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All in the mind?

Emma Mbabazi, PhD Student

Emma Mbabazi, PhD Student

Considering the scope for behaviour change towards less car dependency for the daily commute

Experts agree that the critical moment for reducing greenhouse emissions is rapidly approaching.

One of the main solutions suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a complete transformation of the energy sector.  The development of engines with low or no emissions and the use of new energy sources for transport were noted as a step in the right direction as far as reducing energy demand is concerned.  To be even more effective, such measures need to be combined with technical and behavioural mitigation measures in combination with investments in new infrastructure.  In other words, we need greener cars, cleaner public transport and people need to reduce their car use.  Changing people’s behaviour, however, can be a very complex matter.  In order to change the way people use their cars, we need to understand the reasons behind their behaviour.

My on-going research proposes a framework for considering the influences of our experiences throughout our life course on daily behaviour ingrained in our lifestyle such as commuting.  I believe we mentally enable or hinder our choices and by continuously behaving in a certain way we reinforce and justify those choices.  I propose that the process of reinforcing and justifying these choices involves a variety of background factors- attitudes, competences, situational constraints- that influence our travel script.

From the interviews conducted so far, such influences may take the form of childhood influences.  Some commuters reported being driven almost everywhere as children.  They felt that this dependence on the car had carried on into their adult lives and current commutes.  The location where people live also influences their commuting behaviour.  While it is obvious that location affects one’s commute distance and time, the real question is:  why do people choose to live where they live?  Some of the common reasons noted from the interviews are:  familiarity with the area, preference for more space for children and cost.  Related to location influences is the available infrastructure between the home and the work place.  Because we have frequent interaction with this infrastructure, it may heavily influence our attitudes towards different modes, for example respondents who grew up in rural areas tended to see the car as a symbol of freedom.  Edinburgh residents who lived at the edge of the city and whose work place was located at the edge of the city as well found it tedious to go into the city in order to come back out.  Changes in the household such as having children and the development of the family may influence location decisions, but may also impose time constraints that some commuters find difficult to handle without a car.

The reinforcement and justification of choices also involves mental effort.  When it comes to a behaviour change that could translate into a change of lifestyle, there is always a mental struggle either to keep the status quo or to change it.  Commuters who made the switch from car dependency to more sustainable modes underwent experiences that persuaded them to make the switch, for example, some noted how the desire to make the switch had been building up and an event such as the car breaking down, or change of job to one more accessible by bus was the nudge that was required to finally make the switch.

Commuters who used modes other than the car could be noted to have higher self-efficacy expectations in terms of their belief in the sufficiency of the chosen mode for commuting. For some, situations were structured to enable commuting by bus or bike. Some respondents noted wearing shoes and clothing that would make their wait at the bus stop more comfortable; a number of cyclist commuters have invested in cycling gear to enable cycling in all weather.  For others, a more stoic attitude can be detected.  One bus commuter spoke of having to “build an extra thing in your system” to enable one not to get worked up over negative factors associated with the mode such as waiting times and slowness of the bus.

A receptive mental disposition was noted as necessary to enable both the switch to more sustainable modes and the increase of efficacy expectations for these modes.  What is puzzling about it is the fact that some have it and others do not.  Is there something in their commuting life course that makes it easier for them to develop this disposition and hence have a more flexible travel script?  These are some of the questions I will investigate further in my research.

To find out more about Emma’s ongoing research, email her at [email protected]

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. JAINE #

    Congratulations hope to change my mind on this useful insight Emma the sky is the limit !

    July 22, 2014
  2. wonderful insight. Really enjoyed browsing this blog. Keep up the good work and to everyone keep on tweeting!

    July 25, 2014

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