Nov 18, 2014

A hard focus on soft measures

Research is increasingly focused on persuading people to voluntarily change travel habits

In an effort to reverse the slipping modal share of sustainable transport, research is increasingly focused on persuading people to voluntarily change their travel habits. However, a variety of studies indicate that changes in behaviour are less durable than changes in underlying attitudes about transport choices.

Public transport has been losing ground to private car use for decades, and it’s been happening all over the world in all kinds of communities, even those with high-quality public transport.

Especially in these times of financially pressured local governments, bottom-up approaches that encourage voluntary change are more feasible than top-down approaches demanding investments and legal coercion.

This is the current consensus of transport experts and researchers, according to José Manuel Vega of the University of York, who gave a “state of play” presentation at a SmartMove training in October in Wittenberg, Germany.

In his keynote address, Vega explained current thinking about “soft measures” to promote public transport use, and how they relate to the individualised marketing campaigns being trialled in the SmartMove project.

Although people don’t change their travel habits easily, Vega explained that they’re more likely to do so in particular circumstances, such as:

  • when conditions change in such a way that car use is no longer attractive or even tolerable;
  • when they come to a realisation that they really can change their travel behaviour;
  • when they’re influenced by someone else  — someone they respect or trust, or whose values they share;
  • when sustainable travel seems fashionable;
  • when they go through a major life change (change of home, job or family situation); or
  • when they discover that they’ve seriously underestimated public transport (e.g. speed or frequency of departure).

Vega touched on several recent research projects in Europe and Australia that have helped refine our understanding of how soft measures do and don’t work. The cited studies ran from household personalised travel planning interventions, to a project that asked car users to keep a diary of how many tasks they achieved with each trip. Vega cited an experiment in Frankfurt in which sustainable travel options were marketed to new residents in the city.

Among Vega's conclusions were that:

  • more dissemination leads to more participation in soft measures;
  • custom tailoring information leads to better results;
  • it’s not enough to inform, you also have to discuss;
  • the most fruitful approach is a mix between hard and soft measures; and
  • a quality public transport service is needed for soft measures to succeed.

Vega’s full PowerPoint presentation can be viewed here (1 MByte PDF). You can also watch his presentation as an on-line video.