Amsterdam based Ori Rubin has recently submitted his PhD dissertation at the University of Groningen on the role of travel mobility in the social network and contact behaviour of individuals. He is a social geographer and economist, and he is mainly interested in the interaction between mobility and the built environment. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Urban and transport planners who are concerned with the negative environmental impact of travelling have been advocating for policies that achieve three basic goals: shortening travel distances, lowering travel frequency, and reducing car use. For example, by planning dense urban neighbourhoods with amenities within walking distance, the need for long car journeys is reduced. The question I asked in my research was whether these policy goals are relevant when it comes to an important activity which planners hardly pay attention to: staying in touch with family.
It would be embarrassingly trivial to say that for most people family is important: we spend a lot of time thinking about how our parents, sisters, brothers or children are doing. Many times we joke on the trouble they all give us, but in times of need we also ask ourselves if there is anything we can do to help. While family is important, we find ourselves growing apart – we move away to study, for a job or because we start a relationship with someone from the other side of the country.
Because modern technology allows us to perform many things at a distance it would have made sense to expect that also family ties would turn ‘virtual’. But surprisingly most of us still feel we have to see our family face-to-face. Sociologists roughly describe this as our unwritten obligation towards our kin. We need to be there to have a genuine “moment”, or just to help around the house. Unlike with friends, we don’t pick and choose – we are unlikely to just stop seeing our parents because they are too far or we are too busy. Based on a survey from the Netherlands that I used for my research I found that less than 3% reported not to have seen their family even once in the past year. Well over 80% met at least monthly.
The inherent conflict between the need to be close and the tendency of young adults to move away from their family is related of course to important processes that are typical for this generation. First and foremost urbanization - the migration of young adults from suburban and rural areas into the big cities for work and education opportunities. In the Netherlands for example, this has led to substantial population decline in the periphery and growth in core regions, primarily Amsterdam and Utrecht. For those who moved to the cities the outcome is larger distances to their parents, which, going back to the need to be (sometimes) close, imply also changing mobility needs. If one lives around the corner from their parents then frequent walking or cycling to check up with them is possible, but if one lives farther away then one also needs to find time (and possibly a car) to go for a monthly dinner.
However not only the urbanization processes affect our relationship with our families. The ongoing retreat of the welfare state, accompanied by a demographic transition into ageing society, has led the state to delegate more and more tasks and responsibilities to the individuals and to their social network. In practice these de-professionalization of home-care policies demand that instead of receiving institutional help older adults are required to find solutions by relying on help from their friends, neighbours and children.
The picture that transpires from all of this is that unlike the principles of environmentally sustainable mobility planning - shorter distances and lower frequencies, we see that distances are increasing and the (often practical) need for face-to-face contact is increasing as well. The challenges for sustainable planning do not end here, as unlike with any other amenity we don’t have alternative destinations – our parents live where they live, and individuals have to find a way to fit those meetings within their schedule. It is no surprise that in the survey data I found that even in the context of the Netherlands (relative short distances, high cycling share, excellent public transport) car use for this type of social activity is higher than for commuting or for visiting friends. Car use makes sense when schedules are tight, the destination is often outside the regular daily activity space and the activity is regarded as quite obligatory.
We might think that the two goals of environmentally sustainable transport (low greenhouse gas emissions) and socially sustainable behaviour (high frequency of contact with friends and family) are unattainable simultaneously: if we increase contact then we also increase car use and if we constrain car use we will constrain contact as well. Simply put, it seems impossible that we can live far away from our parents, be “good children” and stay green. Moreover, in my research it became apparent that often families that live far apart do not only see each other less than other families, they are also more likely to travel by car - a lose-lose scenario.
The implication cannot be overstated: if dense cities are promoted as the most sustainable residential form, one should not ignore the full range of activities city dwellers participate in, such as visiting family far away. The expected demand for more support from family members, due to ageing of process and welfare restructuring, may therefore be yet another challenge in the strive for sustainable mobility.
This article is based on the author’s PhD research conducted at the University of Groningen under the supervision of Prof. Clara H. Mulder and Prof. Luca Bertolini. The research was financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), grant nr. 404-10-440. All opinions expressed here are of the author.