Migration Commuting and Transport Patterns in Rural Areas Project Web Page


The UK government Countryside Agency funded this project. The research was undertaken at The University of Leeds from June to December 1999. The principal investigator was Paul Boyle. The main researcher was Andy Turner. Advice was provided by Oliver Duke-Williams. The main aim of the project was to investigate the relationships between migration, commuting, transport and area classification data in England with a focus on rural commuting patterns.


Final Report

Paper copies of the final report were available from The Countrside Agency and may now be available from Natural England.

Other Maps

Many geographical maps were generated during the course of this work:

Project Objectives

  1. Distinguish between urban-urban, urban-rural, rural-urban and rural-rural commuting flows.
  2. Map existing classifications, describe existing means and suggest new ways of measuring 'rurality' and classifying rural area.
  3. Classify areas based on their commuting characteristics.
  4. Identify unusually large changes in commuting trends that have occurred during the 1980s by comparing the patterns for 1981 and 1991 at the LAD scale.
  5. Link the scale of, and trends in, commuting in rural England with housing development patterns and patterns of employment growth. Do we find that most rural areas with larger increases in employment opportunities have lower levels of out-commuting than rural areas without such opportunities? Are there places in rural England that have experienced employment growth are attracting so-called reverse-commuters from elsewhere? Where are they?
  6. Describe the likely relationships between commuting and migration patterns. Is there a link between the redistribution of population away from urban to rural England and transport-related environmental effects? Do those rural areas that have gained high numbers of in-migrants also have unusually high levels of out-commuting?
  7. Investigate the level of flows that are likely to pass through rural England on the route between the origins and destinations.
  8. Focus in specifically on more rural area in England at the ward level and examine spatial variables that might help explain the observed commuting patterns.
  9. Focus on individual-level data to search for evidence to support various hypotheses relating to commuting behaviour. Is it possible to relate individual-level commuting behaviour to migrant status using the available data?
  10. Classify the characteristics of people who live in urban areas that are least likely to commute by car, identify similar people that live in rural areas, and investigate how likely it is that these rural dwellers will commute by car.

Data Sources

Most of the data used in this project is 1991 UK Census data that was made available for academic research by JISC under the CHEST agreement and obtained via MIMAS. The Countryside Agency provided area classification data for 1991 Local Authority Districts and 1991 Census Wards.


Developing planning policy that aims to provide housing and employment opportunities must also consider environmental impacts to address issues of sustainability. In moving towards a more sustainable built environmental policy, transport planning is crucial and is required to compromise environmental, economic and accessibility issues. Over-use of the car on regular journeys to work, school and elsewhere causes unneccesarily high levels of traffic congestion and pollution. A bus takes up about the same space on a road as two cars, can transport many times more people (like most forms of public transport), yet relatively few people in general travel to work by bus especially if they live in a rural area. Some people are more restricted to using certain modes of transport despite service provision, some people have a restricted choice because of service provision, many people despite having a choice of public transport means will tend to commute by car. Urban areas tend to have more established frequent transportation services with better access and integration across the network than rural areas, as a result rural dwellers have tended to become heavily reliant on the car for regular journeys. A picture emerges frequently in rural areas of high car ownership and high levels of car use by some, coupled with reliance on a poor public transport service by others who do not have car access (particularly young persons, mothers, the elderly and the disabled). While transport policies aim to curb car use by providing incentives for public transport use and financial and physical restraints on car use may be pertinent for more urban areas, where transport choice exists, they are probably less pertinent in more rural areas where travel choice tends to be much more constrained. The development of contemporary transport policies (which are in the spirit of the recent Department of Environment Transport and Regions White Paper (DETR 1997)) aim to reduce the environmental impacts of transport, but to achieve this the policy needs to be grounded in a deep understanding of rural travel, its true volumes, patterns, trends and determinants.

Concerns about transport-related problems have been catalysed by recent National Road Traffic Forecasts (NRTF) which give a `most likely' prediction of 38% traffic growth over the next 20 years with a `worst case' scenario estimating growth of 84% by 2031 (DETR 1997). This growth may be disproportionately biased towards rural areas and it is likely that previous work on this problem has under-estimated the true scale of commuting behaviour changes in rural England. Thus it is very important to gain more understanding about the geography of commuting patterns throughout England as a whole and be able to target those places where the impacts of changes in commuting behaviour will be most severe in the near future (Anderson et. al. 1996). Sustainable futures are integrally linked to the journeys that people make, but it must be recognised that commuting behaviour will vary inevitably between, within and across rural to urban classified areas in England. More sensitive policy strategies are probably required in different rural areas to cope with these differences based upon a firmer understanding of the observable patterns in the data.

Arguably, a counter-urbanisation trend has dominated internal migration patterns in England during the last few decades. This process has tended to result in significant population increases in much of rural England, and associated population decrease in more densely populated urban centres. Internal migration accounts for the vast majority of population change in most areas of England as the levels of fertility and mortality are fairly stable throughout. Despite some evidence that this population decentralisation trend is waning in Britain (Champion 1994), in general, rural areas continue to gain population at a faster rate than most metropolitan and industrial districts (Townsend 1993). This suggests that current transport related problems in rural areas will continue to be fuelled by this counter-urbanisation trend for the forseeable future. So, if counter-urbanisation population movements appear to be having a significant impact on commuting patterns, there is almost certainly an integral link between commuting and migration in rural areas. But what is the detailed nature of this link? How does it vary spatially across rural England?

In-migrants who migrate to more peripheral rural areas are quite likely to retain work and leisure links with urban centres (especially if they migrate within the hinterland of that urban area). It can be construed that these migrants have chosen to prefer the extra travel burden over the negative externalities associated with urban living. The likely result is longer and perhaps more frequent commuting and leisure-related journeys by car. In the light of this likely consequence, the relationship between travel behaviour and urban form, in particular urban density and size, has become the focus of much interest among academics, planners and the government (see for example; Chinitz 1990 and Handy 1997). The importance of migration issues is underlined by the controversial Department of the Environment projections suggesting the need for 4.4 million new dwellings in Britain by 2016 (DoE 1995). Where should this housing development take place? Clearly, without a detailed understanding of current travel behaviour it will not be possible to reliably estimate the effects that proposed housing developments will have on potential commuting patterns in rural England given the transport infrastructure changes that may or may not take place. Is the likely added commuter burden that would be caused by a sudden influx of rural in-migrants in a given rural area be sufficient to advocate restrictive urban containment policies? Would planning regulations to prevent large numbers of rural in-migrants be acceptable to the general public and planners alike, and would they indeed be sensible or even feasible given the strength of urban decentralisation in England? Is there evidence that rural housing growth stimulates employment growth and decreases the negative effects of commuting in rural England? Currently, not enough is known about commuting scale, patterns and trends to answer most of these teasingly complex yet important questions. Consequently, the debate will continue for some considerable time as to whether commuting problems are significantly worse in rural areas compared with more urban areas. Although most experts agree that rural commuters are more likely to use cars and commute further, some have suggested that the overall environmental impact of commuter traffic and pollution levels is negligible in rural areas on the whole. Conceivably, by improving rural employment opportunities there is a potential that might help reduce out-commuting from rural areas, so some experts argue for a sustainable range of employment opportunities in rural areas (Gordon and Richardson 1989). Is there any evidence to advocate policies that aim to redistribute employment opportunities into rural areas to encourage less out-commuting? How big an impact is tele-commuting really likely to have?

Unfortunately, to date most of the analyses of rural commuting issues have been based on rather crude aggregations of data for large geographical areas. Little research using sufficiently high resolution flow data has been done to help understand local area commuting networks, and there is no robust comparisons of the different types of commuting effecting rural areas - namely the flows within, into and out of rural areas. Some experts have drawn attention to the high level of complexity in the reality of commuting and migration flows (for example; Frost et. al. 1997 and Hall 1995). Certainly the situation is far more complex than a simple trend of more urban to rural migration and more rural to urban commuting. Indeed, there is speculation that `reverse commuting' from urban to rural areas is on the increase. In fact there is speculation, speculation and more speculation with little quantitative reasoning to back it up and provide evidence to strongly suggest or identify the true scales and nature of rural-urban urban-rural or whatever type of migration movement and the way it relates to the scales and nature of urban-rural rural-urban or whatever type of commuting behaviour in rural England.

Recent in-migrants to rural areas have been shown to be more likely to use cars and commute further than longer term residents and this has been ignored in many analyses of commuting in rural England. Population growth in rural areas does not necessarily conform to the neo-classical expectations that are commonly assumed to underpin migration flows. According to these theories, individuals are expected to migrate towards places with better employment opportunities (higher wages and lower unemployment) than the place they originated in. However, moves into rural England are often stimulated entirely by lifestyle factors - employment opportunities may be less relevant in these areas and many of these moves are not in accordance with the purely economic arguments not least because they can result in increased commuting distances for the migrants.

To recap, currently not enough is known about the reality of rural commuting patterns and commuter characteristics for planners to be able to make reasonably informed commuter-related policy decisions. In particular there is an important link between migration and commuting patterns central to this project that has been inadequately researched to date.