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How context, the environment and religion can affect (sustainable) travel behaviour

Fiona PannellIf we’re ever going to solve the problems of congestion, fuel depletion, climate change and associated health issues we need to change travel behaviour. A lot of the work we do at mruk revolves around understanding travel behaviour and how to get people travelling more sustainably.

This is what research is for; enabling understanding.  But understanding behaviour is far more complicated than simple questions and answers.

Take my own recent experience visiting Texas.  It’s a land made for cars, where people drive across a car park to get from one shop to another. A state that is sitting on large amounts of energy sources, with fuel less than half the price of UK where little thought is given to alternative modes of travel.

Fiona Pannell

Compare this to Britain, where public transport is popular and walking and cycling is encouraged. We’re bombarded with warnings about climate change, depleting energy sources and rising fuel prices, where we are encouraged to calculate the economic and environmental cost of every journey.

We know that the British and Texans behave very differently in terms of how they travel. But if we conducted a standard survey both nationalities would likely tell us that they take the fastest, cheapest mode. They will say that occasionally they walk or cycle because they know it’s good for their long term health. Why then, in Texas, where it is still cheaper, sometimes faster and where it is still better for health not to drive, do the vast majority of people still only ever drive?

While in Texas I did a bit of an ethnographic study, immersing myself with the Texas people and attempting to live the Texan way. From this I was able to understand where their travel behaviour comes from:

  1. The environment is not set out for walking: Few pavements, great distances between places, busy roads to cross, supermarkets where everything is bought in bulk……..
  2. The environment is set out for driving: Giant freeways, huge parking lots, cheap fuel……
  3. Taking public transport is seen as socially undesirable and is something only the poor do.
  4.  In Texas, Christianity plays an important part in most people’s lives.  They are more sceptical of scientific evidence pointing to man-made climate change, so less likely to be moved by environmental arguments
  5. “Everyone drives in Texas”.  Driving is the social norm and walking is not (unless power walking around the air conditioned malls)

I was able to uncover this information through methods that delved deeper than a simple survey on travel attitudes and behaviour. Typical surveys provide the expected, the socially desirable and the top of mind answer. To go beyond these we must use other research methods such as ethnography, observation and qualitative methods. In this instance these contextual methods provided environmental and cultural information which is evidently vitally important for understanding travel behaviour.

To drive behavioural change we need to understand our client’s audience holistically. Simply asking questions about attitude and behaviour is not enough. mruk has years of experience in travel behaviour, we know not only the attitudinal and behavioural questions to ask but also the environmental, societal and cultural questions. These allow our clients to understand the wider issues that need solving in order to change travel behaviour to be more sustainable.

Had we a sustainable transport client in Texas we’d advise them to start by tackling the social norm so that “everyone walks in Texas”.

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