Things we’d rather not think about – part 2

Paul Campion, CEO of TRL, muses over the contribution of personal choices and personal transport habits as drivers for organisational change

Published on 16 July 2021

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In my last blog post I talked about how a report on the mobility sector’s experience of dealing with COVID-19 had made me think about how organisations are responding to climate change. I suggested that organisations, like people, are liable to fail to act on their own knowledge unless they have recent or repeated experience of the problems caused by a lack of action.

On a personal level Glenn Lyons of the University of West England has coined the phrase Cognitive Climate Change Dissonance to describe this gap between knowledge and action. (On this subject, as a non-transport aside, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “We are the weather” is a novelist’s take on personal agency and climate change which I can strongly recommend.) The truth is, on these topics, we find it very hard to change our behaviours, even though we know we cannot carry on behaving the same way.

TRL employs psychologists and other behavioural scientists but I’m not sure even they believe there is a clear or simple explanation for this syndrome. No doubt there is an explanation from evolutionary biology. I’m sure there is a strong social element to this: our behaviour tends to be strongly aligned with the behaviour of those around us and emotions of embarrassment, shame and our sense of our social standing all act to prevent (most of) us taking strong action unless and until ‘everyone else’ has decided to take the same action.

The challenge about looking at our personal transport habits comes from the collision of two fundamental facts. Transport is the single biggest contributor to the UK (and most developed nations’) greenhouse gas emissions so we have to do something about it but transport is a derived demand – pretty much everything we consume and produce involves transport but transport itself is, for the most part, simply a means to an end. Think of the journeys we each take; it is very rare that we take a journey for the pleasure of the journey itself, for the most part we are going somewhere for some other reason like commuting to work, taking the kids to school, going shopping, going to the pub, visiting our mums. In the same way everything we consume (food, clothing, leisure and all the rest) contains embedded transport – the pizza we ate in front of the tv last night was brought home from the shops, but before them was transport to the supermarket from the wholesaler, and from the manufacturer to the wholesaler, and the flour for the base got there from a farm and the seed and the fertiliser had to be trucked to the farm and so on and so on. This means that it can seem daunting, not to say impossible, to do much about our personal use of transport: it’s all locked into the way our lives are structured. Without moving house or changing school there is no alternative to the children travelling there every day (pandemic disruptions excepted, anyway.)

The story of the twentieth century is of greater transport use being slowly built into our lives. Todd Litman describes how improvements in speed and economics have enabled us to travel much greater distances on a daily basis than we used to. The average person in 1900 rarely travelled further than a walk or a bus ride from home: work, schooling, shops, pubs were all close to home and transport costs were not even a separate category of household expenditure in an analysis of the outgoings of a working class family from the time. Since then many things have become much, much cheaper (food, for example) but some of the money spent has been going on a dramatic increase in the distances travelled daily and the improvements in speed, convenience and safety have been used to separate ourselves from many of the goods, services and activities we rely on. An example many of us can relate to is road expenditure. Over the last fifty years many billions of pounds have been spent on improving the road network and the justifications for those schemes have been relied, to a large extent, on the time saved by the increased speeds possible. But we can see from the National Travel Survey data that people have not chosen to spend the time saved by working longer, or even in increased leisure. On average people spend the same amount of time each day travelling and they choose to use the extra speed to enable them to travel further in the same time. One scenario we can probably relate to is commuting: rather than spending more time at work, or even more time at home, perhaps people are choosing to live further from work where they can have a more affordable, or bigger house. Commuting is a small (c. 15%) component of total journeys but the same factors play to other reasons for journeys; if we drive further we can go to bigger shops with more choice and lower prices than the corner shop, we can live further from friends and family but still see them as much and so on.

So changing our personal transport choices feels like it is outside our grasp: everything is connected and decisions about where schools, jobs, hospitals and everything are out of our control. What are we to do? Well, we could rely on zero emission vehicles, surely? Of course removing greenhouse gas emitting vehicles from roads has to be part of the solution but there are a few catches. There is not currently enough sustainable primary energy generation to go around and the likely need to use hydrogen or synthetic of bio-fuels with their lower overall efficiency means that some transport sectors are difficult to decarbonise right now. Policy may need to be sharpened to hasten the transition to zero emission vehicles (hybrids are no more than a stopgap) and although the automotive industry has made good progress production still needs to be massively stepped up to enable the rapid changeover required. And the economics still contain some challenges. Even when these problems are solved (as they will be in time) the manufacture and servicing of vehicles has a carbon footprint and the use of vehicles creates other pollution (for instance even if nanoparticles from ‘diesel soot’ are eliminated those from tyre and brake wear will still create health concerns). And that is to ignore challenges like aviation for which technical solutions do not yet fully exist. In short it is hard to imagine a way in which a full decarbonisation of transport can happen in time: a sensible strategy needs to include both steps to decarbonise transport and plans to enable people to use less of it. As I have suggested above this will involve changes to the way we live, as well as what we drive…and discussion of that will have to be another blog post or several.

In the meantime is there anything we can do as individuals? Since it involves our day to day habits it is likely to be as daunting as trying to lose weight, or keep fit, or drink less, or any of the others things that tend to be the subject of resolutions on New Years Day and regrets by Easter. But let’s not despair: the tricks that work on other habits will work here. Set goals but let them be sensible and achievable; how about starting with trying to avoid one car trip a week by planning your time differently so it is not needed, or by walking, cycling or taking the bus instead. How about recording and measuring the way you travel (counting steps help lots of people to be more active and I know myself, having participated in the National Travel Survey, that keeping a travel diary brings one face-to-face with ones choices just like keeping a food diary does for people trying to change the way they eat)? Just like anything difficult, the sooner we start, the sooner we’ll make a difference.

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