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news: Understanding Choice - The Battle for Sustainability

The car industry spends a small fortune, actually maybe it’s a large fortune, on understanding the people that buy its cars. This includes the choices they make and the relationship between those choices and the individual’s comfort, stress, convenience, status and self-esteem. Yes, cost is part of the decision-making process, but the dangle of a golden carrot can ensure that even those that find it difficult to afford such fine fare can find the money to buy the car to make their dreams come true (or so they believe!).

The increasing guilt of emissions is being successfully managed by the car industry where it feels like you can now actually save the planet by spending, even more, on a car that is electric…however it’s still a big heavy metal box that spends 90% of its time not moving and when it is moving (on average) it holds less than 2 people. Within our consumer-led aspirational society the car hits all the buttons and the sustainable transport advocates cower in the shadows as the big boys and girls take over the playground!

For us transport planners, choice is part of our vocabulary. Traditionally our approach has been to assume that people’s decision making around how they travel has been cost-based, both direct and in-direct cost included. This assumption appears supported when noting that cost of living increases have almost always led to a (temporary) change in how people travel. However, this is not an across the board reaction, but limited to those that have most acute cost sensitivity. The market for travel is wide, in fact its everyone, and the largest travel market, only 491 in every 1,000 people own some form of motorised transport in the UK (2019), are captive to non-car options.

Freight Traffic

When we talk about influencing travel behaviour to choose more environmentally sustainable modes we are not talking about the captive market. We may be talking about the marginal, most cost sensitive, market but importantly we must also consider those who have become entrenched in car travel and those being seduced by the allure of the car industry. In an affluent society cost is increasingly not the most important factor influencing how people travel. If the playground is to be reclaimed from the car, it is not the most cost sensitive that should be targeted, but those with more freedom to determine where their income is being spent that will lead the reclaiming of ground.

Steve Stradling’s excellent work in ‘Changing individual travel behaviour’, highlighted the importance of stress in decision making. To summarise, someone with the power of choice, will naturally seek to minimise the physical stress, the cognitive stress, and the affective stress they attribute to the choices available to them. In all instances, certainly in the Western World, the car wins!

Gustavo Petro quote

So, in these times of environmental consciousness and city-based policies that emphasise non-motorised modes and public transport, should we not be looking far more carefully at how people are making choices. Designing systems, not just vehicles, that meet those needs whilst remembering those needs relate to psychological as well as practical and financial needs.

Einstein famously said, “if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution””. Yes, we often feel we know the problem, but just how much do we understand the behaviour that is creating the problem, and when we enter that playground battle, are we as well equipped as our opponents. If in fact we were as well equipped, then maybe the future playground might be full of people and not dominated by metal boxes with their humans hiding inside with the satisfied grins of a choice both well made and apparently endorsed by society??


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