Relevant poetic wisdom.
We’d all love to help make a better world, if only it weren’t so much time and trouble.
We’d all bike to work if it didn’t seem so difficult, or take a train if the station were only a little closer to our home, or hop on a bus if the route weren’t so circuitous. Even when we sincerely want to change, we run into the intention-action gap.
Despite the strong link between driving alone and environmental problems, from climate change to asthma-inducing pollution, we cannot wean ourselves away from our love affair (or is it codependency?) with cars. As a study of Canadians by Emily Huddart Kennedy and colleagues concludes, despite widespread concern for the environment, individual behavior tends to maintain old, damaging habits.
What makes it so difficult, even for those of us who care about the environment to give up our incessant car trips? In Kennedy et al’s study, “72.3 percent indicated that they were prevented from doing what they feel is best for the environment.” Indeed, the kind of change required for a sustainable future means moving beyond the model of individual consumers making choices, argues Michael Maniates, a Professor of Social Science and Head of Environmental Studies at Yale NUS College. We need to define ourselves as citizens first.
Clearly, individual commitment is not enough. Beyond our own concerns, at least two elements are crucial for sustainable transportation: whether we are around a community that embraces and supports transit, biking, and walking, and whether the infrastructure is in place to make it safe and convenient.
It’s all about attitude
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A meta-study of bicycle commuting by Eva Heinen, Bert van Wee, and Kees Maat shows contradictory findings from a hodgepodge of studies, primarily in the United States and Europe. Illuminating the difficulty of understanding all the converging factors when humans make decisions, the article concludes that, “When it comes to mode choice . . . ‘attitude’ appears to be one factor that has particular explanatory power.” While infrastructure is, of course, important, it always works in concert with community beliefs, both to support its justification for being built in the first place, and then to actually achieve widespread use.
Infrastructure works in concert with community beliefs: both to justify it being built and then to achieve widespread use.
Unfortunately, cracking the “attitude” side of the equation is difficult, and many localities attack the problem in only a cursory way, with minimum branding and advertisement. As Huddart et al point out, “many government bodies take the ‘if-you-build-it-they-will-come’ approach to overcoming these constraints—creating infrastructure using very little public involvement and rarely offering forums for feedback once services are established.”
It takes a community—with many social groups working together over time—to plan, build and use a sustainable transportation system. Absent that, a few individual stragglers may choose to bike over dangerous roads — or take convoluted bus routes — to work, where they are looked upon as eccentrics. However, the overall environmental impact of their actions will be negligible.
It’s all about community
Expecting individual decisions to move the needle on sustainable transit plays into the biases of our consumer society, but is a fool’s errand. As one recent study by Matt Biggar and Nicole Ardoin argues, “personal variables, or internal factors, are important, but not sufficient when addressing environmental behavior.”
Examining five individuals in San Francisco, the study shows the crucial role of social connections in translating intentions into actions. One person faced resistance to bus commuting from his wife; another was called “ridiculous” by her circle of friends when she tried to carpool. Not surprisingly, these two were less successful at translating their sustainable transportation intentions into actions.
By contrast, those who received strong social support easily switched to sustainable transportation. One was touted as “awesome” when she biked to work, while another felt a growing sense of community as he got to know his fellow commuters on his daily train ride. As Biggar and Ardoin conclude, “Social conditions seemed especially related to whether each individual in the study regularly engaged in sustainable transportation.”
Beliefs and norms are crucial for stimulating wider and deeper change.
Beyond immediate family and friends, the beliefs and norms of the surrounding society are crucial for stimulating wider and deeper change. Individual gratification is not enough, particularly in a culture in which, Heinen, van Wee, and Maat find, “People’s attitudes towards car use are generally more positive than people’s attitudes towards cycling.” A society, or social niche, that finds bicycles cool and satisfying will outperform one that sees a fancy car as an icon of success.
Individuals are weak, society is strong
Shifts in attitude must precede shifts in daily habits, and in infrastructure, to create real change. Biggar and Ardoin conclude that “stimulating pro-environmental behavior requires shifts in the organization of everyday life through negotiating and transforming social practices.” This means widespread social change in how we perceive ourselves. For Maniates, today’s “Americans seem capable of understanding themselves only as consumers who must buy ‘environmentally sound’ products.” Our individualist, atomized society is unlikely to make a full shift to sustainable transportation.
Maniates rejects the idea that technological change, together with some consumerist nudges, such as recycling, will be nearly enough. Rather, he sees “citizen-based political action” as the only route to deep social and institutional change. The intention-action gap thus extends far beyond individuals deciding whether to drive, bike, or take the bus. It extends beyond small communities on daily train commutes. It depends on wider social and political mobilization to develop a culture and infrastructure that encourages daily use of trains, buses, walking, and biking.
This article is from our new series exploring the connections between behavioral economics and transportation. This week, we’ll be breaking down behavioral economics research to understand why people make the transportation decisions they do – and how we can build a transportation network that works for everyone.