“I've decided to give up my car”

© iStock

© iStock

What are the factors that would drive someone to change their lifestyle and, especially, give up their car? EPFL visiting researcher Alexandre Rigal has devoted his thesis to finding out.

Everyone knows cars are bad for the environment, just like we all know smoking is bad for your health. Yet personal cars are still the predominant form of transportation. Clearly, being aware of the environmental damage that cars cause is not enough to prompt people to change their habits. So what is? Alexandre Rigal, a visiting researcher at EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory, studied this question for his thesis, which he carried out as part of EPFL’s broader PostCarWorld project. Rigal showed that deciding to give up a car is a process that usually starts with a major life change – like moving or getting married – or with meeting someone who inspires us to adopt a new lifestyle. The process then continues step by step until a tipping point is reached and the individual makes the switch, generally as part of a larger shift in values.

To investigate what factors would lead someone to give up their car, Rigal interviewed 53 people in Switzerland from a wide range of backgrounds – from those who love driving to those who hate automobiles – as well as 14 people who advocate sustainable lifestyles.

Only seven of the 53 people in the first group had stopped using a car, although everyone in that group admitted to being aware of the negative impact of motor vehicles. This indicates that being aware of the consequences is not a strong enough driver. However, Rigal did find that such awareness can cause people to judge their car use negatively and even rethink their lifestyles if they have an alternative model to follow. “This reevaluation often prompts people to seek a better way of living,” he says. His study is based on the assumption that to fully understand why someone would switch to a different mode of transport, you need to consider all aspects of their lifestyle – values, ideals, environment, skills, and the things they are influenced by.

Trying things out before making the switch

The decision to go carless could be triggered by any one of a number of events. For example, Marlène, a participant in the study, keeps urban beehives and therefore sees first-hand the effects of climate change. Dominique, another study participant, was motivated by an environmental documentary. Once a person decides to change their lifestyle, the actual implementation is usually a gradual process; breaking old habits and adopting new ones entails a learning curve. “Habits are not just inevitable, but also necessary because they help us get through our days efficiently,” says Rigal. And we generally form our habits when we’re young, through either learning and doing or by imitating an adult (seeing your mother drive a car, for example). But habits can also be broken by something new in life, for instance, or by a change in circumstances.

The most effective way to get people to switch to new modes of transport is to target those who are in the process of changing their habits and who have fewer constraints, such as those who have just moved to a new city, single people and the newly retired. Change can also take place through experimentation. “Once you’ve tried a new form of transportation, whether the subway, a car-sharing system or even a bicycle, you tend to view it much more favorably. You start viewing your personal space differently, taking positive steps and forming new habits,” says Rigal.

A mobility license

The change process often leads people to rethink their values. Take freedom, for example. Car owners typically view their automobile as the ultimate symbol of freedom (“I can come and go as I please,” “I am in my own little bubble,” etc.). Meanwhile, many people who shun their cars for public transport take advantage of that “freedom” to work or read. Rigal found that those who give up their cars eventually find a new form of freedom in deciding for themselves what they are willing to sacrifice (by not taking a car or by flying less frequently). That helps people lead more satisfying lives, in a way that corresponds to who they are. And it’s better for the planet.

Rigal’s research also shows that small incentives can help support change or create favorable synergies for the change process. For instance, he believes that driver’s licenses “have become a kind of bottleneck for the adoption of clean transportation methods, because they can be used only for motor vehicles. A better idea would be to have ‘mobility licenses’ where, in order to get one, you would have to take lessons on how to ride a bike on urban and rural roads in the daytime and nighttime, and on how to repair a bike. We could introduce people to the benefits of walking by teaching them how to read paper maps, or to public transport by teaching them the history of different subway stations. The idea is to provide more attractive alternatives to car travel, for which you would need a ‘mobility license,’ thereby requiring a certain level of investment. That would reduce people’s attachment to their cars and increase their affinity towards other transportation methods. The act of getting a driver’s license entails a change in lifestyle – we could leverage that moment to get them in the habit of using other transportation methods.”