When historians look back on Britain in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they may see the era of mass travel abroad as an aberration caused by a combination of an aggressive business model and governments keen to increase connectivity at any costby Barbara Speed / July 19, 2020 / Leave a comment
An alien monitoring life on planet Earth over the past few months would have struggled to spot what’s been going on: Covid-19 is invisible, and its symptoms hardly distinctive. But what would have stuck out—even from space—was that a vast proportion of the world’s people and traffic had stopped moving.
It has been remarkable to witness because until this spring, for as long as anyone can remember, the world was becoming ever-more mobile. Give or take the odd minor blip for a recession, decade-on-decade there has been more international travel, and over the last generation trains have become more packed. Up until the start of this year, Britons were travelling abroad at the highest rate on record, taking almost twice as many holidays as we did only a couple of decades ago. And it’s not just in Britain: across our heating planet, the number of flights taken increased by 4 per cent between 2018 and 2019.
There was always a political row about some new transport brainwave—an extra runway for Heathrow? HS2 or not?—and in the background, a nagging sense grew that our hypermobility might not be sustainable, as experts warned that aviation emissions could wreck the Paris climate targets. And yet, in our globalised pre-Covid age, study, leisure, business, family and love created more ties around the world. We somehow came to regard the dispersal of people as being natural and inevitable. The serious options for cutting back on flights, and saving the planet—like taxing air fuel in the same way as car fuel, or more radically rationing them—were controversial in the extreme. An industry survey in 2019 found that 47 per cent of British people didn’t believe anyone should be discouraged to fly, even if it might have a negative impact on the environment.
As in other areas of life, however, the arrival of the first new deadly globetrotting pathogen in a century has turned the unthinkable into fact. Come March 2020, and suddenly cars were parked for weeks on end. Trains grew less frequent and rumbled along virtually empty. Planes were grounded. Emissions plummeted. We darted out of our homes…