The Rough Road to Climate Protection and Sustainable Mobility: Values, priorities, behavior and, finally, understanding people (and ourselves)


What many people call “transportation” . .  is at its very essence not about road or bridges, nor vehicles or technology, and not even about money.  Above all it is about people, their needs, fears, desires and the decisions they make. And the backdrop — real and mental — against which they make those decision. The transport planner needs to know more them and take this knowledge into the center of the planning and policy process. What makes them tick, individually and collectively.  What do they want and what they are likely to resist. And people, as we all know, are intensely complicated, personal and generally change-resistant. .But if we take the time and care we can start to understand them, at least a bit better. Which is a start.

In the traditional transport field when we address issues of people’s values and preferences,  and ultimately behavior and choices, the greater part of the literature is given over to the choices made, and the reasons for them, by transport users: car owner/drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, public transport and the other user groups.  And when it comes to managing the transition to sustainable mobility, behind that persistent search is the capacity on the part of planners and policymakers to understand and influence those user and other associated choices.

Rarely on the other hand does the literature address matters of the values, choices and behaviors of the planners and decision-makers themselves, i.e., those who are responsible for policy, actions and investments in the field.  This to my mind is a notable oversight which badly needs to be addressed, and is taken up in another section here.

The Planner’s Dilemma

Thus, we need to understand the underlying questions: Why do we do what we do?  When it comes our transport and mobility choices, why are there such huge variance in values, schizophrenia-man-head-spinningdreams, behavior and choices from culture to culture?  Why do we insist on leaving our car in a parking space even though it is clearly marked for handicapped drivers?  Fail to give priority and space to pedestrians and cyclists?  Insist on crowding the road with our cars when our government is investing heavily in public transport?  Why are we so tightly bound up in existing patterns, even when it is clear to all that the present situation is not working, including for us, to fight proposed changes tooth and nail?

The point is that none of this is accidental.  It is central. It is systemic. It is “normal” and it brings us to the big question that transport planners and policy makers must be ready to ask: Why do WE do what we do?  What determines OUR values and dispositions?  And how does this in turn determine our behavior and choices when it comes to matters of how we get around in our day-to-day lives?

Starting with my experience in the field over the last decades, I have tried to stand back from the issues as I run into them in different cities in radically different parts of the world and see if I might contribute to a general understanding of these issues and choices.  No, let me be more modest: my goal here is not to provide universal answers, but to open up discussion and questions in each of these cases.  To make us all more curious.

And why is this important? Because our planners need to be aware from the beginning  of all the eventual sources of discord and resistance to any public policy changes. Man is basically, instinctively and heavily change-resistant. And if we do show ourselves ready to accept proposed changes – including not to fight them to the bitter end – it will be because the planners to the time to work through all of this well in advance.

The Six Circles of Behavior

(With apologies to my better qualified colleagues trained in behavioral psychology, neurology and other such directly related fields of competence, here is my personal, informal overflight of these issues as I see them in my work.)

As we look at the sector we can spot six concentric circles of, let us call it, civic awareness, which taken together tell us a lot about our behaviour and choices:  They are, starting from the most fundamental, central  and immediate drives:

  1. Self
  2. Family
  3. Tribe
  4. Market
  5. Society
  6. Planet

Let’s take a look at each, starting from the inner core, the preferences and behavior of each of us.


While this kind of analysis is properly the domain of neurologist and behavioral psychologists, not to mention, sociologists and anthropologists, it provides us with a first set of behavioral building block and must be understood at least at a general level and taken into consideration when we move into the policy mode.


six-circles-1-selfAt this level this is me at my most primitive, self-centered, potentially aggressive. unwilling to compromise, wily, and in my least social state.  My first starting block when confronting any decision or challenge is my self, me at the center of the universe and where I make my transport related decisions without any reference to anything other than my own priorities and desires.  I will take my car when and where I wish. I will drive as fast as I want to. I will park as close to my destination is possible, this being the willful behavior of the unattached car owner/driver. But I can equally be a willful cyclist, pedestrian, public transport user, vulnerable user, etc., ever watching out for my own deep-felt personal interests.

Above all I am generally change-resistant. It can be any combination of things that bring me to this state: indifference, fear of the unknown, inability to understand the importance of the goal, preference for the old way, lack of trust in government, one intrusion too many, fear of losing my full autonomy of decisions and action, vexed because nobody asks or really listens to me,  don’t like to be pushed around, poor communications on the part of the change-agents, and at the end of the day as far as I am concerned insufficient benefits for the trouble and uncertainty it all requires for Number One.

The bottom line at this level is precisely that.  Planners and policy makers may wish for their own possibly good reasons to make or encourage me to alter my behavior. But this I will do only if it is purely in my perceived self-interest.

  1. Family

six-circles-2-familyOnce we bring the family into the behavioral equation things start to look a bit different.  The family for most of us is the first step in the socialization process. Thus suddenly I, who was previously concerned only with my own preferences and well-being, start to expand the backdrop of my awareness, concerns, choices and behavior.  In most cases this extension of my awareness and sense of responsibility makes me hopefully into a better and more engaged citizen.  Hopefully!

But of course, the family is not the world; it is just one very small slice of it. Nonetheless as policy makers we need to be on the lookout for ways of bringing the family into the policy equation, knowing that inside each family there can be great diversity of views and hopes. [1]

Talking about this the other day with sustainable transport specialist and expert Bradley Schroeder, he made a good point which certainly is worth repeating. Namely that there is an intermediary between Self and Family, which is the Couple.  Worth keeping in mind as we try to figure out the background to our behavior and choices.

  1. Tribe

six-circles-3-tribeThe word “tribe” in this sense refers to those circles of people and shared values with which you identify. People and groups whose values and opinions you generally share.  It may be a matter of religion, ethnicity, language, politics, geography, city, neighborhood,, sports, health, compassion and other.  But also in our case it is important to understand that transport user groups can also serve as a tribe, with the tribal instincts, perhaps most firmly felt by car owner drivers and persistent cyclists.

Of course, planners and decision-makers need to be extremely sensitive about these tribal groupings and the ways in which they influence values and behavior. We all have a cocktail of tribal affiliations and a prioris.  As one example, my particular combination of self and family, when then combined with tribal values may perfectly well influence my behavior in terms of such things as reckless driving, speeding,intimidating other road users,  parking in a handicapped slot or cycle lane, drinking, doping, littering, texting, bribery, or other forms of what some might call “anti-social” behavior. From the vantage of public policy, if we are not aware of these tribal connections and their potential for fighting or influencing public policy, then we are in for real trouble.

# # #

To make wise policy decisions in a diverse universe, in a heterogeneous democracy, requires great astuteness on the part of planners and policymakers to all three of these first levels of cognition and behavior.  But that is by no means the end of the challenge.

It is the first three inner circles that combine to determine many values and behavior, above all, for those of us with strong “tribal” ties (i.e., basically everyone if we really think about it).  Of course, our tribe has many sides and components; most of us are subject to multiple drives, although most of the time these affiliations are so deep that they become invisible to each of us.

Ideally both the family and tribe will chime in to support the much-needed broader vision of society, but in traditional societies this is not always possible. The differences can be just too different, too abstract and too hard to understand. But they need to be anticipated, understood and dealt with. Otherwise we lose. For sure!

  1. Market

The “market” is the place in society, the agora, in which we come together to exchange goods and services that we cannot provide for ourselves, sometime by barter but more often these days mediated by money, as a medium six-circles-4-marketof exchange, a unit of account, and store of value (classic Economics 101). When it comes to transport values and subsequent behavior the market (let’s call it prices but also taxes, subsidies and more)provides  a powerful means for influencing people’s behaviour. And as it happens and for many reasons (stay tuned) this potential to influence people’s behavior, choices and actions has for the most part been substantially under-used in the past.

If we use economic instruments to moderate behaviour we have seen that this is a very powerful instrument for transition.  But as will be seen, given the scope of the challenges before us in moving to sustainable cities, the full and persistent use of these economic instruments is vital. Delicate, difficult, often hotly contentious to be sure. Not enough in itself. But vital for our collective well-being. As the expression goes: “you can’t get there without it”.

The power of the market, prices and economic instruments, is certainly the most effective single driver for modifying behaviour and achieving sustainability objectives. But it is also the one that elected governments will do almost anything rather than to make use of.  We shall be considering that shortly.

Next we will consider the critical thresholds which need to be understood and activated if ever we are to make the transition to a sustainable world.

  1. Society

This brings us right into the domain of public perceptions, attitudes and choices that each six-circles-5-societybeyond considerations of oneself, one’s family or tribe, and even of one’s economic interests. We are with this right into the social and cultural gut of our societies and values. This is where such challenging but absolutely vital concepts as respect for the environment, equity, social justice culture, history, tradition, nature, time externalities, full cost pricing, vulnerable populations, participatory democracy, civil society, open government, and more come into play.

How do we increase public understanding, stewardship and active participation in all the very different groups and forces that constitute our societies?  It is the mission of planners and policy makers to increase these awarenesses and make them part of the participatory process.  (Bearing in mind that one fo the best ways of achieving social and environmental, and even efficiency objectives is by working with those powerful economic instruments. But as will also be seen, there are others, fortunately.)

  1. Our planet

Here we come to our last and outermost circle, and today the one that is most important six-circles-6-planetof all. The defense of our planet which we have in the past decades put at more than risk in more ways and magnitudes than could ever have been imagined. And now we face the priority of doing the best we can in this hard, almost impossible task. Which brings us to what this author at least believes to be the hard central core of transport policy and practice, including in the immediate term.

Planetary issues such as climate change and massive resource depletion, do not today have a major voice in most local transportation plans and investment decisions. Nonetheless the ongoing climate emergency sets the global timetable for all action in our sector, ALL ACTION. Getting the carbon, and with it fossil fuels, out of the sector is an important goal in any event. But low-carbon strategies per se are not really a strategic tool per se for transport. But they provide a foundation.

At the same time strong GHG (and VKT) reduction works as a strong surrogate for just about everything else to which we need to be giving priority attention in our cities, chief among them the need to cut, rationalize and improve traffic.  Fewer vehicles on the road means reduced energy consumption, less pollution in all forms, fewer accidents, reduced bills for infrastructure construction and maintenance, quieter and safer cities, and the long list goes on.

What is so particularly interesting about the mobility sector is that there is really a great deal we can do in a relatively short period of time. And at relatively low cost. Beyond this, there is an important joker which also needs to be brought into the picture from the very beginning, and that is that these reductions can be achieved not only without harming the economy or quality of life for the clear majority of all people. To the contrary sustainable transport reform can be part of a 21st century economic revival which places increased emphasis on services and not products.

# # #

[1] One small example: when children learn about issues of environment and sustainability in schools, they can become ambassadors of the good cause to their parents and families. Inconsequential as that may seem, our planners will do well to build this into their strategy. Because the future we want is made not of a small number of big things, but a very large number of often very small things.

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About the author:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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