Can people travel sustainably?

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 16th September 2021 by Anthony Smith.

“I don’t think we’re very close to being sustainable when it comes to transport at all.  It’s all about convenience, if the world doesn’t change, then how is it feasible to walk everywhere….”

This is the view of one transport user in a group we spoke to.  But it’s not an uncommon view.

So how can we achieve the Government’s aspiration to “the same things differently” in its recent Transport Decarbonisation Plan.

There are as many as 87 commitments in the plan to encourage a shift to cleaner and greener transport.  Many commitments will require people to think differently about the journeys they make.  For example, one ambitious commitment is that half of all journeys in towns and cities will be walked or cycled by 2030.  For some transport users that will be very challenging.

Many commitments will require investment in infrastructure and policy measures that Government and industry can deal with such as shifting to electric forms of transport, planning our communities differently, incentivising cost of different types of transport.

But, as we have seen with the advent of electric vehicles, getting the infrastructure right is important.  The user perspective must be at the heart of its development from the start.  Our insight about EV use has shown that while the driving experience is enjoyable and running costs are cheaper, there are many practical as well purchase cost barriers. The experience is just not easy or convenient enough yet for many people to consider use them in significant numbers.

How ready ae people to think differently about their journeys? What do they understand about sustainability? Do they care? Does it influence their transport decisions? We talked to people in focus groups to find out more.

People think about sustainability beyond transport, but they find it a vague concept and difficult to take action because if it.  As an environmental problem, plastic pollution is seen as more tangible and easier to respond to.  Many of the issues seem beyond their control and more in the court of industry and government to solve.  Confusion was identified by one participant:

“To summarise, I’m pretty much confused by everything.  I want a Ferrari, but I want to slow down Earth’s temperature increase.  I want my drink in a cheap tough bottle, but I don’t want to harm turtles.  I want a nice warm house but don’t want to pay increased charges for sustainable energy.  I want my cake and eat it.  Hope, the next generation will make a better job of it.”

For some people the issues are just not a priority for them – their lives are simply focused on other things.

“Sustainability is being pushed on us but it is not an important consideration for me -I’m not ashamed of it.”

In an era of strong tribalism, sustainability can be linked to identity.  The type of people associated with sustainable behaviour are not necessarily ones they identify with themselves and could even repel them from taking better action.  This issue has been brought into stark focus in London and other places where battles have been drawn on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.  One social media post referred to those reducing traffic and promoting cycling in one such scheme as the “Yaks milk latte brigade”.  Perceptions matter.

We also found that, other factors are more important drivers of transport behaviour.  Cost and convenience have always been high on passengers’ agendas.  People see sustainable transport as expensive and inconvenient.  Although, positively, people do see the benefits such as to of health, air quality and the quietness of electric vehicles.

While the Government’s approach is that it doesn’t want to stop people doing things, people do feel that they might have to sacrifice something.  And when sacrifice is put into the equation for them, it seems an uphill struggle.

“It’s hard to behave ‘sustainably’ because I’m used to travelling by air and car and it’s hard to commit to sacrificing this.  It’s really hard to not act selfishly – especially when it feels that my personal contribution isn’t making any difference at all.  It’s really easy to get discouraged when you see bigger contributors to climate change and pollution not taking enough action themselves.”

An awful lot needs to happen with transport – as well as other areas of our lives – over the next ten or twenty years to achieve net zero.  Drawing on our findings, here are some interventions in transport that could help.

  • Identify solutions that have a minimal impact on the individual but a high impact on reducing carbon emissions (and not the other way round!).
  • Help people measure the impact they are making through their changes so they can see what they are
  • Find ways of promoting change that avoid negative (for some) identifies and that also have other benefits.
  • Governments (local and central) and industry need to lead the way to show it is possible.
  • Businesses need to innovate so the public can see that change is possible.

The overall conclusion is that for people to do things differently it will be challenging for most unless their attitudes and practicalities are considered.  So the user must be at the forefront in the design of policies and technological changes.

About the Author

This post was written by Anthony Smith. Anthony Smith is the Chief Executive of Transport Focus