Behaviour change and travel demand reduction – the Lords are listening?

25 May, 2022

Noel Cass

Reading time: 8 minutes

At a recent discussion at the House of Lords’ Environment and Climate Change Committee, Jillian Anable focused on the difficult, systemic rethinking of transport that is required to achieve swift reductions in car mileages.

On 16 March 2022 Prof Jillian Anable, lead of the CREDS Transport & mobility research theme, gave oral evidence to the House of Lords’ Environment and Climate Change Committee, as part of their investigation into Mobilising action on climate change and environment: Behaviour change.

Her invitation followed from a written submission to the call for evidence from the High energy consumers team in CREDS, in January. Experiencing the excitement of giving evidence to (amongst other peers) the Duke of Wellington(!), other invited witnesses in this session were Chris Boardman representing Active Travel England, and Stephen Edwards from Living Streets. The discussions highlighted the different approaches that can be taken to ‘behaviour change’ in transport, and to the need to reduce travel demand. While the other witnesses rehearsed well-known and decades old arguments for replacing short urban car journeys with walking and cycling, Jillian pulled back the focus to the difficult, systemic and transformative rethinking of land transport that will be required to achieve serious and swift reductions in car mileages.

Due to the other witnesses’ expertise in, and focus on those shortest journeys that could potentially be shifted to active modes, they suggested a suite of ideas, including e.g. the need for lower speeds and no cars around schools, and crossings on every side street, in order to reduce the fear of walking and again, encourage walking to school. Jillian in contrast argued that far too much policy attention has been placed on short journeys (under 5 miles), which only make up less than 20% of miles driven:

Just the top 3% of trips are responsible for a third of all the miles that we do […] medium trips of between five and 35 miles eat up the vast majority of car travel. We do not target those. They are mainly leisure and personal business, not commutes. They are difficult to target by active travel and are often difficult to target even by public transport […] We have to stop focusing on these short individual trips because they are not as important to the carbon agenda as the time we spend talking about them.

Chris Boardman disagreed with this, arguing that “people who stay local and who are comfortable staying more local are less likely to make the longer trips that cause the wider damage.” This is largely true of people in dense urban areas, but only when air travel and its greater climate damage is excluded from analyses. The focus on school walks and shorter journeys being replaced by active modes, Jillian suggested, ignored the main variable that changed in the Covid-19 pandemic:

Safety is not in the abstract; the perception of things not being safe is because there is too much traffic on the road […] One of the main reasons that those modes increased was not because we built temporary cycling infrastructure; it was because traffic levels went down.

Rural travel

When a question was asked of rural travel, there was less for these witnesses to say, but Jillian again challenged a dominant assumption that it is ‘deep rural’ journeys that are the prime concern:

Putting services back into places where they have been stripped out […and] e-bikes have huge potential in semi-rural areas and market town areas […] The highest car mileage is in those types of places, not the deep rural areas, because they do long-distance trips infrequently. The market towns do medium-distance trips all the time.

This, she said, also requires thinking “about long-distance cycling networks, putting cycle paths alongside trunk routes”, something which is successfully taking those sorts of largely-ignored journeys away from cars in Denmark and the Netherlands.

Beyond the focuses on different travel modes, geographies and trip types, more fundamental differences in approach were also clear, relating to the very concept of ‘behaviour change’. For Chris in particular, along with infrastructure changes such as crossings, speed limits and cycle paths, the central challenge was winning over hearts and minds, with win-win descriptions of alternatives to the car, rather than ‘negativity’:

I am a big fan of, rather than telling people what they cannot do and taking things away, giving people alternatives […] human beings will do the easiest thing […] Easier might be cheaper and it might be more reliable. It might be quicker. There have to be benefits for the individual. Our focus should lie in creating easy alternatives.

In contrast, Jillian stated that “the main thing that puts people off using the bus is that the services are not adequate for them”.

Large cars and SUVs

On the issue of SUVs and their increased weight and engine sizes undoing the progress made in engine efficiency and electrification, Chris felt the answer was “making that less acceptable or charging people and using that money to reverse some of the damage they cause […] Do not tell people they have to stop driving cars; give them a way to have fewer cars and drive less often and we will get where we need to be in an effective way”. In other words, he reinforced the dominant view that people can and should be persuaded out of their (especially large) cars with more appealing alternatives and incentives; something that Lamb and colleagues (2020) call ‘carrotism’ – an unwillingness to consider sticks.

Jillian declared that “the large car phenomenon is a complete failure of regulation. We are not talking about conventional behavioural policy, […] It is a regulatory failure, full stop. We cannot do this through softly-softly types of consumer encouragement”. The dominant ‘behaviour change’ approach being based on influencing (market) choices has resulted, she said, in finger-wagging at consumers making non-‘smart’ choices. Rather than avoiding alienating drivers, Jillian pointed out that as our CREDS research has highlighted, deliberative processes (such as climate assemblies and our deliberative workshops) instead enable people to discuss the collective problems and collective changes that everybody needs to accept, with the result that:

They see quite constraining policies being much fairer given that they want to see that everybody has to do their bit. You get to a point where you can have some constructive conversations about some policies that are often taboo, things like frequent-flyer levies, road pricing or road closures, which affect everybody.

Further questions from the committee echoed another axiom of the ‘behaviour change’ policy agenda, that information and awareness leads to behaviour change and smarter choices. Jillian suggested that the public are more insightful themselves, in seeing a disconnect between information and advice, and the borader information environment, and apparent lack of agency and action from others and the government: “we have national campaigns that tend to focus on doing your bit. Among all that, we then have signals in the environment; when you walk outside your front door, nothing has actually changed”. She also pointed out that what information there is, is often not phrased appropriately to convey the seriousness of the most climate damaging ‘behaviours’:

When we give people carbon footprint data, it is often so unbelievably meaningless. People do not know what 1 tonne, 2 tonnes, whatever are in the abstract. They need to understand that an air trip to New York is the equivalent of the average person’s car travel for two years, for instance. Things need to be put in that kind of perspective.

In the summing up of key messages and recommendations for priorities, the clear water between the witnesses approaches again became obvious, between incremental change based on tried and tested interventions and more radical priorities and policies which address the key challenge: to attain absolute reductions in car emissions. Stephen stressed as ‘number one’ priorities zebra crossings, cycle lanes and pavements, to address a specific behaviour change – walking to school – along with planning changes, road and workplace parking charges. Chris stressed his organisation is key, for expertise and advice, the training of local authority staff, and statutory consulting.

Jillian pointed out that local interventions are necessary but not sufficient. The Dutch cycle locally in huge numbers, but still drive as much as we do. This means, she said, that “everything […] needs to be done within the context of an agreed car-use reduction target […] That is the ultimate goal.” The tools required include: “switching space from car to other modes”; fiscal measures including local levies, parking charges, eco-levies, so that local authorities have revenue funding; investment in car clubs and car-sharing; developing an e-bike market and associated infrastructure; and funding demonstrations “at the strategic area-wide level of ‘this is what it could be like if you built a city that is designed around not owning a car, so that you do not have to own a car’. That is what we need.”


In summary, the questions of the committee and the different ways in which they were answered highlighted problems with the dominant ways of thinking about policy-making, travel demand reduction and the role within this of ‘behaviour change’, considered too narrowly as encouragement and discouragement, carrots not sticks, and a reluctance to engage with all (and particularly the most powerful) available tools of governance: regulation, structural change, and direct investment. These issues were covered in more depth in our written submission of evidence to the committee, in which we used evidence from our research to back up several of the points made by Jillian in the hearing. We hope that the committee takes to heart the need for more transformative and visionary government actions to achieve absolute reductions in car use, overcoming the reluctance in government to move beyond a reliance on persuasion and ‘consumer choice’.

Banner photo credit: Mangopear Creative on Unsplash