Our towns and cities may be becoming friendlier to cyclists and pedestrians, but many of us still choose to take the car over the bus, the bicycle or our own two feet. Why? Because this is what we’ve always done, argues Janet Veldstra, behavioural psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. “Our behaviour when we travel is based on habit,” she explains. “We stick to the patterns we know, without even reflecting on our choices.”

Nevertheless, with the climate crisis requiring us to change the way we live our lives, it’s important to question some of our behaviours – such as our choice of transport. Moving out of our comfort zone is difficult, but it can be done!

Changing behaviour

“Creating awareness about sustainable transport is an important first step, but it is not enough,” says Janet. “People need to feel that a change they make, like the switch from driving to cycling, really helps fight the climate crisis.”

This can be done by showing people how their actions lead to fewer emissions being generated, and transport is not the only area where this applies. From cutting meat out of our diet to turning down the heating a degree, we should be able to demonstrate how each action for the climate reduces greenhouse gas emissions. This way, we can empower people and convince them that their choices really matter.

However, it’s not just about citing numbers and percentages – as humans, we also want to see how our action makes a tangible difference in the world. “People might be tempted to change if we can show them the effect of their behaviour. For example, showing how reducing their use of cars will provide space for nature by converting roads and car parks to green areas and playgrounds. And having more green areas will, in turn, help us cope better with heatwaves and heavy rain. It’s crazy how much space we’ve given up for cars,” Janet stresses. There are other tangible benefits for our health, too, if we limit our use of cars – such as reducing air pollution, which currently causes about a quarter of a million deaths in the EU each year.

Breaking down barriers

One barrier to adopting new transport habits lies in the false perception of the cost of sustainable mobility. “People often think that public transport is expensive, but they don’t realise what the total cost of using their car is,” she says. Fuel, parking, maintenance, insurance, tax and more – all of this can quickly outweigh the cost of public transport tickets. Raising awareness of the total cost of various transport options – including the hidden or less obvious costs of driving – might help shift the mindset.

Many of us also feel unable to invest time in sustainable alternatives. “People might think that the effort required to change is too great. Bus timetables can take time to understand, the train station is far from home so you have to walk there. All these factors – what we call ‘cognitive costs’ – put people off change,” she explains. To overcome this, Janet suggests that we could use hacks: frame the perceived drawbacks as positives in disguise. For example, walking to and from the station is a time-efficient way to factor exercise into your routine! Changing behaviour might require more time now, but it will provide benefits for both ourselves and the climate in the long run.

Making a difference

Change can also be driven by establishing a community feeling. “People need to experience a feeling of ‘yes, we can do this together’,” Janet says. To make the biggest impact when fighting climate change, we need to be united. If everyone makes a small change to their routine, the overall effect will be a radical reduction in the emissions we generate.

So you’re not alone in this. Through initiatives such as the European Declaration on Cycling, the EU recognises that cycling is “one of the most sustainable, accessible and inclusive, low-cost and healthy forms of transport and recreation”. While the EU is aiming to reflect this in existing and future policies, we need national governments and local authorities to support safe cycling networks in cities and better links with public transport.

You can make a difference too – not just by cycling more, but also by joining other like-minded people in the European Climate Pact community! From subscribing to our newsletter to learning more about climate action from our resource library, there are many ways to take action.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that our reliance on cars is all in the mind – the truth is that sustainable transport is inexpensive, convenient and environmentally-friendly!

Source: European Commission