Information Goes a Long Way in Motivating Sustainable Transportation

By David Gaker

While emissions from the passenger transportation sector can be reduced through increasing the fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet or through formulating a cleaner-burning fuel, the most immediate and largest impact can be made through changing our behavior. This solution has the added benefits of increased safety and decreased congestion. However, the prevalence of driving (alone) everywhere we need to go (the least environmentally friendly of our transportation habits) is deeply engrained in modern American society.  This is not to say that the situation is hopeless; it has been shown that people can be encouraged to use public transit more and drive less through programs that focus on information provision, goal-setting, and even competition.

Taniguchi et al. (2007) summarize the findings from a broad range of travel feedback programs primarily in Japan which investigated methods of encouraging people to drive less frequently and use public transit more often.  Through educating the subjects of the study about the high societal and environmental costs of driving and providing motivation to change their behavior by suggesting alternative modes for common destinations and asking for car-use reduction goals, the researchers observed a reduction of 7 to 19% in car trips and an increase of 30 to 70% in transit trips.  The easiest way to encourage people to use their cars less is simply to tell them how to use the bus.

Despite being slightly more technologically challenging, another great way to get people to reduce their transportation-related emissions is to simply make them familiar with their impacts.  In a set of experiments aimed at finding out how people respond to information about the environmental impacts of their travel alternatives, Gaker et al. (2010) found that informing people about the emissions associated with their actions significantly shifts people toward more sustainable options.  This is likely why auto makers install dials (now digital displays of growing or withering leaves) to indicate both instantaneous and average fuel efficiency.

More than anything, people need more information if they are expected to make appropriate decisions.  It turns out that many people are simply unaware of their alternatives and default to the obvious one, the car in the driveway.   Not only do people need to know their feasible alternatives, but they al

so need to know about the benefits of each, whether the benefit is reduced time, cost, or emissions, so that their decisions reflect their underlying preferences.  With more information, the increasingly environmentally conscious public will become increasingly environmentally friendly.

David Gaker is pursuing his PhD in Civil Engineering at UC Berkeley, where he is researching the willingness to pay for emissions reductions in the context of transportation decisions.

Ali Hart is a sustainability messaging and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and media. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to message green effectively.

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