Why We Travel

If we could eliminate transportation from our daily lives, would we want to? Or do we still need to travel, even if we have nowhere to go?

This article explores the desire to travel – to make economically irrational transport journeys. It ponders the apparently unnecessary role of travel in virtual worlds. It considers how travel contributes to immersion within the world, and how such travel can be substituted. Finally, the article addresses some of the difficulties in bringing lessons from the virtual back into the physical world.

On this page:

Means to an End

Economists tend to view transport as a “means to an end”. In the introduction to his textbook on the subject, “Transport Economics”, Kenneth Button explains:

“People wish, in general, to travel so that some benefit can be obtained at the final destination.”

Rationally, you drive to work because you need to move to your workplace to earn money, not because you enjoy the drive.

Economic theory therefore seeks to minimise the costs of transportation. Time, money, annoyance. Theoretically, we’re trying to accommodate a state of “hyper-mobility”. The creation of a transportation network where everybody (and everything) can move instantaneous, while miraculously using no energy or resources.

A TARDIS-like solution may seem to belong in the realms of Science Fiction. But we already have some very efficient transport networks, that we don’t tend to think of as “transport”:

  • The Internet. This article took almost a second to travel to you, wherever you are on the planet earth. The cost of that transport was probably a cent.
  • Drinking water. In the developed world, one does not wait for water to be delivered – just turn on the tap! And the cost is minor to.

Unfortunately we are not able to transport everything over networks like these. We don’t pipe groceries into homes. Yet. And paradoxically, the internet may increase the demand for physical individual movement, by creating social groups across larger geographic areas than before. Linden Labs (developers of the virtual world, Second Life) neatly highlights the limitations of current technologies: Their United Kingdom staff used to (and presumably still do) fly out to California simply to “hang out” and get to know US-based staff.

Emotional Transport

But if we could eliminate the transport component from our daily lives, would we want to?

Rationally this is a “no brainer”: For example, around 10% of United States Gross Domestic Product (GDP – a measure of the economic output) [BEA] and almost a fifth of domestic household expenditure [BTS] is transportation-related. Proportions are similar for other “Western” economies.

Unfortunately for economists, the human race is not always rational. We do things that don’t make economic sense. We’re to emotional. And consequently transport is full of apparently irrational decision making.

Box: The Irrational Value of Cars
The basic “drives from A to B” function of a private car typically accounts for the minority of the car’s cost. For example, before the current economic difficulties (and near-collapse of car sales) the average new US car cost about $30,000, while the cheapest new cars cost as little as $10,000. Such comparison is clearly simplistic. But very crudely, over half of the typical purchase cost is in excess of the pure “transportation function” of the vehicle. And at the extreme of the market (luxury Sports Utility Vehicles, and similar), one is effectively purchasing a symbol of status, that just happens to have wheels.


When London’s orbital motorway (freeway) was first completed, some people would take coach tours around the full circuit of the “M25”. 120 miles (190 km) later, they’d end up back where they started, having done nothing except look out of the coach windows. This was once explained to me as, “travel, not transport”. As if travel was a completely different sector of the economy, that fell outside the remit of transport economics.

So, I define travel as the emotional (“irrational”) component of transport.

While few economists would deny the existence of “travel”, most (like Button) would dismiss it as a minor, and move on.

The problem is simple: What if travel isn’t minor? What if the whole personal transport system reflects the value of cars (see box above), and the irrational component was actually the major part? Sure, we’d all agree you need to get to your workplace in order to work. But perhaps getting to work is actually a secondary consideration to factors like enjoying the drive? Or having one’s sex appeal “bolstered” by being enclosed in a shiny new gas-guzzler? I never did understand that.

This is not a purely academic dilemma. The principles of transport economics underpin many of the models (simulations) and processes used to manage and develop transport infrastructure. Or at least, in theory they do. In practice there are still a lot of irrational “political” decisions made.

Economics has helped evolve those processes away from engineering (“cars need highways”), towards an understanding of demand (“people need to move”). Later techniques, such as accessibility planning (“people need access to services”), have improved our comprehension of that demand. But the process remains starkly rational. And that might help to explain why political decision-making can still diverge from the “professional” analysis: Could there be significant aspects of human behaviour we’re not considering?

Virtual Transport

Transport in virtual worlds is intriguing, because technically it can be made to be instant: An avatar or view can have its coordinates (X, Y, Z location) changed, immediately rendering a different place or experience within the world. Instantaneous, almost cost-free.

Transport in this context is the movement between different activities, not the movement required to perform the activity. For example, an avatar might run for 10 minutes to reach a dungeon, and then walks through the dungeon, constantly fighting goblins. The transport component is running to the dungeon. Walking through the dungeon fighting is the activity at the destination. In practice there are some overlaps: For example, while running to the dungeon there might be a small chance of encountering the proverbial wandering goblin.

Some virtual worlds do allow unlimited “teleporting” – instant transportation. Second Life’s SLurl is a good example. Simply type in a location, and you’re there. Of course more conventional modes of transport are also available, such as flight or boats. These vehicles seem more likely to be used for tourism of the world itself, rather than actually getting anywhere you know you want to go.

More game-like worlds tend to use far less teleportation. And where teleportation is allowed, it is more likely to allow you to teleport back to where you were, not teleport you forward to a new destination. For example, the only teleportation in the original Jumpgate (an early space-based MMOG) was for your corpse: When your ship was lost (destroyed in combat or due to careless piloting), a pod containing the pilot was instantly returned to a friendly space station. World of Warcraft offers players a “hearthstone”, which they can use to teleport back to the town or village they had previously visited.

Why Move Virtually?

Has Tolkien’s influence on these worlds accentuated “the journey” to much?

Transportation is an important game mechanic for discovery and exploration. Finding something new often involves travelling to somewhere new. The journey over a physical landscape (or even a series of regions of space connected by wormholes) imposes limitations on what is likely to be discovered, and in what order. It gives the game’s designers some control over the players’ experience, rather than presenting the player with an almost infinite number of possible activities.

If discovery was the only reason for transport in these worlds, the avatar would always be able to instantly move to any location they had previously visited. This mechanic is used in some “single player” games, for example, Oblivion. But it is not used in most online games.

Cynical players used to refer to transport components of play as “time sinks”. The term was used in a derogatory manner, to imply that a simple activity at the destination was being needlessly extended in time, simply because there was not enough alternative content available to keep players entertained. The “time sink” is a relative of “the grind” – the apparently mindless repetition of the same activity in pursuit of a wider goal: The activity is not without purpose, but occupies far more time than it could do.


Let’s examine the World of Warcraft achievement, For The Alliance! It is easy to dismiss this environment as “just a game”. However in order to be a successful game that people enjoy, it has to cater for a wide range of human desires.

“For The Alliance” requires a player’s character to slay all 4 leaders of the opposing player faction. Before one can kill the leader, one needs to fight through the streets of their city, a city often full of other (hostile) players.

In practice, the achievement is completed by large groups of players. Since assembling a group large enough to kill the leader of one city requires substantial prior organisation, it is common for the same party of players to attempt all 4 leaders in sequence. Killing the leaders is therefore quite an intense, active, collaborative experience.

Each of the 4 cities has poor transport links for the attackers. Rapid modes of transport (such as flight or magic portals) are not available inside hostile territory. Instead attackers are forced to ride their own land mounts (commonly an animal or mechanical device). The process of movement between cities therefore takes quite a long time. While travelling, players have an opportunity to start to relax. To talk. To think. To be. To do something other than frantically kill stuff. The pace of the game momentarily evolves and slows.

This subconscious transition between play-styles is key to allowing players to remain in the world for long periods of time. To immerse themselves within it: The game world needs to be able accommodate the changing mental demands of the humans behind the avatars. And it seems that transport, or more correctly, travel, contributes to that immersion.

Substituting Transport

Initial investigation of the impact of Information Communication Technology (ICT) on transportation reaches an unexpected conclusion: Workers that stay at home to work, and therefore do not need to transport themselves to their workplace, make more journeys, not less. This partly reflects the fact that higher-income groups are more likely to work from home, and those groups make more journeys. More detailed study suggests that for each individual there is a net reduction in transport, but new journeys do replace some former work-related journeys. It points to the conclusion that transport is not simply a “means to an end”.

In the last 10 years what Patricia Mokhtarian termed “undirected travel”, started to interest academics. She defines this as, “cases in which travel is not a by-product of the activity but itself constitutes the activity”.

This subsequently evolved into 2 distinct forms of “utility” (the term economists use to describe the value someone places on something):

  1. The pure emotional value of transportation, often associated with recreational tourism.
  2. Activities conducted while travelling, such as talking or working on a laptop computer.

Acknowledging Emotions

Sadly it is easy to promptly dismiss the emotional component as “travel” (that is, tourism), and start constructing complex cost-benefit analyses of the value of Wi-Fi and power sockets on trains. Or something. (A cost-benefit analysis is the process of assigning monetary values to things without monetary value, like “time”, and then using that analysis as a basis to compare different development/investment proposals.)

Which risks misunderstanding the underlying emotional component: The economic approach tends to view humans as machines – “convert the time you travel into work time, and you become economically more efficient”.

Yet as the “For The Alliance!” example suggests, our desire (and perhaps ability) to keep on doing one thing is limited, and actually we seem to need to spend some of our time being unproductive. In Warcraft’s case, it keeps us immersed in the game. In transport’s case, perhaps it keeps us immersed in life?

Substituting Travel

The need and speed of moving within World of Warcraft has gradually changed over the game’s history (see box for examples). Transport is still required to complete many newly added activities, so has not yet been completely abandoned by the game’s designers.

Box: Azerothian Transportation Trends
Personal modes of transport have become faster: Not only have faster vehicles been introduced in the form of flying mounts, but an ever-increasingly earning potential has reduced the “real” cost of faster mounts. Changes have also been made to reduce the transport required to undertake an activity: When first introduced, players had to travel to a single point in the world to enter a battleground. Later players would merely have to visit one of several Battlemaster characters. Finally, players were able to enter a battleground from anywhere, by clicking a button on the user interface. Quests (one of the main activities in the early and middle stages of the game) now require less transport: For example, the original game included a 13-part quest chain based around Linken, which involved over an hour of travelling. More recent “Northrend” quests are designed as a series of geographic clusters (“quest hubs”), often with fast transport links between clusters.

It is difficult to show that alternative sources of immersion have replaced transportation directly. And it might even be argued that the changes have merely diluted the rational (demand-based) element of transportation (the part we all agreed is best avoided). But there certainly are other ways to provide immersion within games, beyond travel, and some of those have been developed to try and make them more popular among the player-base.

For example, in “The Battle for Azeroth“, Scott Cuthbertson argues that fishing is a key source of immersion within World of Warcraft – a simple, relaxing activity, that allows players to mentally rest and socialise within the game.

The notion that one might be able to replace travel’s immersion with something else might be important outside of a gaming context.

Beyond Gaming

In The Unbearable Likeness of Being, Nick Yee recently wrote:

“Everyone keeps looking for the killer app for virtual worlds, and the only one we know that works so far is gaming. And perhaps the reason for this is because it’s the only application in which slowing people down is a good thing. If you were using a virtual world for work, why on earth would you want people to walk to places, open virtual file drawers, be blocked by virtual walls, or have to figure out what to put on in the morning?”

Why, indeed?

Book of Internet Sites

Don’t laugh! About 15 years ago there was a demand for books listing websites. New consumer users of the internet struggled to find information, so fell back to the methods and reference sources they were familiar with. In this case, paper books. With hindsight we can see that Google provides a much better solution.

In the early (transitional) phases between technologies it is perhaps inevitable that people will try to apply established methods directly to the new environment. Culturally it may even be a requirement for acceptance. But gradually, more appropriate methods evolve. Methods that use the technology more optimally.

Which is why the “tween” worlds are so intriguing. The children and young adults now growing up in these worlds do not carry with them our established methods of how to interact using this technology. They are more likely to solve problems with reference to the problem, not with reference to a method optimised for a prior technology.

Ultimately, if their method is more effective than ours, their generation will rapidly become more economically productive that their parents. Just look at transport: Avoiding transportation costs could make a business 10-20% more profitable. Or cause a lot of traditional competitors to become unprofitable.

Slow Down!

Slowing down is counter-intuitive. For our transport economist, the aim is to minimise the time and cost spent travelling. Why on earth would anyone want to slow down? Perhaps attempts to apply virtual worlds in a business context are similarly blinkered? We might see “raiding” (groups of players working together to progress through a dungeon) as a successful model for virtual teamwork, and isolate it, without truly understanding the role of the “wasted” time and activities that make up the wider immersive experience.

We could perhaps go one step further, and argue that the reason the technology is successful in the gaming sphere, is because it has slowed down. Or more correctly, managed the balance between fast and slow.

Perhaps if we knew what they were, these latent desires might be substituted. Just as game immersion can come from sources other than travel. And so in future we might not find ourselves travelling, even when we had nowhere to go.