Hard wiring sustainable behaviour into transport system design

What is sustainable travel behaviour?

Whether it be more bus passengers, less car travel, purchasing a zero-emission car, or supporting thriving local towns where people walk and cycle for more of their travel, a common refrain is that society needs to support a major shift in behaviour towards sustainable travel.

Sustainable travel involves a delicate balance between economic, environmental, and social factors which are best resolved with people and business at the point when they make key choices affecting travel. Too often behaviour change goals are promoted in transport plans as little more than greenwash to cover the cracks in unattractive sustainable transport supply.

How can individual behaviour change, social change and public investment be better aligned to achieve sustainability?

Designing behaviour change promises socially

The Scottish Government's June 2022 progress report and delivery plan on the implementation of the 2020 National Transport Strategy highlights the need to "deliver a step-change in behaviour and provide attractive, affordable, accessible and sustainable travel options". The 2020 strategy made a commitment to reduce car kilometres by 20% by 2030 which has been widely praised, but what detailed approaches will be needed to deliver the change, recognising that the last 30 years of sustainable transport policies have failed to reverse the growth in car travel demand?

A 20% reduction in car kilometres in eight years implies massive economic and social change. If people travel less and spend money in different places, the viability of many of the county's largest businesses may be threatened. Nobody should expect that the beneficiaries of current travel patterns will accept their demise without a battle.

As part of the competition to influence people's purchasing behaviour, eye watering sums of money are spent on behaviour change, so if we want sustainable travel behaviour change programmes to be more than greenwash, they must be far better integrated into the big budget programmes of retailers, businesses, and other partners.

Avoiding unintended consequences

When seeking to influence attitudes and behaviour, the message, delivery, and timing of the interventions must be carefully designed. Faced with information overload people have become increasingly skilled at shutting out messages that do not fit their personal preferences, and behaviour change programmes that miss the mark harden attitudes against sustainable travel.

Far too much sustainable transport marketing speaks only to the converted, who hear a view they like and listen more, but for others these approachesĀ can reinforce the misconception that change is not practical. When people receive suggestions for practical sustainable travel behaviour choices through trusted agents such as schools, employers, clubs, societies and retailers, broad system design aims can be built in more effectively.

Measure what you value, or you will end up valuing what you measure

The latest progress report on implementing the national strategy in Scotland has not yet assessed progress against the headline behaviour change commitment, but a monitoring report was published alongside the progress report describing the calculation of several indicators which are considered to represent the availability of sustainable travel options.

These largely make use of longstanding statistical series, with the data being republished as indicators of performance, rather than simply statistics to monitor change. For example, neighbourhood statistics showing who lives within walking distance of local services such as GPs and grocers "20-minute neighbourhoods" are now packaged as indicators of performance. Could the new performance indicators unintentionally replace the headline policies in shaping practical implementation?

A new more social narrative on travel behaviour change

People will only buy into radical travel behaviour change if transport authorities buy into a new smarter eco-system. The Institution of Civil Engineers April 2022 review of system design approaches identified what went right and wrong with the Crossrail project in London, suggesting future delivery of outcomes should be managed progressively, enabling users to receive some benefits much earlier, whilst reducing complexity and risk.

That type of thinking will be needed across all transport implementation, so that users have the confidence to make changes in behaviour step by step. Social leadership in 2022 requires more dynamic methods, which build on the traditional strengths of government in stability and authority, with new frameworks for the business eco-systems within which to resolve the fast-changing world of technology, climate change, identity, ethics, emotion, supply chain responsibility, and changing social values.

Managing relationships between citizens, consumers and transport providers must be a key part of not only large rail projects but every transport service.

Providing people with the support they need

To achieve better outcomes, transport authorities must work systematically to overcome all barriers to behaviour change. Behaviour change goals must always be contestable, managed within systems where support for inclusive, equitable sustainable approaches is built into each separate choice. The cost of living crisis is very largely a sustainability crisis since it has been our failure to adopt sustainable development policies fast enough that has resulted in unaffordable living costs.

New more sustainable charging structures for transport can become part of the solution only when travel behaviour change becomes part of transport system design, not something imposed on poorly designed systems to greenwash over the cracks.

Derek Halden is a director of DHC Loop Connections and is secretary of Scotland's transport think tank STSG