How Do Families Travel?

(Where’s the Data?)

I recently wrote an application for funding which centred on supporting sustainable travel choices amongst parents with young children. From speaking to friends with children, I felt I had a good grasp of their travel experiences, but I was conscious that they comprised a pretty narrow demographic – mostly urban professionals in their mid-thirties. With this in mind, I started searching for some quantitative data in an attempt to understand the bigger picture. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I struggled!

Why focus on young families?

Having a baby is a huge life transition. It changes so much about how you live your life. I’m particularly interested in how it changes how people choose to travel. I am intrigued by travel patterns during maternity/paternity leave periods versus when parents return to work.

I suspect parenthood results in more trips (although perhaps they are shorter trips on average) and a higher proportion of miles travelled by car, but I wonder if there is an opportunity to embed sustainable travel into families’ long-term habits.  

So what data did I find?

I ideally wanted to find data about modes used and trip making amongst families with one or more children under the age of 4 or 5 years. I dipped into National Travel Survey, Labour Force Survey and Household Spend data, but I’d be very interested if anyone has suggestions for data sources that I might have overlooked because I really couldn’t find much that provided what I was looking for. Perhaps there is other survey data that would have helped.

One of the best sources I found was from the National Travel Survey – Data Table NTS0706 ‘Travel by household type and main mode / stage mode’. This breaks down trips and distance travelled by household type – i.e. number of adults and children within the household. However, the classification of children is all those who are under 16 years. With no further breakdown by age of the children, I am unable to distinguish travel patterns of households with young children versus those with older teens.

And, what does the data start to show?

Here’s a quick review of the 2019 data. Obviously, lots of detail is hidden when you just look at overall figures like this. There’s no split between rural and urban for instance. I’ve chosen to initially compare single person households with single parent households, and then two adult households with households comprising two adults plus one or more children.

Total trip making is higher when there are children in the household:

  • Single adults on average take 858 trips, while people in single parent families take 1035 trips (177 more).
  • In households with two adults, each takes an average of 938 trips annually, but in households of two adults + 1 or more children 1053 trips are made by each person (115 more).

Walking is higher in households with children:

  • Single adult – 263 walking trips per person (31% of trips) versus single parent family – 397 walking trips per person (38% trips)
  • Two adults – 203 walking trips per person (22% trips) versus two adults + 1 or more children – 296 walking trips per person (28% trips)
  • But, walking trips must be shorter amongst the families with children as total walking distance does not vary as significantly as the number of trips.

Car trips as proportion of all trips do not vary too much:

It seems best to combine car trips as driver and car trips as passenger for this comparison.

  • 50% of single adult trips are by car (429 car trips per person), while 49% trips are by car for people in single parent families (510 car trips per person).
  • 66% of trips are by car when there are two adults in the household (618 car trips per person) versus 63% when there are two adults + one or more children (669 car trips per person).
  • Distance travelled by car is higher in households without children.
  • This surprised me.

Bus trips are slightly lower in households with children:

This combines ‘Bus in London’ and ‘Other local bus’.

  • Single adults take an average of 75 bus trips each year, while people in single parent families take 76. As a proportion of trips this is 9% and 7% respectively.
  • In households with two adults, each takes an average of 43 bus trips annually (5%), but in households of two adults + 1 or more children 31 bus trips are made by each person (3%).


  • There’s not much variation in cycling trips between households with or without children.
  • Train travel is particularly low for single parent families at 10 train trips (including surface rail plus London Underground) versus 37 train trips for both single adult and 2 adult households.

Overall, it’s certainly a mixed picture. I’m planning to keep digging to see if I can understand it more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *