Project: Social Networks and Future Mobilities

Reference: STP 19/5/5

Last update: 03/09/2009 12:56:11


The objective of the project is to investigate the implications for travel of the changing patterns of meetings between spatially widely dispersed network members. The work will comprise of:
a literature review;
a pilot survey of 3-4 people;
a main survey of 24 interviews with people under 35 working in a range of "new kinds of employment";
development of a methodology to examine changing spatial patterns of social networks;
provision of final report; and
seminar of results.


This project is concerned with establishing a methodology to examine the impacts that the changing spatial patterns of social networks will have upon future travel. It is expected that over the next couple of decades there will be striking changes in the geographical extent and scale of people's social networks. This so far undocumented process will continue due to historically low prices for long-distance travel and communication and historically high levels of migration and economic interaction between countries (e.g. by investment, trade, service provision).

Most groups intermittently meet up to cement their network, to enjoy each other's company and to carry out certain tasks; these meetings generate travel. This exploratory project will determine a method for researching the spatial structure of networks and of their meetings, the nature of meetings and the 'need' for travel, which we want to summarise under the concept of meetingness. We will establish the theoretical frame for understanding such changing networks, carry out intensive interviews to determine an appropriate research method, analyse the provisional results, suggest measures, and develop proposals for a large-scale study.

The policy implication of these changing patterns lies not only in the amount of travel consumed, but also in the changed perception of this travel. Where in the past much of this travel could have been classified as leisure and by implication unnecessary, today it is central to social cohesion of families, friendship groups, professions and firms. It might be in particular low income families which depend on such travel given strategies of distributing members across space to spread the economic risks associated with any one region.


University of Lancaster
University House, Bailrigg, Lancaster, Lancashire, LA1 4YW
+44 (0)1524 65201

Contract details

Cost to the Department: £56,050.00

Actual start date: 01 October 2004

Actual completion date: 09 December 2005


Social networks and future mobilities
Author: Jonas Larsen, John Urry and Kay Axhausen
Publication date: 01/12/2005
Source: University of Lancaster and IVT, ETH Zurich
More information:

Mobilities, Networks, Geographies
Author: Jonas Larsen, John Urry and Kay Axhausen
Publication date: 01/10/2006
ISBN: ISBN 0 7546 4882 6
Source: Ashgate Publishing Limited, Gower House, Croft Road, Aldershot GU11 3HR

Summary of results

  1. The following are the main results of the desk and survey research undertaken in this project.

    1. travel that would have once been classified as 'leisure' and by implication a matter of 'choice', seems to have become central to the lives and social cohesion of families, friendship groups, professions and firms. Travel is 'essential' for work, friendship and family life.

    2. this importance of travel results from how 'meetingness' is crucial to the nature of people's networks. Although people may 'know' many people, this will produce less affect than if they intermittently meet, face-to-face

    3. tourist-type travel can often be as much about sociability and meetings as it is a search for the 'exotic'. Long distance leisurely travel (albeit often very hectic) can be especially important for its social and emotional significance

    4. as societies are more spread out with connections at-a-distance and people are less likely to bump into their contacts, so scheduled visits and meetings are more significant

    5. when people meet face-to-face this involves longer distance travel, especially as there is less likelihood of quick, casual meetings which occurred when work, family or friendship networks overlapped

    6. the relational commitments that people have to the social networks they are enmeshed in are crucial to travel choices; individual utility maximization is an inappropriate model here

    7. people visit and receive the hospitality of close friends, workmates and family members living elsewhere, and there is extensive travel to fulfil social obligations by attending Christmas parties, birthdays, weddings, funerals and so on

    8. ceteris paribus the greater the distance between people who meet up, the longer the time that meetings will last. People may compensate for the intermittent nature and cost of visits (time, money and weariness) by spending longer in each other's company

    9. social networks as something accomplished, in process, weaving together the material and the social as well as pleasures, obligations and burdens. Travel is embodied, involving others and often objects that also have to travel

    10. family life is becoming plugged into an ever-expanding array of communication technologies that connect families to one another and to the outside world often at great distance. Lives are rarely if ever 'local'

    11. methods can be developed to measure and map networks. We determine how far-flung the respondents' networks are by measuring how far away they live from their 'non-local friends', 'close family members' and 'most important people'. All reported locations can be geocoded and mapped

    12. travel and meetings require systems of coordination and mobile communication technologies to enable dispersed network members to be present. In the era of landline phones, rigid planning and punctuality were essential. With new communications people can arrange and rearrange their meetings on the move, there is an informal, fluid and instantaneous 'meeting up' where venue, time, group and agenda can all change

    13. crucial to modern life and to one's social position is the amount and forms of 'network capital' that each person possesses

    14. phone calls, texting and especially face-to-face meetings become less regular with increasing distance, while it increases with emails. This suggests that email 'substitute' for face-to-face sociality when distance makes it too time-consuming and expensive

    15. the distinctions between 'mobile' and 'immobile' people, 'local' and 'far-flung' networks are too simple and non-relational. One person's networks are affected by the mobility of others in complex and contingent ways. Network geographies are not of one's own making and indeed less mobile people can in theory have far-flung networks

    16. 'going out' involves continuous coordination, negotiation and movement with people present as well as (temporally) absent others. This provides opportunities to meet new people and come across new places for meetings

    17. The results change our understanding of the average traveller from the quasi-homo oeconomicus, myopic and individualistic, to a network actor, who tries to achieve his or her goals as part of a network of interacting and negotiating actors.

    18. The following are some of the immediate next questions which should be addressed before one can integrate social network information into transport policy thinking, modelling and evaluation:

    . Is it possible to obtain valid information on social network geographies reliably from large representative samples?
    . What is the social content of the activities undertaken?
    . How strongly does the social content of an activity explain the form of the associated journey (timing, mode, location)?
    . Is there a link between the social network geographies of residents and the level of local anomie, if any?
    . Is is possible to model these effects efficiently and reliably in microsimulation models of travel demand?