SkillTurn a New Leaf: How to Change Behaviour

Turn a New Leaf: How to Change Behaviour

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

Initiating a high-impact project is one thing, but what good is it if no one participates? Convincing others to get onboard is about more than just handing them a list of benefits; it’s about changing often deeply ingrained behaviours. But where to start?

Commitment to sustainable concepts relies on an element of behaviour change. This ensures longevity long after the novelty has worn off. But asking people to amend their ways can seem critical, making them defensive and resistant. Although sometimes an in-your-face approach works, it doesn’t need to be confrontational. Here we bring together an arsenal of tried-and-tested tips collected from across CityChangers’ many mobility success stories to help you break the mould.

Identify the Barriers

Only by knowing why individuals sustain less sustainable habits can solutions be sought. Consultation is key, as is ensuring a cross-section of demographics is represented. We need to be flexible in our approach.

Parents, for example, struggle to attend sessions in the evenings and prefer to engage in informal venues than public sector settings. The elderly are reluctant to venture out after dark. Young people engage well online but are reluctant to attend open surgeries. There are unique challenges and benefits to effectively involving women, people of colour, and those with disabilities. Yet if marginalised groups feel heard, they are more likely to adopt the solutions designed for them.

Remember that barriers aren’t always negative traits. Drivers may endure hours stuck in traffic as a trade-off for the comfort, status, and autonomy of a car. The answers need to be the more attractive choice.

Think Big… and Small

There’s unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all answer for any community. See what’s worked elsewhere and diversify: the more choices residents have, the higher the chance they’ll embrace one.

Take the daily commute. A multi-modal network of an improved public transport infrastructure married with an interlinking web of bike lanes and safe walking zones caters to many tastes. This requires more planning, space, time, and investment, so don’t be shy to implement some quick-win options while the biggies are being developed.


Everyone wants to win. Fact!

Playing school classes or teams against one another works wonders. To the victor, the spoils: offer prizes and prestige to those who walk or recycle the most in a month. Then do it again, and again, and see the competition really hot up. Make smiles, wallets, and pride bulge with stickers, vouchers, or “achiever of the month” plaques.

Hands up anyone who had to jump aside as an out-of-control Segway laden with a tourist whizzed by. Innovation and originality draw in crowds, so get gadgety with e-scooter and e-bike hire to keep people out of their cars.

… and Disincentivise

As covered in our article about sustainable commuting, interest in carpooling schemes can quickly wane because it just isn’t as convenient as driving oneself. Change comes quicker when traditional trends are disadvantageous or removed altogether.

For example, alternative travel initiatives draw in the crowds when twinned with moves that make private commuting a pain: road tolls, congestion charges, and parking fees, to name a few. Other options suddenly become a lot more appealing. For the persistent offenders, their paid penalties can be used to finance further initiatives.

Cash or Culture?

Paying people to move to sustainable models has little effect. A cash allowance per KM cycled, walked, or bussed tends to reward existing habits rather than encourage new ones. The pay-out simply isn’t big enough to change behaviour en masse.

Culture change is behaviour change. A focus on improving lifestyles causes ripples. Mention working policies that bend to unconventional lifestyles and ears prick up.

Flexible work structures – such as split shifts, flexible hours, or working from home – alter attitudes and opens the labour market to those typically excluded from rigid systems, creating more inclusive work environments. Allowing the commute to become a leisure activity – a bike ride down leafy lanes or a nature-filled stroll – reduces dependency on car use, ushering in a healthier, more productive workforce and respite for the environment.

Peer Influence, Not Pressure

Good marketing campaigns speak to the gamut of a city’s people. Involve representatives who can bring specific insights that help you reach their communities.

When change begins, it starts a domino effect; someone is more likely to make a switch if they see a colleague do the same.

What’s cool for kids may be awful for adults. As seen in Calgary’s campaign to install its first permanent cycle route, it’s important to address different attitudes. Direct different messages at established social attitudes and norms. Use personal stories that residents can identify with. Avoid negative messages. Harvard Medical School identifies that we as humans are behaviourally more likely to respond to encouragement, and “long-lasting change is most likely when it’s self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking”. Don’t dwell on what is unsafe and unclean. People prefer to hear about how they can save time, money, and hassle rather than the potential threat to life and limb! Also, guilt-tripping is not becoming.

Strike At the Right Time

We’re more open to altering our behaviour when we hit a milestone, such as changing job or moving to a new city. It’s up to our peers, partners, employers, and politicians to encourage newbies to adopt local or organisational customs from the get-go.

Start Young

Establishing better behaviours at a young age is easier than changing later in life. Let kids see upcycling in action. Include energy efficiency in the curriculum. Encourage parents to make cycling to school the default option and improve health and concentration in the process – as an aside, rain-proof pathways prevent bad weather dropouts. This way, we can raise a generation for whom sustainability is ingrained in their psyche.

Children also have a special way of “up managing” a household, so family members are sure to follow suit.

How to Change Behaviour in a Nutshell

Change doesn’t need to be challenging. In fact, making it fun is proven to get results. Choice and consistent messaging provide the foundation for breaking and reforming habits. To maximise impact, action should be people- and benefit-focused, flexible, positively framed, and reinforced with incentives, diverse representation, and role models. Putting a few noses out of joint by frustrating traditional practices is an awkward but necessary step. By acting now, unsustainable lifestyles will have become outmoded within a generation.

Hungry for more? Check out this article about the soft factors that aid inclusivity and learn how societal expectations influence our behaviours just as much as infrastructure and landscape.

You Might Also Like