Promoting physical activity is a public health priority. It is recommended that adults should take part in ≥150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week, but most adults in the UK do not achieve this
. One strategy for increasing population physical activity levels is to promote walking and cycling for transport (active travel). Commuter journeys account for the greatest distances travelled by UK adults
, and are a way in which physical activity could be built into the daily routine; hence incorporating walking and cycling into the journey to work (active commuting) has been identified as a particular strategy to reduce physical inactivity
. Indeed, active commuting has been found to be associated with lower levels of overweight and obesity than car commuting
[4, 5], and also with reduced sickness absence
, cardiovascular risk and mortality
[7, 8]. Yet levels of active commuting are low: in 2010, 70% of UK adults usually travelled to work by car, compared to 14% by walking or cycling
. Understanding the determinants of travel to work, and how levels of active commuting could be increased, is therefore important.
The term “active commuting” will be used throughout this paper to refer to those modes of travel to and from work which involve physical activity (walking and cycling). According to this definition, active commuting can involve commuting solely by walking or cycling; or by walking or cycling in combination with motorized modes of travel (for example a combination of car with walking, or of train with cycling). We use the term “inactive commuting” to refer to those modes of travel to and from work which do not involve any significant physical activity (motorized travel only). Inactive commuting can involve one or more inactive modes of travel.
An array of physical environmental, psychological and social factors interacts to determine (active) travel behaviour
, but these do not fully explain individuals’ travel behaviour to work. In order to explore how active commuting can be promoted, it is useful to further examine how individuals select and change their travel modes. However, commuting is relatively resistant to change due to its habitual nature
. Habits become established when everyday activities such as commuting to work are performed repetitively and in stable contexts (in particular locations at specific times). Habitual behaviours are performed with little conscious intention: individuals with strong habits are less likely to acquire information about alternative options, and are resistant to reconsidering or changing behaviour
The habit discontinuity hypothesis, described by Verplanken et al.
, posits that behaviour change is more likely when habits are broken by a change of context. Disrupting the environmental cues which trigger habits can break them, leading relevant information to become more influential; in this window of opportunity following a context change, individuals are more likely to consciously reconsider, and perhaps change, their behaviour
[12, 15]. A naturally occurring context change which disrupts the habit of commuting to work is the relocation of home or workplace. Verplanken et al. tested the habit discontinuity hypothesis in this context, in combination with the self-activation hypothesis (which states that values influence behaviour when the value is part of a person’s self-concept and is cognitively activated)
. They compared travel behaviour and environmental concerns in university employees who had, or had not, moved home in the last year. As hypothesised, participants who had recently moved home and who expressed environmental concerns commuted to work by car less frequently than those who were environmentally concerned and had not recently moved (as well as less frequently than those who were low on environmental concern and had moved)
. This supports the assumption that context change (relocation), guided by activated values, can lead to negotiation of travel behaviour.
Relocation may also lead to travel behaviour change because the way in which people travel is associated with characteristics of the local built environment
[16–18]. Indeed, researchers have examined residential relocation in an effort to better understand relationships between the built environment, attitudes and preferences, and travel behaviour
[19, 20]. The self-selection hypothesis proposes that households choose locations based on how they expect or prefer to travel; for example, people wishing to cycle will live in areas accessible and convenient for cycling, and will then travel by bike
. This sorting process may contribute to the observed associations between the built environment and travel behaviour.
Thus, the habit discontinuity and residential self-selection hypotheses both suggest that relocation is a period when travel choices may be considered and reviewed and travel behaviour may be more likely to change. Studying the period of relocation (of home or work) could therefore further our understanding of how and why people select or change their travel behaviour to work, which is important for informing the design of interventions to increase active commuting.
Research in this area is dominated by the use of quantitative research methods. For example, residential relocation studies have tended to focus on the quantitative assessment of travel behaviour and attitudes before and after relocation
. Few studies have used qualitative methods to explore active travel
[21–24]. It is timely to reach beyond quantitative measures of travel behaviour, and quantitative estimates of associations between travel behaviour and the environment or attitudes, by qualitatively exploring the processes and experiences of travel behaviour change. These include individuals’ motivations for selecting travel modes, which may be missed in quantitative studies. There is growing recognition that complex public health problems require qualitative as well as quantitative methods, in order to describe and understand communities and learn how to improve and maintain health
. Strategies to promote active commuting require depth and breadth of understanding of people’s motivations for beginning and maintaining active commuting, which qualitative methods are suited to exploring; and incorporating qualitative research can enable a better understanding of causal explanations and processes
The effective application of qualitative methods to the study of travel behaviour has been demonstrated by Pooley and Turnbull
, who included data from 90 semi-structured interviews when examining modes of travel to work in Britain since 1890. They found that reasons for choosing modes of transport were consistent over time, and that once modes of transport were established, people were reluctant to change. Their study highlights the power of qualitative research to offer valuable insights into motivations for travel behaviour.
This paper reports on a qualitative interview study which aimed to explore experiences and processes of selection and change of travel modes for commuting, focusing on the period of home or work relocation; and to consider the theoretical and applied implications for the habit discontinuity and residential self-selection hypotheses.