Moving around differently: Changing transport behaviours and priorities in a challenging policy environment

July 22, 2021
Geoff Bates

Dr Geoff Bates, a Research Associate in the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath explores societies changing transport behaviours and priorities set against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the climate crisis. 

Current debates about overseas travel in the year of COVID-19 variants again brings the pandemic into the context of the looming climate crisis. Overseas travel inevitably means flying and the well-established contributions air travel makes to carbon emissions and other risks to the health of the planet.

Air travel accounts for around 3-4% of all carbon emissions globally, which may not sound that much until we consider that a minority of the world’s population make the vast majority of such journeys, and the number of these journeys is set to greatly increase in the coming decades. From a planetary and public health perspective, reducing air travel is clearly a wise move.

Of course, people need to fly for all sorts of reasons, and it is not feasible to ask that no one does so until we have developed low-carbon solutions. But the current debates about travel in a COVID-world offers another opportunity to consider how we might change how we think about travel, and to challenge priorities amongst policymakers and the public. Unsurprisingly our preference is usually to do what is most convenient, cheapest, and quickest to get us to the destinations we want to reach. Health and environmental impacts are less central to these decisions.

Willingness to change amongst policymakers

The French government recently acted towards banning certain short-haul flights that can be replaced by rail journeys, which shows some support amongst decision-makers in a high-income country to reduce the amount we fly. There is naturally a strong resistance to this sort of change. Our transport preferences have been ingrained and normalised over long periods of time, and in the case of car use, for far longer than flying. For many, making short journeys by car – to school, to work, to the shops, to our friends’ houses – is simply a habit, and habits are notoriously challenging to change.

The UK government have established their aims to end sales of new petrol and diesel cars in the next 20 years and bring about a shift to electric car ownership. While this will have benefits for air pollutants, it will not solve wider problems such as congestion, and road traffic accidents. Nor will it reduce non-exhaust particulate matter emissions that are associated with cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, which the OECD suggests may increase as a result of the switch to electric cars. Reducing car use as a whole, rather than type of car, therefore remains an important health and environmental priority, and requires large-scale changes to how we think about transport.

For the public, car use is desirable for reasons such as flexibility, journey time and cost – all of which contribute to the political difficulties in implementing policies that may restrict or disadvantage car use. Challenging our prioritisation for convenience in how we travel over the environment and health is no easy task and it remains to be fully seen what the political will is to act. That when the then Minister for Transport Robert Hayes presented the second reading of the Bill that become the Electric and Automated Vehicles Act 2018, the debate immediate turned to the “elegance and style” of vintage cars use may suggest that work may still be needed.

Changing transport preferences and habits

How feasible the introduction of new impactful policy restrictions on car use or air travel will be is difficult to say, and it is easy to point to all the reasons why it is unlikely. However, we are seeing policies like congestion zones spreading from London to other cities in the UK. This suggests that further change, such as reducing shorter journeys or car use within urban areas with viable alternatives, may be feasible in the future.

There have been hints however that the government may be preparing for a future with not only low carbon technology, but less car use. In March last year in the Decarbonising Transport consultation, Transport Minister Grant Shapps used his Ministerial Foreword to state “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less”. Shortly after, in Gear Change: A bold vision for cycling and walking the government went further and set a target for “half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030”.

The report highlights the need to create opportunities and conditions for cycling and walking that will clearly be important, alongside those to improve accessibility and attractiveness of public transport. New research by Possible highlights that even amongst those who are willing to consider alternative methods of travel, high train fares (within the UK and in international links) are a huge barrier to changing behaviour. It is difficult to see how a UK ban on short-haul flights akin to what is being implemented in France will (with no apologies for the pun) get off the ground while train fares for the same journey are dramatically higher than the cost of flying.

We need to reward options that support sustainability and the environment to make them more attractive than the alternatives we hope to reduce, but shifting this balance also requires action to reduce attractiveness of using cars and planes to have real impact and to avoid widening existing inequalities.

Growing public support for action

Public support will be critical in creating the policy environment needed to facilitate meaningful action and there are signs that this may be growing. Research by Sustrans in 2018 suggests there is public support (although in varying degrees) for measures to reduce car use such as in the vicinity of schools and residential areas, introducing car free days, and reallocating space on the streets to other forms of transport. The French restrictions on short-haul flights originated with (more drastic) recommendations by the randomly selected members of the public in the French Citizens’ Convention on Climate. Just last year, children-led climate strikes suggested that the younger generations are increasingly engaged in these issues and may be more supportive of the types of actions needed.

While not conclusive, these examples indicate a certain willingness to change and that priorities may be shifting. If the public continues to become more accepting of actions which restrict behaviours that contribute to climate change, and motivated to switch to sustainable forms of transport, then it becomes ever more important to make sure that the best possible alternatives to driving and flying are accessible to those that wish to change how they get around.

These are challenging and complex problems and changing long-reinforced travel behaviours and norms will require ambitious approaches that aim to bring change throughout society.

This piece was originally posted on the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR) blog