"Political guidance should not simply rely on prohibitions, but explicitly promote new offers"

We talked to the Berlin psychologist Prof. Dr. Christian Hoffmann

We talked to the psychologist Prof. Dr. Christian Hoffmann from Berlin and took a closer look at the psychological aspects of mobility in big cities and the change in mobility behavior. With purely rational measures a change of thinking can hardly be forced. But what can be done to persuade city dwellers to make more responsible decisions about urban transport?

 

 What is actually happening in the field of mobility?

I think we're facing some major changes. On the one hand, we are confronted with the challenge of constantly growing cities, which emerged in Europe more than 100 years ago and whose urban development partly goes back to the Middle Ages. The structure of the cities was designed for horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians and riders. At the moment we are experiencing a strong influx to these cities, in many cases this is a "motorized move", i.e. one or two additional vehicles are "brought along". All in all, this influx from many cities, both in terms of air quality and in terms of transport infrastructure - i.e. also the parking and driving space that the vehicles need - can no longer be created in a good way. In this context, it can be observed that in some large European cities motorized private transport in inner cities is becoming more difficult or that at least alternatives such as sharing services are increasingly being supported; in connection with the diesel crisis and urban fine dust pollution, emission-related access restrictions are increasingly being discussed.

On the positive side of the coin, digitization is leading to a sharp increase in the technical possibilities that allow us to plan, organize and book mobility on a smartphone-based platform in real time that encounter a high density of potential mobility offers in urban areas. This gives people in large cities the opportunity to organize individual mobility on demand without having to own a car. We know from representative studies in Berlin and London that a relevant proportion of the population is very open to such new mobility offers.

Another trend is that electric mobility is increasingly becoming functional and marketable, i.e. emerging from the more experimental phase towards possible mass production. One indicator for this is the fact that some large car manufacturers are slowly setting up their first model series and are considering mass production, such as VW in Zwickau. In addition, plans are being made for a German or European battery production system, and the increase in the range of electric vehicles will make their purchase or use more attractive. In addition to the usual announcements, it remains to be seen whether German automobile manufacturers are willing and able to meet a possible dynamic development of demand - for example in China - in sufficiently and keep up with other companies. It should of course not be forgotten that the production of green electricity, the efficiency of the charging infrastructure and thus the electricity grids must keep pace with such a development. 

 

Still: despite environmental problems, lack of space and technical solutions on the other hand: The own car still plays an important role in urban mobility, although there are many alternatives in the city, including ride-sharing. Why?

There are, I think, several explanations. A good explanation for future behavior, is for many people the past behavior: Many people grew up with cars. Especially for my and older generations, the car meant ultimate freedom in their youth. These are emotions that are deep in many people's minds, and it is not to be expected that all people will change this quickly.

In my opinion, the situation is quite different for today's young people. We will probably only notice a change in mobility behavior as a result of demographic change: In Germany, fewer and fewer young people are directly taking a driving license and less and less are willing to own a car themselves. Causes range from environmental reasons to changes in employment relationships. Many younger people assume that car ownership and the related investments are more "disturbing" than beneficial to them. In Berlin and London, we conducted a representative study of mobility attitudes and behavior. Approximately 40%-50% of households live car-free, with a slight upward trend. This does not mean, however, that these people no longer want to have access to a vehicle; many, for example, take advantage of sharing services.

 

What are the barriers that prevent people from changing their mobility routines and using new mobility solutions?

The first thing that prevents change is the existing infrastructure. Many things in cities invite to drive a car because the alternative offers are not there. As long as street space and parking spaces are given priority over cycle paths, pedestrian paths and children's playgrounds or green areas in cities when distributing the limited space, it is clear that car traffic is also perceived and used as the preferred form of mobility in many points. In many suburban regions and rural areas, public transport and other mobility and sharing services are not yet so comprehensive as to make it easy for someone used to driving a car to switch. Mobility habits are another reason: People who grew up with a car find it at least unsettling, if not uncomfortable, to change their usual means of transport - here the car. There are studies that say that people change their traffic behavior in situations of change. This means when the family status changes, they move or they get a new job. These are always opportunities in which one's own mobility behavior is put to the test. Here we check: I continue as before or I do something new. If people receive the right offers and target group-specific information in these sensitive phases, it is a good window of opportunity to change mobility behavior.

 

Which factors then influence our mobility decisions?

In any case, low-threshold access is always important for acceptance. The trying out of new things has to be very easy and if possible very error-friendly. We know from studies on the acceptance of electric vehicles that trying out and having fun already helps a lot to increase the acceptance of electric vehicles or new mobility services. Another important point is the visibility in the street space. I must also see that new mobility is possible. If everything is full of cars (privately owned) and parking lots, then it is probably very difficult for a new cargo bike service to be accepted. It must also be very easy to use, people must feel they have a high degree of autonomy with regard to their mobility and the price should of course be reasonable. And last but not least, something that is often overlooked in mobility services or not well used in communication: For many people it is important to be able to go wherever they want at any time - and they associate this with the car. A quote from an interview we once did in the context of studies on the acceptance of electric vehicles describes this quite well:

"I want to feel like I can go to the sea with my wife at any time - even if I never actually do that." A mobility service based on a switch from privately owned cars should also offer a simple and well-integrated solution for this need.

 

Which factors then influence our mobility decisions?

In any case, low-threshold access is always important for acceptance. The trying out of new things has to be very easy and if possible very error-friendly. We know from studies on the acceptance of electric vehicles that trying out and having fun already helps a lot to increase the acceptance of electric vehicles or new mobility services. Another important point is the visibility in the street space. I must also see that new mobility is possible. If everything is full of cars (privately owned) and parking lots, then it is probably very difficult for a new cargo bike service to be accepted. It must also be very easy to use, people must feel they have a high degree of autonomy with regard to their mobility and the price should of course be reasonable. And last but not least, something that is often overlooked in mobility services or not well used in communication: For many people it is important to be able to go wherever they want at any time - and they associate this with the car. A quote from an interview we once did in the context of studies on the acceptance of electric vehicles describes this quite well:

"I want to feel like I can go to the sea with my wife at any time - even if I never actually do that." A mobility service based on a switch from privately owned cars should also offer a simple and well-integrated solution for this need.

 

What solutions can you imagine to change people's mobility behavior?

I believe that large-scale regional trials or large-scale concepts are needed. Small-caliber attempts have often failed so far: It is not enough to send around a few free tickets for local public transport, put up two electric charging points and two electric cars somewhere and hope that people will then change everything over. These are solutions that are too small in size and do not really make it possible to change traffic routines. We need a large-caliber, systemic change in the transport system and the associated spatial planning, massive and visible changes, for example massive expansion of the infrastructure for sharing vehicles and bicycles, massive expansion and attractive design of the possibility of walking with a simultaneous reduction in space for cars, but there must also be attractive alternatives to existing behavior. Calls for abandonment and pure restrictions only guide action for a few people. An example: In many cities it's no fun at all to walk, although many paths we have are easier to walk or cycle on than by car. People still take the car because they are used to it and because other things are not made easier or more attractive for them.

 

And what measures and conditions are needed to increase the acceptance of new mobility concepts such as ride-sharing?

What is needed is a change in the available space and a more attractive design of the possibilities of moving around with alternative mobility offers, bicycles or on foot, e.g. parking cargo bikes without them standing in the way and being unsafe. In addition to spatial redesign, political support is also needed! Emission-related access restrictions to cities or taxation of CO2 emissions or taxation of fine dust emissions have been discussed for some time. These are not sufficient as negative measures alone and will encounter massive acceptance problems if other measures are not supported systematically and in the long term to a very high degree at the same time. Political guidance should not simply rely on prohibitions, but explicitly promote new offers and access to them. However, it is highly recommended to involve the population and in particular the target groups of these measures in their design through participation and co-creation. It is not enough simply to make unwanted behaviors harder and more expensive, but at the same time alternatives must be made possible and made easier and cheaper and these offers must be adapted very precisely to the needs of the local people.

 

Mr. Hoffmann, what does your personal mobility actually look like?

I travel mainly by bicycle, public transport and on foot. We don't own a car and that works well even with three small children. We go long distances by train, short distances by foot. If you want it to be fast and comfortable, then I take a taxi, shared and electric. We also have a large bicycle trailer, so almost as much of the trunk load of a small car fits into it - that's enough for a week's shopping for the family.

 

Christian Hoffmann is a professor at the department of psychology at the university for media, communication und economy (HMKW) in Berlin and head of environmental Psychology at e-fect dialog evaluation consulting eG with a focus on moderation and the professional focus on mobility, environmentally friendly behaviour and environmental psychological services. In addition to his e-fect work, he was project manager at the Innovationszentrum für Mobilität und gesellschaftlichen Wandel GmbH (InnoZ) from 2010-2018, focusing on mobility research. Here he conducted numerous studies on the acceptance of new mobility services and electric vehicles.