Urban Mobility through the Lens of Behavioural Research

By Nichola Kent-Lemon

In an age of global urbanisation, population growth and climate change, it seems inevitable that our transportation infrastructures are reaching breaking point. We continue to buy cars in the name of freedom, independence and convenience but the polluted, congested, urban and suburban reality is increasingly difficult to ignore. Nerves are frayed, tempers are hot and transportation has a lot to answer for.

Freedom of mobility has empowered us to broaden our horizons and become the global community we are today. The stakes are high to ensure that we hold onto that freedom.

The battle to stay ahead of urbanisation and pollution is fierce, with new public transport links, increasingly compact cars, greater access to vehicles via sharing schemes, intelligent technology taking the strain of making and planning journeys and clean fuel solutions becoming increasingly viable.

However, the future of our mobility is far from certain; experts from across the globe agree that change is afoot, but the million dollar question remains – what will be the tipping point?

Predicting adoption of new behaviours represents one of the most challenging objectives for research. We must look to disciplines such as psychology to help us understand the multitude of variables that could play a part. Psychologist Icek Ajzen’s 1985 ‘Theory of Planned Behaviour’ (TPB) has proved a useful aid to predicting new behaviours for several decades. Put simply, the TPB asks three questions to determine the likelihood of behaviour change:

  • How achievable is the new behaviour?
  • How attractive is the new behaviour?
  • And how far will it be condoned by society and peers?

How achievable is the new behaviour? Can I do this easily?

The TPB is of particular relevance to behaviours that benefit wider societies because, unlike other popular theories, it takes into account the extent to which behaviours are perceived as achievable. This is important for behaviours that do not have immediate personal benefits, because, in most cases, these behaviours will only come about if they can be achieved relatively easily.

This is certainly true in terms of transport behaviours. Convenience is often the key determinant of how we travel so, if we want society to adopt greener transport solutions, we must make them as accessible and convenient as possible. Electric cars need the necessary driving range and available charging stations to make them a convenient choice, just as car sharing initiatives must have the fleet size, coverage and usability to ensure they are not just convenient but consistently convenient. Not only must the solutions themselves have convenience at their core, the infrastructures of our cities must keep up with and facilitate these innovations to make them truly relevant.

So, will progressive city infrastructures provide the tipping point for behaviour change? This must surely be an important contributor at the very least.

How attractive is the new behaviour? How much do I want this?

An obvious but important motivator for behaviour change is the extent to which a new behaviour is seen as an attractive option. The protagonist must hold a generally positive attitude towards the new behaviour – will the experience of the new behaviour be superior to the old and will the consequences of the behaviour be beneficial? On a personal level – will I save time or money? And on a larger scale – will society or the environment benefit?

The tipping point in terms of large scale change in the transportation landscape could potentially come in the form of a new transport solution that is truly superior. However, although an appealing idea, the complexity of our transport needs make a silver bullet solution unlikely.

Perhaps more importantly, across the globe our ‘car culture’ is deeply embedded and we are a long way from being ready to move on. Cars have come to represent so much more than a means of transport. They are:

  • A means of self-expression, displaying status, personality and taste
  • A facilitator of sociability, ready and waiting whenever required
  • A private personal and family environment, somewhere to escape to or to enjoy quality family time
  • An enabler of increasingly fragmented time-schedules, allowing parenting and work responsibilities to co-exist
  • Enjoyable, exhilarating and aesthetically pleasing

The emotional ties we feel towards cars and driving are often overlooked in the context of alternative transportation. From a rational perspective, alternatives may look attractive, but whether or not they can offer the same level of emotional payoff is another question entirely.

How far will the new behaviour be condoned by society and peers? What will people think of me?

Any behaviour change is always subject to social and cultural pressures. Therefore, the question of whether a new behaviour will be condoned by others is an important one – social disapproval can be a powerful force against change. This may seem an easy hurdle to overcome – surely adopting a greener, easier transport pattern is hardly something our peers could get upset about? Not so. The TPB looks at perceived social acceptability in two areas:

  1. Our normative beliefs; our perceptions of wider social norms and pressures and the extent to which they support a new behaviour
  2. Our subjective norms; the extent to which we believe that people important to us, for example, our partners, friends and family, will support a new behaviour

Normative beliefs will vary from one culture to the next and could be a barrier to adopting new transport solutions for any number of reasons; for example, if they require clothing or social interactions that are deemed inappropriate by certain religions, think cycling and car sharing. Some solutions may elicit disapproval simply for being unusual in a culture that values conformity, while others may give the wrong impression about the status of the traveller. After all, how we get around can often say a lot about how successful we are.

However, it is our subjective norms that will often present a bigger barrier to behaviour change. The opinions of our partners, close family and friends are shown to have a huge bearing on our choices. Driving smaller cars may, for example, provide access to restricted driving zones or lanes, reducing commuting time and saving money. However, pressure from partners and children to drive larger, more comfortable and luxurious cars will be a powerful deterrent.

Thus, transport solutions that cater to the needs of the traveller as well as to the expectations of peers and wider cultural groups could well be a catalyst for change.

So, what will be the tipping point?

Currently there are barriers to change in terms of travel behaviour from all angles of Ajzen’s ‘Theory of Planned Behaviour’. Alternative or progressive travel solutions available do not challenge traditional car ownership in terms of ease, accessibility, attraction (rational and emotional) or social acceptance to the extent needed to provoke large scale change. Change is piecemeal and isolated to specific areas which have the infrastructure to support new solutions.

However, the traditional car ownership model is certainly less relevant than it once was and it is clear that we are on a trajectory towards change, albeit a slow one. Perhaps the final piece of the puzzle will come in the form of the next generation of city dwelling travellers, a generation who value innovation, clever solutions and technology over ownership and display, spontaneity over planning and for whom congested city streets have always been the norm. For these customers, cars are unlikely to represent freedom in the same way they did for their parents and car ownership may seem too much of a long term commitment in a world of choice and constantly evolving technology.

Perhaps the tipping point will simply be the point at which increasingly accessible and attractive alternative transport solutions coincide with the coming of age of a generation with the right set of expectations and values to support behaviour change. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Nichola Kent-Lemon is Associate Director at Northstar Research Partners