MobilityCar-FreeHow to Change Behaviour Around Personal Car Use: The Challenge

How to Change Behaviour Around Personal Car Use: The Challenge

Lauren McAskie
Lauren McAskie
I love talking to passionate CityChangers from around the world, hearing their stories and what drives their activism, then writing up guides for others to get inspired by. There's only one thing that could top a car-free city for me, and that's one made out of chocolate... but a girl can only dream. In the meantime, I'll work on making the first come true.

It’s a challenge in itself to know where to begin when trying to get people out of their cars. But maybe by looking at what the obstacles to greener mobility changes are, and with some advice from urban planners and activists around the world, we can understand more about why our auto attachment is so strong and where to really begin when trying to break it.

Getting people to use fewer cars has a lot to do with redesigning and repurposing city infrastructure to be more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. But simply closing roads to cars and making public spaces car-free doesn’t deal with one of the biggest key problems when it comes to getting people to ditch their cars – changing behaviour.

All the infrastructure and design changes in the world still won’t make a difference if cars are still considered the socially normal standard. So, what actually are the fundamental barriers to behaviour change away from car use, and what are the main obstacles to building less car-centric, pedestrianized cities?

Challenge 1: The Car as a Social Norm

Cars play such a big part in our everyday lives – to the extent that they have become a socially accepted norm and are now the most popular mode of transport and a matter of course in developed countries. Cars allow us to access remote places and travel long distances in shorter periods of time.

Cars are still hugely advantageous to us in this way, however over the last 50 years the problem has intensified as people have begun to use their cars more often and for shorter trips, resulting in widespread ownership of personal vehicles and increased journey times.

The fact that we are able to use cars with such ease and convenience has influenced our urban behaviour in many ways, particularly in terms of our shopping patterns and social interactions, which has now been solidified into city planning and infrastructure that prioritises private vehicles. The result: auto dependent cities and neighborhoods, air pollution, and a lack of space for people in cities. But how do we change that?

Internationally renowned City Planner and design champion Ludo Campbell-Reid said in an interview with us that “everybody wants to progress, but nobody wants to change, or really admit that behaviour change is a big part of successful city designs. We have to understand that cities are about human beings – and we should always be psychologists before we are architects or planners or engineers.”

Challenge 2: The Car as a Symbol of Status

Car usage over time has also evolved beyond simply being a way to get from A to B. Private vehicles have also become a symbol of status, and through decades of marketing and encouragement to own a private car – we now have a situation whereby people are greatly attached to them, seeing their car as an outward display of wealth and not a 2-ton hulking piece of steel that is having catastrophic effects for our health and urban space.

The key challenge is therefore getting people to think differently about cars, not just as shiny new toys and symbols of money – but to really see the negative consequences of their daily decisions to use private vehicles; with the objective now focusing on increasing awareness about the environmental implications of cars to change public opinion in a meaningful way.

Challenge 3: Alternatives Still Aren’t Easier or More Attractive

Another key part of the issue when it comes to creating car-lite cities is that cars are still the simplest, quickest and easiest mode of transport for most people.

Once cities are able to make using public transport, cycling and walking just as easy as driving – only then will we be able to see greener mobility becoming the norm. Not only should it be just as, if not more convenient, it also needs to be a safe and accessible alternative to all groups of people in society, including mothers and children.

There also still tends to be a lot of stigma and negative associations surrounding the use of shared transport. Often people, especially women, regard public transit as being an unsafe environment, and will often choose transport that is less convenient and more costly just to feel safer. 

Others consider it to be an unreliable mode of mobility, that is often overcrowded, overpriced and a hassle to use – which is also often unaccommodating and difficult to use for those with disabilities.

Getting people to change their behaviour will therefore come as a result of these stigmas fading over time, and by making alternative transport more attractive we will begin to see a change in people’s mobility choices.

Challenge 4: Key Groups Aren’t Engaged Enough In the Car-Free Movement

Another challenge to reducing cars is the fact that not enough is being done to actively encourage key target groups to not use them. Employees and commuters, for example, are a key group of people that often aren’t as involved as they could be by their workplace to use more sustainable transport.

See our article on How Employers can Encourage Sustainable Commuting for Employees for more detail on how to do this.

Likewise, children and young people are often neglected as a part of discouraging car use, often because they themselves cannot drive. However, the importance of educating children from a young age about the negative impacts of car use cannot be understated.

Sara Oritz Escalante from feminist organisation Punt 6 said that “in the curriculum of education we must think about educating for sustainable mobility. We must show children the negative aspects of using cars so that they can understand from a young age why we need to make good transport choices – and it’s something that’s not integrated enough.”

Likewise, young people who may not be so auto dependent also have invaluable insight into the behaviour and attitudes of other young people, that could influence the way future infrastructure is built.

Ellen de Vibe, architect and urban planner from Oslo elaborated that in getting rid of cars we must always listen to the younger generation. They tend to have a different approach to how they use the city – and can appropriate public space in ways that urban planners can’t. They know and understand the behaviour of other young people, so its really vital that we listen to them and understand their needs.’

Where Do We Go From Here?

Now that the main challenges to getting people to decrease their car use have been explained a little bit more, it might provide a bit more insight into the background of our auto dependency, and what the starting point is for wanting to change it. If you want to get more detailed information about how to get started with making your city car free, click here for more information.

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