How Will We Ever Get People Out of Cars?

CC BY 2.0. Michael Gaida on Pixabay

Researchers looking at the question come up with some good ideas.

When I recently wrote that this was the decade of the bicycle, a commenter wrote, "You can pound out article after article, bike lane after bike lane, safety facts, health benefits, but it will never get beyond a minuscule percentage of users." People are hooked on their cars. A recent study and article in the Harvard Business Review confirms this; titled Why It’s So Hard to Change People’s Commuting Behavior, Ashley Whillans and Ariella Kristal describe how they tried to get employees at a European airport to give up cars and try alternatives like bikes, transit or car-pooling.

They interviewed dozens of the 70,000 people working at the airport (that's a big airport, not a typo!) and designed a series of experiments to nudge them to change their ways.

We focused on behaviors employees told us that they wanted to engage in. For example, we knew that these employees wanted to carpool: They told us that they would carpool if they could find someone with a similar route and shift pattern.

So they played matchmaker, matching employees and offering benefits to people who pooled.

Despite employees’ stated interest, however, fewer than 100 employees signed up for the carpooling service after receiving our letters. Only three employees were using it a month later. There was clearly a mismatch between what employees said they wanted and what they were able or willing to do.

They tried other nudges: free bus tickets, customized travel plans, but nothing changed peoples' behaviour, even though they said they wanted to find better ways to commute. They concluded that none of the nudges worked, because:

1) the employees got free parking, so were not paying the full cost of driving;
2) taking transit or car-pooling is "less convenient for an individual commuter";
3) "these approaches required changing a habitual behavior, which is notoriously difficult to change."

The solutions that the researchers come up with will be blindingly obvious to anyone who has been looking at this issue in the past few years, but perhaps being in the HBR they will have a new audience. Or perhaps, they have dumbed down the paywalled study for the HBR audience, but it sure seems to me that we have heard these ideas before:

Make the full cost of driving salient for employees: Avoid subsidizing parking or other infrastructure that masks the full cost of driving to work alone. This does not just mean taking away free parking; it could also involve giving employees the monetary equivalent of parking as a bonus, and then allowing employees to choose to use the bonus to pay for a parking spot or to keep the cash and choose alternative modes of travel.

Um, really, this has been known for years; Donald Shoup wrote the High Cost of Free Parking in 2005. Everyone who drives gets vast direct and indirect subsidies, yet drivers continue to get free parking while transit fares go up every year. Where I live, drivers get benefits every day in every way; if you steal a parking space you get fined $40; if you steal a bus fare you get fined $400. In the US, Joe Cortright reported that all taxpayers subsidize drivers about $1,100 per year, over and above what they pay in gas taxes, tolls and other user fees. This actually encourages demand; Cortright writes:

..the huge subsidy to car use has another equally important implication: because user fees are set too low, and because, in essence, we are paying people to drive more, we have excess demand for the road system. If we priced the use of our roads to recover even the cost of maintenance, driving would be noticeably more expensive, and people would have much stronger incentives to drive less, and to use other forms of transportation, like transit and cycling.

The next suggestion from the researchers:

Make driving harder, and make other forms of commuting easier: By making driving and parking less convenient (e.g. cut the size of parking lots in half; provide remote parking lots for those who drive alone, compared with parking next to the front door for those who share rides), you can enhance the convenience, safety, comfort, and cost-savings of other modes like carpooling. More substantial cash and non-cash incentives could also be used to motivate riders to shift their commuting behavior from driving alone to taking public transit.

My goodness, why didn't anyone think of this before?!! Let's close those parking lots, convert on-street parking lanes to bike lanes, paint dedicated bus lanes on every street, stop widening highways, who could object to that? Given that the researchers note that people said they really want to drive less, surely they would all support this.

I am sorry, I shouldn't be so facetious and critical; these are good points. That's why we all have been making them for years. And after all, the researchers conclude:

Of course, employees do not like organizations restricting choices, or taking away benefits like parking. But the long-term health and happiness of employees, and the planet, could fundamentally depend on it.

Yes, we at TreeHugger say the same thing all the time. The health and happiness of the planet depend on this. Somehow our nudges never seem to make a difference. Perhaps if they are in the prestigious Harvard Business Review, they might.