Undirected Travel. You’ve probably never heard of it, but you’ve certainly done it.

I arrived at Ghent University in Belgium in 2019 planning to begin research investigating the relationships between commuting and human well-being. Then, just as it disrupted normal life in nearly every way, the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, putting an end to many commuting trips, completely transforming travel behavior for those still traveling to work, and presenting huge obstacles for undertaking this type of research. In Flanders, we found ourselves in an incredibly strict lockdown and were told to stay inside whenever possible, yet local streets were full of people walking or cycling just to get out of the house and do something (do anything). Normally we think of mobility as simply a movement from point A to point B, or something that we have to do in order to access the places that we want to go. These movements were different - of course they had always existed, but now they were much more obvious. It was clear that individuals were gaining something positive from mobility, and potentially improving their well-being by going on trips to nowhere. This is how my interest and research in ‘undirected travel’ began.

Undirected trips are those taken for the purpose of the trip itself, without destinations or where the destination is not the main purpose of the travel (think taking a walk, going on a joyride by car or motorcycle, or riding around on roller skates). These trips were a prominent activity during the pandemic, meaning that I am one of the few individuals for which this time was positive and productive, at least professionally. It provided a kind of ‘test scenario’ to observe undirected trips and understand the ways that travel itself can be positive.

Our research identified four categories of positive benefits of travel that are unrelated to destinations: (1) Improving Physical Health, such as the exercise gained by walking or taking a bike ride, (2) Improving Mental Well-Being, such as the opportunity to clear your head or listen to your favorite podcast, (3) Enjoying Scenery, such as being able to walk through a park or feel the sun, and (4) Socialization, such as walking and chatting with a friend or people watching. These travel benefits are by no means unique to undirected trips, they can be found in all types of travel. For example, the main motivation for taking a commuting trip is obviously to get to work, but the route or mode choice might also be motivated by one or more of these benefits.

We (and I mean primarily planners and policy makers) need to rethink the processes for valuing travel itself. As it is now, travel decisions are made through the use of deeply traditional economic models born from neoliberalist ideologies surrounding (and promoting) car use and ideas advocating for growth and efficiency as the most important outcomes. These systems prioritize, for instance, reaching a destination a few minutes faster over the ability to walk through green space, or the profit from a row of new parking spaces over the tranquility of a cycling lane separated from traffic. Ultimately, the narrative of daily travel as a disutility––something that needs to be minimized for which less is always better––must be challenged to realize that there are indeed benefits to traveling and that not every person on every trip is interested in reaching their destinations as quickly as possible.

In the same way that governments and societies are incorporating measurements of well-being (like the Human Development Index or Sustainable Development Goals) to measure success, transport and mobility systems should be evaluated for their contribution to human well-being in addition to their contribution to profit. My goal is that the examples of undirected trips and their positive benefits found during the pandemic can be applied to mobility systems in general as they return to ‘normal’, thus contributing to more resilient, sustainable societies. For example, in many cities neighbors were creating window and pavement art, blasting music for their streets, and sharing walking maps to learn about biodiversity in their local areas and parks. These small-scale initiatives might make walking and cycling more attractive while simultaneously improving social cohesion. Starting with localized, small-scale change we can begin to challenge pre-existing ideas about transportation, and ultimately imagine and create an alternative future for mobility – one that we truly want.

Hannah Hook – Doctoral Researcher at University of Ghent, Department of Geography


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