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The Problem with the Census

The Problem with the Census

With the nation filling out census forms, MA's Edward Holmes provides his thoughts on what the census means to transport planning and the limitations of the 2021 census. 


Whilst most people collect their post with a sombre stance of enacting a daily activity, I excitedly checked the post last week in anticipation for a very specific letter. Some readers may think it was a birthday card or I was expecting a winning lottery ticket, but I will disappoint you on both those fronts as I was searching for the Census letter. Yes, boring for many, and would have been for me too, except this has been the first Census I have filled out for myself.

I was excited for that one question in particular – the method of travel to work. To most people this is just another question; however, for us lowly Transport Planners this is probably the most important question in all of time and space. I exaggerate, but it IS key. Many people may not realise that there have been thousands of developments granted planning permission over the past ten years which have had their anticipated transport effects and demands justified by the results of this one question.

It is part of the very foundation in which Transport Planners go about our job assessing the possible impacts of future developments on the existing road network and public transport systems. Now bearing in mind the number and volume of developments that have relied on an answer to a question from 10 years ago, we come to this year’s census. Having had a such a chaotic and disrupted 2020 and still sitting at home in 2021 I read the question with surprise.

This year’s census stated that your method should be filled out purely based on your current working circumstances. I.E., if you are working from home currently then that is your answer.

This may not seem like a big deal, but I really deliberated over it (much to my partners frustration). I could not get my head around how this may affect developments in years to come, and from internal discussions over the past few days many of my colleagues feel the same. I now know that the Census is designed to provide a snapshot of the United Kingdom on a day in March, and it would be wrong to not have it recorded accurately. But if the worlds ‘new normal’ includes travelling to an office, travel habits will change post-census and thus demands on the networks associated with said mode.

In any case, we are expecting the proportion of working at home to skyrocket from previous levels, even if this may not be the case in 5 years’ time. How useful will this data be in the years to come? Its inconclusive. We have no idea what this ‘new normal’ will be. All we do know is that it will not be like the old normal, or even the current normal for that matter. We are likely to see (short term?) increases in car usage when lockdown eases as people choose to drop kids off at school and go to the shops in the car, seeing public transport as not yet safe. Some one-car households who previously used the car mainly for commuting by one member of the family may start taking advantage of it sitting on the driveway for more frequent short trips.

In conclusion, there is going to be a real bias in the results because of certain industries not operating at all during the lockdown, exacerbated further by the large number of employees still on furlough (gym employees, retail workers, pub and restaurant staff). University towns have skewed populations with students staying at home.

I think there is an argument for having the Census performed in 5 years’ time to capture what the new normal will be, or even have it performed at 5 years intervals instead, especially as the Census is now digital, reducing in the physical number of people needed to analyse and interpret the raw data set.

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