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Encouraging Sustainability-Related Behaviours: Transport

Posted in Movements, Opinion, Research by Kate Archdeacon on July 8th, 2011

Source: Awake

Image: Richard Drdul vial flickr CC

Getting People from A to B: This is the second in a series of articles summarising research into efforts to encourage specific areas of sustainability-related behaviours.

There is little doubt about the benefits of reducing the amount of travel that people undertake in cars. Decreased traffic congestion and pollution, more exercise, and less need for expensive infrastructure investment are just some of the positive societal outcomes of more people choosing alternatives to private car travel.  For some people, driving is almost the only choice, such as where there are significant structural barriers. A lack of public transport infrastructure is an obvious example. However, for a large proportion of car trips, internal perceptions and motivations appear to be the main barrier. For instance many studies have shown that up to half of car trips are less than 2km in distance. It is these situations, where perception and motivation are the key barriers, which offer some of the best opportunities to increase non-car travel.

Those wishing to encourage more sustainable transport choices face a number of challenges. For a start, car use is a classic “social dilemma”. Social dilemmas occur where there is a clash between immediate self-interest and long-term collective interests. People generally gain a lot of personal benefit from driving their cars. The car gives them flexibility, speed, privacy and comfort, all of which are highly desirable attributes. By asking them to give up their car for the sake of such things as reducing pollution and infrastructure costs, we are asking them to act for the good of the whole community. The other option is to be able to demonstrate the personal benefits of the proposed alternative, to the extent that these outweigh the benefits of car use.

Which leads to the next significant barrier to car use – habits. It has been clearly demonstrated that transport choices are highly habitual. This means that they are behaviours which are undertaken repetitively, with limited decision processing each time. We decided a long time ago that this was the best way to get from A to B, and now we no longer have to think about it each time, instead just relying on a kind of unconscious autopilot to direct our behaviour. In fact, a study found that the stronger a persons travel habit is, the less time they spend examining information presented to them about different ways of travelling. As a result, even if the personal benefits of public transport rise considerably, people with a strong car habit are unlikely to seriously consider or even notice, as they are generally not consciously deciding on mode of transport. For example, an improvement in local public transport services may simply go unnoticed by those who are committed to driving. In a review of this subject, leading Danish researcher John Thogerson concluded that “due to the force of habit, decisions may be repeated even though important conditions have changed and made a non-chosen alternative more preferable”.

A third factor which works against the adoption of car alternatives is the gap between knowledge and behaviour. While providing information about the consequences of car use and possible alternatives can increase peoples awareness of the issues, this does not have a strong relationship with the likelihood that they will change their mode of travel. One particular study which attempted to change transport behaviour resulted in the following finding. “Some powerful methods of influence available in psychology were used: individually directed feedback, dealing both with environmental and financial consequences, self-registration, and commitment. Nevertheless, no change in actual transport behaviour was brought about. These measures proved insufficient to stimulate drivers to leave their cars. The car is too strongly linked to feelings of independence and convenience for that to happen”.

So we are up against some pretty significant barriers when it comes to convincing people to change the way in which they get around. Fortunately, there are some things which work.

Behaviours which are highly habitual require something to “unfreeze” them.

The provision of a free one-month bus pass was a tactic used in one study, resulting in a increase in bus use even after the free pass had expired. This and other studies have shown that, if a temporary change in the pay-off of the alternatives is significant enough to capture attention, it can be enough to stimulate the person to try the new behaviour. Although there are a lot of steps need to convert this trial into a new habit, the trial is an important step to breaking a habit and removing it from autopilot.

Another fruitful tactic for encouraging a change in transport habits is to target people in a state of transition.

Research in Germany found that people who had beliefs consistent with taking public transport were more likely to do so soon after moving house. The conclusion was drawn that, although these people thought public transport was a good idea, the force of habit had them driving to work from their previous residence. Moving house was enough of a change to cause them to reconsider their transport mode and thus create a new habit. A follow-up study, where newly relocated residents were provided with public transport information and a free ticket, yielded significant increases in public transport use.

Finally, positive results have been yielded by the Travelsmart program which is run in several states in Australia.

The program targets households in areas with strong potential for more sustainable transport use, and provides personalised advice and support aimed at removing informational barriers and misperceptions, and assistance in travel planning. The program has generally yielded positive and cost-effective reductions in car use, and increases in the use of alternative transport modes, especially walking and cycling. A review of the West Australian Travelsmart program was included in the highly publicised Garnaut Review, while a national evaluation can be found here.

There is no magic solution to the challenge of encouraging people to reduce their use of cars to get around. However, a combination of reliable alternatives, targeting and personalising of information, and incentives to give it a try seem to provide the most promise for a transition to more sustainable transport habits.

Article courtesy of Awake – “Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations. Visit for more info”