In 2021, together with Transport Scotland, we commissioned the University of St Andrews to produce a report reviewing all the existing research into the links between transport and loneliness. Here we look at the main findings of the project, led by Dr Andrew Williams, Senior Lecturer in Public Health at the university.
Cedit: John Linton
Loneliness is a risk to health that has been equated with smoking or obesity.
Within the UK, governments are developing policies to address loneliness.
Transport-related social exclusion – in which limited access to transport or other issues with the transport system prevent people from fully participating in society in the way they would like – has been recognised since the 1970s.
However, there is less research on whether transport and feelings of loneliness are connected.
Why did we undertake this study?
This study looks in detail for the first time at the connection between transport and loneliness and isolation.
For most of us, our social lives depend heavily on getting to places where we can interact with our friends and family members.
This could mean going to cafes, pubs or parks to meet up with friends.
It could mean visiting the homes of the people that we want to see.
It could also mean getting to the venues that host the events we wish to attend.
Or, we may simply need to get out and about in our local communities.
We're all aware of how easy it is to lose regular connection to close friends who live a little further away, or how we have to put that extra effort in to see family who live in harder-to-reach places.
Without the ability to make these connections in person (acknowledging that the scope for virtual engagement is changing the needs of some people regarding meeting up) we risk becoming isolated, and we fear becoming lonely.
The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of some aspects of our social connections and has emphasised some of the factors that can lead to loneliness and isolation.
How we get around has a fundamental effect on these social connections.
It's influenced by factors such as:
- whether we are able to walk to meet the people that we love
- whether there are convenient links to access the places where we meet people
- whether barriers exist to us accessing these places
- whether we have the means to use the transport modes that work best for us.
Social prescribing patient
I was referred to a social walking group by my GP surgery as part of a weight loss programme because I’m diabetic and was doing less physical activity during lockdown.
I really enjoy being part of this group. It helps my mental wellbeing.
I live alone, so, it’s nice to have a bit of banter and a good laugh.
When I’m with the group I don’t feel fazed by the weather or feel like I’m exercising.
I look forward to seeing this family, if I should use the word.
Summary of main findings
Studies identified associations between private transport, public transport, community transport, active travel, transport infrastructure and feelings of loneliness.
It was also found that these associations vary across the life course and circumstances of individuals.
1. Transport as a means of reaching destinations where you meet with other people
In the absence of a car, public and community transport (including subsidised bus passes) become more important.
Several studies document reduced feelings of loneliness among older people who use public transport more regularly.
Similarly, when there was inadequate public or community transport, studies documented greater feelings of loneliness.
The association between transport and loneliness in older age has been consistently documented.
For some older people, the fear of loneliness was sufficient for them to continue driving against advice, hence the need for reliable and accessible alternatives to the car.
Ceasing driving due to age, illness, or a change in life circumstances such as becoming a parent can mean that people who did not previously need to use public transport suddenly find themselves needing to use it to avoid feeling lonely.
According to one study, people who stopped driving also reduced their social activities, as they viewed arranging travel as an extravagance compared to travelling to the shops or to appointments.
This demonstrates a need for public and community transport and active travel routes that connect neighbourhoods and not just services or workplaces.
Clear, accurate and accessible information on these routes is also vital.
2. Transport as a ‘third space’ in which you meet other people
Some papers discussed modes of travel as social spaces in which we meet other people.
A number of these studies related to cycling and walking.
Public transport was particularly noted as a space where you can meet other people.
Cycling was associated with reduced feelings of loneliness, noting that people walking and cycling met more people and felt greater social cohesion than car drivers.
Active travel as a group activity might be important to avoiding loneliness, but sociocultural, environmental and climate differences between the countries are related to the social status of active travel.
Additionally, the culture around public transport and active travel determines whether it is considered socially acceptable to interact with strangers in these situations.
3. Transport as a positive source of isolation
The final theme is included as a counterpoint to theme two and to ensure that this perspective is recognised as part of any practice and policy development in this area.
It was noted that travelling alone can also be beneficial for mental health and wellbeing, providing individuals with time and space for reflection among the busy-ness of work or school.
Walking brings so many positive elements into my life – it gives me the fresh air and freedom to appreciate, to breathe, to connect and to explore both the physical outside world and my own headspace.
[During the COVID-19 lockdowns] I saw that walking offered the chance for people to change their view, their landscape, their perspective.
Walking opened up the window of opportunity for them to connect with others and in turn enabled them to connect with their community.
A simple ‘hello’ that could make all the difference and help to alleviate someone’s feelings of isolation and loneliness.
What do we conclude from this study?
Four recommendations emerge from this study:
1. Interventions are needed to support people in phases of life when driving is not an option, such as older age and single parents.
Even when transport options are available, these groups may need support accessing them such as bus passes, low-level buses or easy to read timetables.
2. Public and community transport and active travel routes need to support people reaching friends and family, not just places of work or retail.
3. Some people value opportunities to connect while travelling, while others appreciate the time to disconnect.
Modes of travel and transport policy should therefore consider both of these desires.
4. Transport policy and interventions should consider all road users not just drivers, with the assessment of loneliness or social connections providing valuable insights into the effects of these interventions.
We need to recognise the complex dynamic of transport and social connection
Loneliness and isolation is increasingly a policy area in its own right.
In terms of the wider policy agenda, there are connections to equality, diversity and inclusion, health inequalities, mental health, wellbeing, better ageing, engagement and participation, severance, safety and more.
Transport schemes need to take better account of the impact on loneliness and isolation.
With consideration of these factors and needs, we can deliver transport in ways that can really improve social connectedness.