Our Laidlaw Scholar on Travel Time Use

We’ve had a busy year here at ADAPT. We have been running experiments on sustainable transport communications and have some fascinating results which should be reported soon. We have sent members of our team around the world to speak at prestigious conferences on topics from Cycle Safety campaigns to the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence. We have also partnered with an Undergraduate Geographer at the University of Leeds, Susan Preston, the recipient of a Laidlaw Scholarship, to work with us on the ADAPT project. Here, Susan will give us a summary of the findings of her brilliant research into travel time activities throughout Europe.


On Monday the 9th of July, I embarked on my research to discover how people use their time during journeys using ethnographic observations on seven trains across Europe. I began my journey in Huddersfield and travelled to Paris via Leeds and London. The next day I travelled to Amsterdam and the day after to Brussels. On Thursday the 12th of July, I travelled from Brussels to Brighouse via London. The second stage of my ethnographic research involved travelling on buses in and around the city of Leeds. On Wednesday the 18th of July, I completed four short bus journeys (on the 6,36, 56 and 91 services). On Thursday the 19th of July, I travelled on a very infrequent and limited stop service aimed at commuters called the X25 to Brighouse.

The method of ethnographic research involves writing down any relevant observations about how passengers use their time, the physical characteristics of the mode of transport, the origin and destination, time of day, day of the week and delays or unexpected events. The beauty of ethnographic research is that you never know what you will find out. On completion of each journey I wrote a short section on my reflections about the most relevant activities and interactions I had witnessed. A week or so later I typed this up and reflected on each journey further.

I found the process of completing ethnographic research exciting as my participants were unaware of what I was doing. I only revealed my research once to an American family who I shared a table with on my journey from Paris to Amsterdam. They were intrigued by the research and this prompted a meaningful and interesting conversation that lasted for hours. I recorded my observations on the train in my A5 notebook but tried to do this as discretely as possible. I occasionally had to use inventive methods when my view was obscured such as looking in the reflections of the carriage and listening to identify travel-time use. On the bus I typed my observations in the notes section on my phone, this was because it was impractical to write on the bus.

My research concluded that the most popular activity on trains and buses was using mobile phones. Phones can be used to multitask, and their small portable design makes them the perfect modern-day travel companion. Most people used their phones to listen to music and browse social media. Laptops were not used on buses and were infrequently used on trains, possibly due to the physical constraints of the carriage. Tablets were more popular than laptops but used for leisure activities rather than work. Many train operators have introduced free Wi-Fi and plug sockets which facilitates the use of ICTs.

Some passengers had carefully considered how to use their time during their journey. This was demonstrated through the objects they carried and used. Some passengers used multiple technologies, carried chargers, had reading material available and food/drink. However, it was not clear the extent to which planning of travel-time use related to the actual activities undertaken.

The age of the passenger and journey purpose influenced the type of travel time activities undertaken. Younger passengers used ICTs far more and for longer than older passengers. Older passengers were more likely to read especially newspapers and novels and window gaze/people watch. Business travellers were the most likely to be using laptops to complete work. Leisure travellers were far more relaxed about using their time and seemed less like they had pre-planned, many window gazed. Commuters liked to watch videos on their phones or listen to music with earphones.

There was a significant difference with the duration of the journey and the type and variety of activities I observed. Window gazing and using mobile phones was most common on shorter bus journeys of under 20 minutes as people very rarely unpacked any items from their bags. On longer journeys of over 30 minutes people had more time to unpack and this resulted in a wider range of travel time activities.

The ethnographic research I have undertaken will help me design questions for focus group sessions and interviews next summer for the second stage of my Laidlaw Scholarship. Thank you for reading.