Friday, January 28, 2011

Testimony: Science and Technology Select Committee, UK House of Lords

In the last weeks I was asked to provide written testimony and evidence in answer to a "Call for Evidence" for the UK House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee on the subject of "Behaviour Change —Travel-Mode Choice Interventions to Reduce Car Use in Towns and Cities". As can happen in these things, in my remarks I moved away from the chosen topic (instruments for behaviour change),  on the grounds that there are other more fundamental issues that need to be tackled first. In the following you will find my submittal of last Monday to the committee, whom I thank for giving me this opportunity to share my views.

Science and Technology Select Committee, House of Lords

Call for Evidence: Behaviour Change

—Travel-Mode Choice Interventions to Reduce Car Use in Towns and Cities -

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee has appointed a sub¬committee, chaired by Baroness Neuberger, to investigate the use of behaviour change interventions to achieve policy goals. As part of this inquiry, the sub-Committee has decided to conduct a second case study into the use of behaviour change interventions to alter travel-mode choice in order to reduce car use in towns and cities and therefore the level of carbon emissions from transport.

Behaviour change interventions to encourage people to travel more sustainably have become an integral part of transport policies in recent years, featuring in the previous Government’s Low Carbon Transport Strategy of 2009. To date, however, such interventions do not appear to have led to a major change in transport mode choice, or a significant reduction in CO2 emissions.

The Committee would welcome submissions on behaviour change interventions, whether in the public sector, the private sector or by voluntary organisations, designed to change travel-mode choice in order to reduce car use in towns and cities, in the United Kingdom or internationally.

Evidence submission and commentary

- Eric Britton, New Mobility Agenda and World Streets.
Paris France. 26 January 2011

0.  Summary

The submittal that follows is quite rough due to time limitations, but here is a summary of the key points that I would hope to draw to your attention. Thank you for bearing in mind that these observations and suggestions come from someone who has been in and out of the UK for professional reasons over the years but whose work is primarily international.

The submittal that follows is quite rough due to time limitations, but here is a summary of the key points that I would hope to draw to your attention. Thank you for bearing in mind that these observations and suggestions come from someone who has been in and out of the UK for professional reasons over the years but whose work is primarily international.

1. I address this committee on the understanding that you are looking for information, ideas, perspective and arguments to define and defend the public interest: social, economic, environmental, without reference to party or politics of whatever stripe..

2. While the exact question you are addressing – better understanding matters of behaviour change and ways to reduce car use in cities – is a good one, I would propose that it will be useful to take a step back first to determine if that in fact is the best next step or issue to be considered under the circumstances. I would say that there is a broader set of issues and trade-offs behind it which need to be sorted out first.

3. Our past international work makes it clear that the range of viable alternatives to own-car travel are too few in number and far too low in quality to give citizens reasonable (i.e., competitive) options. This is true virtually all over the world and certainly true in the UK.

4. It is in this context that the whole idea of "behavior modification" comes into context. For if the game is see how we might today or in the near future tempt people to opt for what for many users might be considered to be an inferior mobility options (example: inferior quality public transport) , then there is something fundamentally disloyal about such a concept. The first step has to be to develop competitive alternatives to car travel, and then to use our various analytic and operational tools and measures to bring them to the attention to the public so that they can in turn make their own choices.

5. We need to bear in mind that advantages of car travel to car owners are considerable, and even more so from a psychological perspective if we bear in mind that the "next trip" one takes in ones car is generally considered as being "free". So whatever our alternatives are in a fair society they must be many in number – bearing in mind that the car offers quite a broad range of potential services – and they must be seen as being competitive. Including being perceived as "free" as using your own car for that next trip.

6. Which of course is very far from being the case today. But at least once we become aware of this underlying reality, the real challenge of "behavioral change interventions" becomes far more clearly delineated.

7. Popular conceptions aside, it is an incontrovertible fact that the majority of people in the UK are for a wide range of reasons not car owner/drivers: they are either too young or too old to drive, too infirm, too tired, too nervous, lack the necessary physical flexibility and reflexes, not psychologically prepared for the responsibility, cannot really afford a car (though they still may have one), have dangerous driving habits (smokers, drugs, mobile phones, text messages and other dangerous distractions), or perhaps simply prefer to live without a car -- and the long list goes on. This is an important political point. We are looking at a majority of the population, and all these people vote (even if they are not effectively organized as are the car and road lobbies). These citizens need and deserve first class alternatives to own-car travel, and the public authorities (and private players) are not yet providing enough of them.

8. This outside-looking-in view of transport, mobility and infrastructure in the UK makes it clear that you have grossly overbuilt your infrastructure in and around cites – and are now grossly under-managing it. This is, in fact, very good news. What it means is that you are not going to have to spend great gobs of taxpayer money on expensive infrastructure in the immediate future – you can instead get on with the management and creative innovation functions. The entire challenge is thus well within your means.

9. But you lack an overarching strategy. You have many groups working on various pieces of the puzzle, but as far as I can make out there is not broader unified vision or strategy. This is vital to determining what government could and should be doing next.

10. I therefore strongly recommend that you lay the base for a national dialogue on the topic of how to go from today's grossly unsatisfactory situation to a far more sustainable transport system as quickly as possible – and specifically in the period 2011 – 2015, starting this year. And as part of this dialogue there should be an immediate push to create and share information on numerous outstanding demonstration projects which show the way in detail to what the broad strategic lines are trying to target and obtain.

* * *

The climate of unsustainable transport in the UK – An outsider's view

- "How can a man, riding on an ox, looking for an ox, ever find an ox?"

(You first have to get off the ox).


I shall get to your questions shortly, but to be useful to you I must first take a few steps back and share with you what I, as an interested and not entirely unformed observer of the UK transportation and government policy situation, have noted over several decades.

I hope these remarks will serve your committee as evidence from an outsider international perspective that I have been able to develop through a long process of in-place observations, consulting and advisory work exactly in the field of sustainable transport and sustainable cities over many years and around the world.

I look at the issues that define transport, sustainable and otherwise, in the UK with some knowledge and considerable sympathy, if at times a certain level of impatience as I ask myself how is it that, with all the assets you have in hand, you are with all too few exceptions doing  so poorly in the broad area of sustainable transport, whether at the level of specific projects, cities or, indeed the country as a whole.

Policy soft spots:

Why is this? Well, as an outsider I spot a certain number of soft spots which you really could correct once you put your minds to it. And once you have the appropriate strategic structure in place – this is really at the end of the day what is most lacking – an appropriate, articulated, explicit, responsible, consistent and continuing strategy for sustainability -- many of the specific questions you bring up here will become clearer. The so-called soft spots in your policy frame  include:

1.      Your successive governments, of no matter what political stripe, give full expression to the idea of supporting sustainability and pattern-break innovations  until they take office – at which point they become de facto bearers of the standard of old mobility, old ways, and unsustainable transport. This of course is not limited to the UK, but still that is no excuse.

2.      In general one notes a tendency among a quite large share of the brightest people working in the sector in government, to be far better at criticizing and shooting down than creating and supporting useful actions. There is an almost comic situation in which new ideas from outside the assigned channels get shot down before they have had a chance to mature and advance.  Greater openness and creativity needs to be encouraged (but there you really have a problem of behavior change.).

3.      Local government holds the key to the move to sustainable transport but is  today confused and nervous. The local council leaders have a hard enough row to hoe just to keep what they have going as well as they possibly  can. They face real problems of resources, but above all seem to me to have a major vision failure. And if you don't have the vision, you have nowhere to go.

4.      Your NGOs and various interest and action groups are often world class, however for the most part  are organized into and operate as quasi self-contained silos. And those who do take a broader approach are for the most part substantially underused assets. The attitude of government to these important assets strikes me as ranging from patronizing to evasive to adversarial, and all too often altogether unhelpful.

5.      Currently the deep cuts and lack of serous support for sustainability on the part of your latest government are putting just about everybody who is committed to and working on the sustainability and social issues in the sector on the defensive  so there is today a general climate of deep despair, which I very much hope your committee will be able to help reverse.

6.      The UK continues to be an island when it comes to deep knowledge about what is going on at the leading edge in other parts of the world. You need to get around more to develop hands-on knowledge about what works, and what doesn't.  The EU helps a bit with its various programs, but does not seem to be lively or creative enough, or sufficiently catalytic to see off a wave of innovations. In all too many cases the process of questioning and evidence building for decision tends to get stuck in the island.

7.      A clear vision and understandable (by all) is needed to pull all of this together. That vision at present does not  exist.  This is not the place for me to articulate what I firmly believe to be the strategy that is needed to break this impasse. But let me at least try to give you a few of the main pillars of what I believe needs to be done to give yourselves the needed firm base.

8.      The only possible strategic  starting point is to make it the prime government policy (a) to reduce VMT steadily starting in 2011; and (b) make this the central core of all government policy and investment decisions for the period 2011-2015.  Cutting back VMT has many enormous advantages, environmental, social, economic and strategic. And it can be done, but only with new thinking and strong leadership and participation from many levels of society.  We have to help your government to understand this.

9.      Once you have the strategic basics in place, the second core element of a viable sustainable transport policy has to be absolute consistency. No shilly-shallying. The same rigorous acid tests of cost-effectiveness, performance and impacts need to be applied to all public expenditures and investments.  Once these principles are put into place, it is surprising how easy it become to separate the wheat from the chaff.

10.  The third core value in the years immediately ahead has to be frugality. We are living in hard economic times. All allocations of public moneys need to be reviewed and decided rigorously on the basis of the actual impacts that are achieved within the rigorous planning and policy structure. This works out well since almost everything that is needed to achieve these strategic objectives can be achieved with far lower levels of public investment than the old heavily infrastructure-oriented policies.

11.  The soul of success in sustainable development is not only vision, but also continuity once you get into an action mode. There is a huge amount of start and stop in Britain, which does no one any great good. It discourages and acts to sap the courage and energy of the sector.

12.  And finally the grim bottom line reality. If you spend all your money on infrastructure you get infrastructure. But if what you want is high quality and fair mobility, well you have to spend the money on people. Year after year, government after government, you are consistently spending the great part of taxpayer money for the sector to support cars and roads. But the appropriate starting place for transport policy is people, not hardware  I guess the first step has to be for you to figure out who you are and who you want to be.

I thought it important that I set the stage in this broader way so that you can see from where I come on all this. But I shall now dig into three of the questions you ask.

II. Responses to selected questions:

1. What are the most influential drivers of behaviour affecting an individual’s choice of mode of travel?

1.     Let me look for now at just one specific modal choice example to see if we can find some clues: Why do people decide to join carclubs?  There is plenty of experience and evidence eon this. Here as someone with rather deep knowledge of the field is my quick read of the evidence from the perceive of the user:

a.       The alternative offers an improved mobility option in specific situations.

b.      It is considerably cheaper than owning and operating an nth car.

c.       It frees the driver from the charge and cost of dealing with parking

d.      It opens up a number of advantages of being "carfree" – that is unencumbered by the burden (financial, time, inconvenience) of such  things as vehicle maintenance, upkeep, insurance, fueling

e.       There are bragging rights associated with backing away from be totally unsustainable.

f.       Most if not all people who share cars in this way have at least some awareness that they are behaving responsibly in terms of environment  and climate.

What can we ascertain concerning your question from this brief and admittedly incomplete off the cuff profile?  Simple:

holYou must be able to offer a superior travel option  if people are going to make new and better choices. This is a challenge since the received wisdom has been that public transport (which is almost always very narrowly defined: fixed route, schedules services, usually run on a deficit and government financed) is basically the poor man's transport that Mrs. Thatcher reminded us all about so vividly so long ago. Waiting for a bus in the rain is not an option.

Also: this suggests that we have a far broader and more strategic picture of what in act are those "other modes" as opposed to only and travelling by own car.  Here are a very wide range of alternative options and it is important to know and understand them in depth, before asking about choice criteria.

2. What is the role of infrastructure in encouraging and facilitating changes in travel-mode choice?

Of course it is vital. But not perhaps as one might at first think. Here are a couple of important infrastructure truths which once properly understood give some useful clues for effective government policy at all levels.

a.       Our road and parking infrastructure in almost all of our cities across Europe, and certainly in the UK, have been grossly  over-developed in terms of their dimensions and share of the total land area of the city. In summary: we have over-built and under-managed. When we understand this, it opens up a whole new strategy of polices and measures adapted to this situation.

b.       And we know too of course that the answers to the problems we face do not lie in more building and other forms of capacity expansion. For either moving or parked cars.  This hard earned lesson is clear beyond any doubt.

c.        So, we go to work with what we have. (which turns out to be a very good thing indeed).

d.       21 century infrastructure policies (a) shift available street space away from inefficient users of that space (namely private cars) and (b) make it available to efficient users, namely pedestrians, cyclists, public transit and other forms of shared transport.

e.        The strategy has to be not a "war on motorists" but a deliberate and steady tightening of the noose on all inefficient users of the city's scarce space and environment. In addition to reducing road space available for these inefficient users (a purely physical strategy) a critical component of the infrastructure use strategy has to be the strategic reduction of parking space for private cars. This is a far more cost-effective policy than congestion charging, and lends itself to being planned and handled with political address.

f.        A key tool in infrastructure management is that of slowing down all traffic in built up areas. There is no good reason why all city traffic in the UK should not be strictly limited to a 10/20/30 mph strategy. The justifications for this are accident reduction and a range of public health and environment improvements.

But we are for the couple of decades ahead still be seeing lots of cars in and around our cities, so our strategy must take this into account and not simply plunge into a denial mode. Cars are not the enemy, they have a place in society, but their indiscriminate inappropriate use is something that we can remedy. With strategy, with technology, with people skills and with patience.

3. What are the most appropriate type and level of interventions to change travel-mode choice?

You have to start at the other end of the travel-mode choice chain.

The most creative thing you could do in the UK in the years immediately ahead and starting now (since it is possible) is to organize and deliver through creative partnerships  a broader palette of high quality alternative transport options.

This is a long list which can start with things like access control measures, strategic parking policies,  innovative public transport, car clubs, ridesharing, new uses of taxis and small bus/van systems, safer and better cycling conditions in the city, ditto for walking, integrated ticketing and access systems, improved and consistent enforcement of regulations,  and the long list goes on.

The target mode has to stretch way beyond traditional scheduled fixed route public transport and bus services. They are going to be part of the solution, but only part.

A core driver for all new services is going to be information and communications technologies, so if you are going to use policy to drive innovation, here is a sector that bears far better promise than the traditional costly vehicle, motor and fuel technologies which are the proper affair of the private sector.

# # #

My time is up. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my experience and views with you. It is encouraging to know that you are giving these issues importance and looking for new thinking and new solutions to these pressing problems, challenges . . . and, yes, opportunities.

Eric Britton

Some references for the reader

  • PDF of this article is available here

  • The World Streets Mission Statement provides additional depth of background on the overall strategic approach referred to here -

  • A recent interview with  the author appeared in Mobility Magazine on 20 January 2011 -- available at

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