What’s putting the brakes on sustainable travel in Scotland?

Published: August 21, 2014

“Car travel is up in Scotland, despite efforts to promote sustainable transport. So, what has contributed to this change? And why are existing campaigns failing to make an impact?”

Last week Transport Scotland released their annual Transport and Travel Statistics Bulletin, showing that car drivers and passengers accounted for 64% of journeys in 2013 – up 3% from 2012. This uptick occurred despite concerted efforts to promote sustainable travel, and despite more than half of journeys being shorter than 3km. Worse still, walking figures are down, and 6% of those who walked to work in 2012 now drive.

So, what has contributed to this change? And why are existing campaigns failing to make an impact?

The news prompted a number of groups, including Transform Scotland and the Institute of Advanced Motoring, to suggest that messages about health and the environment aren’t resonating with travellers in Scotland. Others suggested that increasing traffic levels are the result of improvement in the economy, and will continue to increase as the Scottish economy strengthens.

Of course, the truth will be that in Scotland – just like everywhere else – a variety of factors influence travel decisions. But, the failure of the current campaigns could stem from a failure to understand which of these factors are the main drivers behind decision-making.

Healthier living and environmental benefits are well worn paths for sustainable travel campaigns, but their impact can be limited. At Linstock, when designing Southend’s Ideas in Motion campaign we found that calls to ‘go green’ resonated with relatively few people. Instead, factors like ease of use, cost and time to yourself were found to be more important.

In the case of Transport Scotland, the raw data suggests that, particularly for those deciding not to use public transport, convenience is the primary factor – 49% of car drivers thought public transport took too long for them to use it on their journey to work, and 32% blamed the lack of a direct route.

Convenience is a strong driver of behaviour, and can even override the effect of cost, as a 2006 study of free transport in Brussels found, when local university students favoured paying for a direct journey rather than changing and using free local transport (De Witte et al, 2006). Convenience is a tough hurdle to overcome for sustainable transport campaigners, as other travel modes find it hard to compete with the car on speed and directness.

One approach is to apply the latest insight from psychology and sociology. The Roads Task Force has found that attitudes to car ownership are tied up in feelings of independence, safety and personal status, and learning to drive is considered a rite of passage.

As a result, public transport can often be viewed as the second-best option on a whole range of emotional factors as well as on convenience (Guiver, 2006). Targeting these, and attempting to promote sustainable travel modes on these terms, can go a long way to breaking down the barriers to initial take-up and preventing travel habits from becoming entrenched. Public transport can be a source of independence, particularly for the young; concerns over safety are often unwarranted; and, as more people use sustainable modes, expectations and status amongst our peers becomes less of an issue.

Driving an increase in sustainable travel is a key challenge facing local authorities across the UK, and it is a complex, long-term challenge to take on. But the big take-home point is simpler: look deeper, break down the barriers and don’t rely on conventional thinking.

Arlen Pettitt

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