Last reviewed 28 May 2014

There is valuable but under-publicised research to show that drivers are not as set in their ways as we tend to think. In this article, Ian Taylor draws out the lessons it tells us on how we can set about changing drivers’ habits.

Do you remember Armistice Day for “the War on The Motorist”? Well, in case you missed it, local government minister Eric Pickles officially declared on 3 January 2011 that the Government was at peace with drivers. But did the war ever exist? The tabloid press and the motoring lobby were certainly waging war against the Government, complaining vociferously about the rising costs of motoring. However, their gripe was based purely on fuel costs. In fact, the previous decade had seen the total cost of motoring, including car purchase cost, decline in real terms by over 10%, while the cost of bus and rail had risen by more than that. So the Government forces accused of mounting an assault had in reality been beating a retreat.

Taking an even longer view, right back to 1980, the total cost of motoring had declined 17% while both bus and rail fares had increased by 50% in real terms. That clearly was not a trajectory that would lead to more use of sustainable transport or do anything to help traffic congestion, local air pollution or climate change. But the Government ran scared, the motorist lobby won the war anyway and fuel duty increases for drivers were cancelled.

The irony is that the widespread, indeed global, environmental impacts of continued excessive car use impact upon the whole of society, so motorists themselves are also long-term losers.

A large part of the problem, of course, is that Britain’s politicians, even those that care about the environment, fear the electoral power of what they perceive to be a homogeneous mass of drivers who oppose all environmental measures. To make matters worse, they believe that most drivers have no option but to rely on their cars. In both respects, they are wrong, or at least the expert evidence paints a picture that is far more encouraging than they believe.

Is driving an intractable problem?

The pioneering research into what drivers think about driving and their willingness to drive less was done by Professor Jillian Anable (2005, “‘Complacent Car Addicts’ or ‘Aspiring Environmentalists’? Identifying Travel Behaviour Segments Using Attitude Theory”, Transport Policy 12:1 65-78). Its significance to the debate about how to curtail our car use is fundamental and it deserves to be much better known.

Her research found that drivers can be divided into four roughly equal categories that have different attitudes and different levels of attachment to their cars. She sums up her statistics by giving the categories in her typology of motorists catchy names and providing the cartoons reproduced here to help visualise the behaviour traits she found.

The first thing she found is that only about 20% of motorists are what she calls “die-hard drivers”. These people love their cars and have a deeply ingrained habit of car use. “Complacent car addicts” are a slightly larger category (28% of drivers) who, while not so attached to their cars, do not see any reason to use their cars less.

The largest category of drivers (32%) turns out to be “Malcontented Motorists”. This group find driving stressful and believe that they have a moral responsibility to drive less, but they do not manage to reduce their car use.

The final group is “Aspiring Environmentalists” (19%), who not only do not like car travel but are already making some efforts to curtail their driving because they perceive that car use has negative impacts.

What does this tell us about how to approach reducing car use? Two related strategic points are revealed that are useful to both political policy-makers and to change-makers within businesses who are seeking to improve their businesses’ travel profile.

First, there is the positive message that about half of car drivers are likely to be receptive to driving less if given better non-car options, better information about them and encouragement to use them. Or, to put it simply, about half of drivers can be persuaded to drive less using “carrots”.

This research finding strongly vindicates activities like the Department for Transport’s ongoing £600 million multi-year “Local Sustainable Transport Fund” programme. This programme combines improvements for the sustainable modes of transport — rail, trams buses, cycling, walking — with funding that backs up these improvements with information services and campaigns that alert people to their improved options and give them incentives to use them more.

The same message holds true for business managers or facilities managers who are implementing “workplace travel plans” to reduce the share of car journeys to a work site. With about half of employees, these travel plans can be said to be working “with the flow”, and this group of people are likely to change their behaviour in response to provision of improved sustainable travel options, good information about those options, and encouragement. This is why the first round of workplace travel plans knocked down car use to the sites in question by an average of 18%.

This big reduction was not achieved by introducing big changes. In general, workplace travel plans involve small and simple things, like better cycle parking on sites or slightly better bus services. But, and this is critical, these small improvements are backed up by a lot of encouragement and clear information about travel options. For this group, incentives will work and are well worth providing. These incentives do not necessarily need to be large to achieve results. Occasional free breakfasts laid on for cyclists, and loans to purchase season tickets or bicycles are the sort of things that work.

Second, there is the message that the other half of drivers will need “sticks” to persuade them to drive less. The sticks in question can be financial, legal or physical. The financial effect of the London congestion charge achieved an immediate cut in the number of cars travelling into central London of over one quarter, and the reduction has stuck ever since.

For a business, the equivalent stick is to introduce a parking charge on site, and this is now the norm at many workplaces. Some workplaces with full car parks use a functional equivalent to legal force, with permit schemes that disallow parking for every staff member on one chosen day each week.

What is needed to change travel behaviour?

So far we have just looked at drivers’ inclination to change to more sustainable ways of travelling. But aren’t most car trips irreplaceable? Surely most drivers don’t really have a choice? Again, the answer is not what most of us would think.

Most car trips are short — 6% are actually less than one mile. In many cases that means that it can turn out to be just as quick to walk. Nearly a quarter of car trips are less than two miles, which is a short cycle ride that would take less than a quarter of an hour. Over half of car trips are less than five miles, which means they are also cyclable for those so inclined and in many instances can be achieved reasonably easily by bus.

In fact, car journeys tend to follow what Lynn Sloman calls the 40-40-20 rule (Car Sick: Solutions for Our Car-addicted Culture, Sloman L, 2006). This means that 40% of car journeys have a safe and convenient alternative available already, such as a bus that travels at the right time or a safe cycle route; 40% require small changes, such as retiming of a bus service or a short new piece of cycle route; and 20% really do need a car, eg to go across the grain of the transport system or to transport an elderly relative.

However, it is not enough just to know this general pattern that more alternative options exist than is generally thought. Transport policymakers and businesses that are designing strategies to change their employees’ travel patterns need to understand the obstacles and choices that determine individuals’ decisions about particular journeys. Viewed at this level, two practical points emerge. First, it is crucial to appreciate that solving, say, three out of four obstacles that prevent an individual switching to a sustainable way to travel to work will not achieve change — all the obstacles need to be addressed. Second, it is important to address psychological and social obstacles as well as deficits in infrastructure, transport services or information.

When designing site-specific or area-specific travel change strategies, a tool we find valuable at Transport for Quality of Life is what we call a “millstones and lifebelts” analysis, as pictured here. This applies recent learning about the factors that govern behaviour to people’s travel patterns. The purpose is to ensure that all types of obstacle are addressed. So we see that people’s habits and the expectations of their social group of friends, colleagues and family can be an important hindrance to change.

These “close-up” issues form the two inner millstones. The third millstone is that people’s impression of other possibilities than the car may be incomplete. So, even where a convenient bus service or off-road cycle route is available for the journey in question, the person may not know it exists, and indeed may be absolutely convinced that there is no other option than the car. And the last, outermost millstone is the most obvious — in fact there really may be no suitable non-car options for that person’s trip.

So the goal for any strategy that aims to achieve travel behaviour change, whether for just one person or for a whole workforce, is to turn every millstone into a lifebelt that helps people travel in a sustainable way. The technique can usefully be applied separately to the initiatives needed to achieve changes to the different modes of sustainable travel or applied to different target population types.

As a general output, what becomes apparent is the need for a range of types of intervention to achieve change. So, deficiencies in the choice of travel options available requires spend of a traditional kind, such as capital spend on bus shelter infrastructure, better pedestrian links from the bus stops to the site in question, and revenue spend on better bus services. But this is not sufficient if people don’t hear about it, so there also needs to be provision of personally tuned information about travel options.

This is still not enough to overcome the barriers of habit and social norm. Creative and even zany activities can play a “breakthrough” role here. It is necessary to disrupt habits and create a new “social norm” among employees — a new corporate culture of travel. This should start at the top with the chief executive literally “walking the talk”, and from there downwards the aim should be to find ways to involve the whole staff base.

Do we also need a war on the motorist?

Excessive car use does not just result in the long-term problem of global climate change. It immediately brings us unpleasant, noisy, polluted, congested towns and cities. It stops our children ranging freely, severs communities and destroys ever-more of our vanishing countryside with tarmac and traffic. It contributes to increasing obesity and ill-health, kills 5 people a day in the UK and seriously maims 10 times that number. So a war on the motorist would intellectually seem to be justified.

However, the tendency, particularly glaring in Britain, for the car debate to become highly polarised leads to a do-nothing impasse that brings disbenefits to everyone, drivers included, sooner or later. This polarisation is not just unhelpful at the level of political “wars”, it is also a block at the level of personal behaviour change.

The almost-inevitable reaction when a person is asked about their car use is along the lines of “but I can’t give up my car”. This is a natural defensive response to a discussion that can feel threatening, but it has the effect of avoiding an essential debate. It is not a question of completely giving up cars, it’s a question of using them less. Everyone can use their car a little bit less.

This is a discussion that is crucial to the future of the environment and our society, but we are not having it to anything like a sufficient degree. Making the grounds of debate the many possibilities to use cars less is the key to the discussion being able to proceed. This applies equally, whether the discussion is between companies and their employees, or governments and their voters, or amongst families and friends.

In that context, perhaps it is well to remember two universal facts. First, we are all dependent on vehicles to some degree, even those that do not own one. Second, all drivers are pedestrians at other times. So the war on the motorist is also an internal conflict for us all.