To ensure maximum flexibility and use of modes of transport, particularly in urban areas, the concepts of “shared mobility” and “mobility as a service” will become increasingly important. Combining different public and private modes of transport, ensuring a secure and financial sustainable energy supply for e-mobility, setting differential pricing, and making optimal use of limited space are some of the major challenges facing future mobility.

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