Sustainable transport after lockdown through changing habits

Colm Mulcahy on the role of habitual behaviours in sustainable transport post-lockdown.

The word ‘habit’, in everyday language, is often used as a synonym for frequently repeated behaviour. But within psychology there is important nuance to how the word is defined: 

‘Habit can be defined as a learned sequence of acts that has become an automatic response to specific context cues [emphasis added] and is functional in obtaining certain goals or end-states.’ (Verplanken & Aarts, 1999).

Habits are a form of mental shortcut. As we repeat a behaviour in a specific context our brain begins to forego conscious decision-making in favour of using cues as triggers for behaviour. According to Wendy Wood, a renowned researcher on the effects of habits on behaviour, we spend 43 per cent of our day engaged in habit. This means that nearly half of our actions aren’t consciously chosen but are the result of our ‘non-conscious mind nudging our body to act along learned behaviors’ (Wood, 2019).

Energy conservation and freed up cognitive bandwidth are obvious positives to engaging in habitual behaviours, but there are downsides. Automatic action can prevent us from considering alternatives and old habits can lead us to repeat behaviours that no longer align with our current goals (Verplanken & Faess, 1999).

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the context within which many of our behaviours occur. If the context for habitual behaviour changes, a window of opportunity opens where people are more likely to deliberate their choices (Carden and Wood, 2018; Davis et al., 2008). 

Without a vaccine, and with social distancing and movement restrictions our primary defence mechanism, no area has been shaken up more than our movement and transport patterns. This change of context poses both danger and opportunity for our transport habits. As we emerge from lockdown, we are in a unique position to positively shape the legacy of the Covid-19 crisis for movement and transport. 


The symbol for ‘crisis’ in Chinese is made up of two ideographs: one means danger, the other means opportunity. This symbol is apt for the Covid-19 crisis in the context of transport habits. 

The opportunity 

Pre-Covid-19, road transportation accounted for over 20 per cent of total CO2 emissions, in the USUK and EU, with the majority of these emissions coming from private cars. Congestion had also become a major issue for countries and cities around the world. In the US alone, congestion cost $305 billion last year, an increase of $10 billion from 2016.  

Getting people out of the internal combustion engine private car and into more sustainable modes of transport has been the challenge for sustainability in the land transport sector for many years. Yet trends have continued to go in the wrong direction, with emission levels consistently increasing. 

Our transport behaviours don’t just have economic and environmental consequences, they also impact wellbeing and life satisfaction. For example, an increase of 10 minutes on a daily commute reduces utility at work by 14 percentage points (Ahlfeldt et al., 2015). Comparing the wellbeing effects of various modes of transport also clearly shows that active travel (i.e. walking or cycling) is the most satisfying (Lades et al., 2020).

Yet, unsustainable car-driving behaviours are hard to change, with numerous forms of intervention proving ineffectual (Kristal & Whillans, 2020). At least part of the reason that it is so difficult to get drivers out of cars and using other modes of travel is that the choice of travel mode becomes habitual (e.g., Gärling et al., 2001; Thøgersen & Møller 2008; Verplanken et al., 1994; Verplanken et al., 1998).

The choice to repeatedly travel by car is often a counter-intentional habit (Møller & Thøgersen 2008; Verplanken et al., 1994; Verplanken, et al. 1998; Aarts et al., 1998). This is a behaviour that was functional at one point in time but has become habitual and is repeated after it no longer aligns with the person’s intentions. 

Counter-intentional habits explain why in some cases drivers would like to use more sustainable modes of transport such as public transportation, but do not (Thomas et al., 2016). The lack of deliberation that comes with habitual behaviours has also led to many people travelling by suboptimal routes (Larcom et al., 2017).  

However, the eye-opening effect of contextual changes to habitual behaviours holds for transport decisions. For example, in a sample of car drivers who were given a free month travel card for public transportation, the behavioural effects of the free travel card appeared only among individuals who had recently relocated residence or workplace (Thøgersen, 2012).

And, in the UK, a strike on the London Underground on 10 January 2014 forced many commuters to adjust their suboptimal habits and experiment with new routes, resulting in lasting changes in behaviour (Larcom et al., 2017). Similar effects have also been found in situations such as freeway closure blocking usual commuting routes (Fujii et al., 2001), and major life changes such as changing jobs, having a child or moving house (Bamberg 2006; Carden & Wood, 2018; Verplanken, et al., 2008).

Therefore, the challenge in recent history has been the difficulty of creating a large-scale context change that could enable intentional, optimal choices. In the context of our travel behaviours, the Covid-19 crisis has offered exactly this, a unique scenario where the habits of large swathes of the population have been disrupted and are open to change. 

The danger

‘Social distancing’ acting as our main lever in minimizing the spread of Covid-19 has meant that capacity on public transport, a generally sustainable transport option, is restricted. As Rubiano and Cano put it in their recent WorldBank article: ‘Social distancing and mass transit are two concepts that, quite literally, don’t sit well together.’ 

The importance of public transport as a service has been emphasised during the Covid-19 pandemic as evidenced by its continued operation in most countries through the crisis, and many frontline healthcare workers relying on the service. But due to the expected delay before a vaccine is rolled out it looks likely that public transport capacity will be constrained for a period, if social distancing advice is maintained.

Autotrader consumer research surveys from mid-April have also found that 56 per cent of UK drivers licence holders who don’t own a vehicle are now considering one post lockdown. ‘Transport distancing’ was even more of a concern for younger consumers, with 66 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds claiming they’d be less likely to use public transport.  

Counter-intentional habits often occur when the initial decision is based on short-term motives at the expense of long-term goals (Verplanken & Faess, 1999). There is a clear danger when economies re-open that, out of fear or necessity, people will opt to buy a car or begin commuting by car and develop a long-term habit.

Shaping our environment to allow for positive change 

As we emerge from lockdown, globally, bike sales are booming. For example, Brompton, the largest bicycle manufacturer in the UK, has seen online sales increase by 500 per cent with similar trends in the US and around the world. The fact that a significant cohort of people, following deliberation, have opted for the sustainable two-wheeled mode of transport is positive. But can these behaviours be maintained? 

The Behavioural Insights Team’s EAST Framework for applying behavioural insights to public policy states that one of the key methods of achieving sustained behavioural change is for the behaviour to be made easy. The more friction that is added to the completion of a behaviour, the less likely it is to be repeated. For example, a recent study of gym-goers using data from 7.5 million mobile phones found that just 1.4 miles of extra distance to the gym was the difference between sporadic or regular attendance. 

Our environment has to be set up in a way that sustainable behaviours are easy if we are to see any large-scale, maintained, positive change. Evidence from countries that have managed to generate a large-scale modal shift to sustainable modes suggests that countries with congestion issues are that way not because of a great failing on behalf of their population’s willpower, but because of infrastructure investment policies that lead to car-centric environments. 

The need for physically distanced spaces has meant that cities have taken advantage of current low footfall to reengineer cities to minimize virus transmission once crowds return. And many cities, such as Paris and London have taken the opportunity to reallocate significant road space to bike lanes as part of such measures. Links between poor air quality and increased Covid-19 symptom severity, an understanding of the need for physically distanced spaces, and interrupted transport habits, all signal that such changes might be more positively received than they perhaps would have previously. 

Most cities are positioning moves to bike priority as temporary schemes that will be reviewed, with the potential to be kept on. Evidence from previous policies aimed at encouraging environmentally friendly action (congestion chargesplastic bag tax) suggest that once such policies are in place support for them grows. The most resistance often occurs before the initial implementation (while old habits are still in place). Once the policy is in place and enough friction is put on the old behaviour, people easily form new habits and often, as with congestion charges, realise the benefits for themselves. Therefore, it seems that widespread support for the continuation of less car-centric cities is not unlikely, once people become familiar with the benefits.

The challenge

The window of opportunity to change transport habits diminishes with time (Thomas et al., 2016). Quickly implementing spatial reallocations that are large and impactful enough to allow people to choose active travel as the economy re-opens will be crucial to capitalising on the opportunity the Covid-19 habit shock offers.

However, foresight will also be needed. For example, public transport and mass transit will likely be central to efficient and sustainable transport systems in the future. The impact of spatial reallocations on the efficiency of public transport routes and the extent to which change aligns with an efficient future transport network, as a whole, needs to be considered.

The proximity of bicycle and micro-mobility (e-scooters and e-bike) parking infrastructure to public transport hubs (Ravensbergen et al., 2018) and whether bike lane priority impedes on public transport routes are likely to be key considerations. 

The habit shock of Covid-19 poses both a danger and opportunity for our transport patterns. If we can use it to enable new, constructive habits (such as increased active travel journeys), that can be maintained and integrated into efficient wider transport networks, we will have taken a big step towards a more sustainable ‘new normal’. 

- Colm Mulcahy is a Behavioural Economist currently developing sustainability strategy with CIÉ (Ireland’s largest public transport provider). 

Image: Big Bend National Park, United States, Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash



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