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In conversation with Philippa Robb

We speak to transport campaigner Philippa Robb about her difficult decision not to travel to South Africa after her father's death

29 Aug 2023 4 min read

This is episode 8 of our 2023 podcast series. Listen to the episode here and find other episodes and previous series here.

This month we are talking about the difficult decisions that you might have to take if you have family abroad but you have chosen not to fly.

We are speaking to Philippa Robb, a transport campaigner, who recently made the difficult decision not to travel to South Africa, where she grew up, when her father died.


I work as smarter transport officer, encouraging people out of cars. I was born in the UK, grew up in South Africa, went to Italy, back to South Africa, then on to the US, before moving to Britain in my 20s.

My sister still lives in South Africa. My parents moved back to South Africa when my mother became ill because she wanted to die in Africa, then my father stayed there, and died recently.

Dad and I were very similar but also very much opposites. He brought us up as an international family, so I was brought up in fast cars and on aeroplanes. It was totally insane, wild living! So maybe it was a rebellion not to do the same. I started to recognise that it is an unhealthy way of living, for your mental health, your physical health and climactically.

So in 2007 when my son was five, I decided that I wasn’t going to fly any longer. My parents were living in the US at the time, and I had been travelling on flights to the US and South Africa a lot, with my son, to keep up with family and for him to have the connection, but in 2007 I decided, no more flying.

I haven’t flown since then apart from when my mum was very ill with cancer. Then I flew out for her death and her funeral. So it was a very difficult and interesting decision as to why I wouldn’t do it for my dad. It wasn’t because there was any bad blood or fallout, but we had kind of said our goodbyes when he was here last for his 80th and my 50th birthday. 

In 2012 when my son was 10 I got rid of our car. I just didn’t want to be part of this economy any more. I don’t want this to be part of my son’s world because it’s doing so much damage, to our generation and to my son’s generation. That was the turning point, when I started to frame it as wanting a better world for my son’s generation. 

For my father, a better life for his children was to show them the world, and give them opportunities so they can earn enough money to carry on seeing the world. But when it got to his grandchildren it got to the point where we can’t carry on like this, because we’re just going to fry our children. 

It is difficult, and it does splinter families. Not seeing your close relations does splinter families. I see them if they fly here, but I haven’t seen a lot of my family for many years. We converse a lot on WhatsApp, but the cousins don't know each other very well at all which is a shame. I grew up in an international family, with cousins all over the globe, and I knew them because I saw them every couple of years. So there are sacrifices if you aren’t going to do that.

My family has always thought I’ve been on the edge of sanity, and so did my old school friends! They think I’m slightly less loopy now because the evidence bears me up, but they do think it’s hard work. My mother used to say, why don’t you take the easy route, Philippa? And it is hard work. My brother thinks, just come on, it’s so easy to just fly.

I recently refused an invitation to go to the middle east to celebrate my godfather’s 90th. They had been so supportive of me at really difficult times in my life, so it was really difficult to say no. But I saw my godmother recently and she hadn’t flown for 50 years, until she was 80 and cargo ships could no longer take her, and I explained that I did look for a cargo ship to go over, but the lines aren't going to the middle east now. She was very non-judgemental, but I know it was a difficult refusal from me. I did explain why. But had they not been the lovely people they were, they could have got offended.

It’s difficult because it would be so easy to say, just this once. People call them love miles. 

I did slightly battle with the fact that in 2014 and 2016 I went to see my mum in Johannesburg with my son. What was it about my dad that I wasn’t going to show those ‘love miles’? It wasn’t anything about my dad, because I loved him as much as my mum. But I thought, what am I going out there for?

At some point in your life you have to make the choice between the generation that’s passing and the generation that’s coming in.

Find out more about Philippa on Twitter: @cyclethecity

Listen to the full episode here and find other episodes and previous series here.


Interview conducted and produced by Anna Hughes. Voiceover: Lou Millington. Intro music: Call to Arms by Aaron Paul Low. Outro music: First Action Hero by Aaron Paul Low.