The Fallacy of the Local Bar: Individuals Often Travel to Get Drinks

January 17, 2024

Individuals travel beyond their residential neighborhood and area of work to bars, but tend to travel to liquor stores closer to home, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the Monash University School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine. The findings are published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review.

“Our study aimed to characterize individuals’ trips to alcohol outlets and describe these trip locations in the context of the mixed results we have seen from previous studies on alcohol outlet density and consumption,” said Christina A. Mehranbod, in the Department of Epidemiology, and first author. “Understanding where people travel to access alcohol outlets, like bars and liquor stores, is essential for understanding the environments to which people are exposed and ultimately influence decisions related to alcohol consumption.”  

Using 2014-2018 household travel data from the Victoria Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity from Victoria, Australia, the researchers categorized trip origins and destinations by 10 place types, by total trip distance and duration, and by geographic location as well as transport mode, and other personal and household level variables including age, and income, among others.  

People were willing to travel to a bar go farther than the distance and time they were willing to travel to liquor stores. Among 23,512 respondents, 378 or 1.6 percent traveled 18 minutes and approximately 5 miles to visit a bar versus the 79 study participants, or 0.3 percent for a liquor store purchase. Bar trips added slightly over 5 miles and 18 minutes to cumulative travel; 41 percent attended bars co-located in participants’ home local government area. 

“Trips to and from liquor stores were shorter and quicker than trips to and from bars,” observed Christopher Morrison, PhD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School, and senior author. 

One-one-way trips to liquor stores had a mean distance of 3.4 miles and took 12.2 minutes, but these trips added slightly less than 3 miles and 8.9 minutes to the cumulative travel distance over the full day. “We attribute this variation because trips to liquor stores are commonly part of complex trips involving multiple stops,” Morrison noted. “Additionally, trips to liquor stores are part of more complex daily journeys — for example, it can be a stop between someone’s workplace and home. Also, people might travel farther for unique bar experiences but proximity influences liquor store purchases.”

He added, “This finding highlights the fact that alcohol outlet placement potentially affects populations well beyond the neighborhood in which outlets are placed.” 

In addition to describing where people travel to access bars and liquor stores, the research team also tested the impact of alcohol outlet density on trips to alcohol outlets. In sync with other literature, Morrison and the team found alcohol outlet density to play a role. 

“With alcohol consumption continuing to take a considerable toll on public health, we believe that refining the scientific methods for measuring exposure to alcohol outlets that may influence decisions to consume alcohol remains a research priority,” said Mehranbod. 

Co-authors are Ariana Gobaud and Brady Bushover, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health.  Christopher Morrison is based at Columbia University and has an adjunct appointment at Monash University.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (AA031193, AA026327, AA029112), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (DA031099), and the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CE003094).

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