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Driving change: navigating the path to net zero through modal shift

James Knoll-Pollard, Behavioural Design Lead for Future Mobility, and Melinda Matyas, Associate Director for Future Mobility | WSP

4 min read Partner content

Surface transport remains the UK’s highest carbon-emitting sector, accounting for around 23% of total UK emissions.

Without reducing the carbon impact of the way we travel – both in the modes we use and the infrastructure needed to carry them – net zero simply won’t be achievable in the UK by 2050. Whilst much work is currently underway to rise to this challenge at a national, regional and local level, there is still a very long way to go.

Investment in new transport technologies and fuels, as well as the expansion of green finance and streamlining of the planning process to deliver vital infrastructure projects at scale, are all core to the UK successfully meeting its climate commitments within its legislated timeframe.

However, technological innovations, finance and planning will only get us so far. Behavioural change – effectively shifting the mindset of individuals and communities around how the get from A to B – is also vital to enable success of government policy and public/private sector action to decarbonise our transport system.

Of course, changing habits is hard, particularly within a broader context of a struggling national economy and resultant cost-of-living crisis where too often the sustainable choice is the more expensive one. The crux of this challenge is in moving people away from cars and onto public transport or active travel solutions, so how can we change people’s behaviour and support communities across the UK to choose lower carbon, more sustainable forms of transport?

The UK Climate Change Committee’s (UKCCC) progress report to Parliament last summer highlighted the pressing need to empower and inform communities to make low-carbon choices, alongside the rapid expansion of renewable energy and reform of planning policy.

To support their advocacy around this, the UKCCC commissioned WSP to conduct supplementary research to the Report, outlining the challenges in promoting ‘modal shift’ in the UK (i.e. choosing one form of transport for another) and how to overcome these.

The resulting report highlighted that for every household in the UK to be more sustainable, this social transformation will not occur organically. Instead, a comprehensive strategy is needed to communicate the options and opportunities available, incentivise people to make sustainable lifestyle choices and to empower whole communities to get involved in decision-making processes.

First, public policy interventions need to not only focus on “carrots-and-sticks” but also on building awareness within the general public of what alternative options are available to them.

To make behavioural changes stick long-term, people need to know what is expected of them and why. Communications campaigns need to be built around the changes to clearly inform local people about new alternatives and how they will benefit them.

It is also important to focus on incremental changes. Modal shift requires evolution, not revolution, and once small habits are changed, it is easier to implement larger-scale alterations. Take car usage as an example. Requiring that all drivers stop using their cars would not be feasible. However, people are more likely to embrace small adjustments to their routines. For those who live in urban areas, encouraging park and ride schemes or walking for the last mile of their journeys can support a more manageable transition for households to use their cars less.

This is why building and creating liveable places is essential to modal shift. Lifestyle changes will only be fully embraced if there are good and accessible options available, such as making public transport more affordable, protecting cycle and walking routes and enabling amenable, safe public spaces. Alongside encouraging take-up of existing solutions, cities and towns must also be re-designed to facilitate new relationships between households and the urban spaces they occupy.

Finally, any interventions to support modal shift must be both local and context specific. A solution that may work for someone who lives in one city may not be applicable to a resident of another, or to someone who lives rurally. Thus, to drive changes in personal behaviour, one needs to understand why people are behaving the way they are which requires local knowledge and a human-centred approach. Therefore, local authorities should have more autonomy to work with their residents to develop solutions that are applicable to them.

To try and change behaviour, a more holistic approach which considers the person at the centre of the policy should be taken by decision-makers. Ultimately, behavioural change will be vital to meeting our net zero targets but can only be successful if we properly consider the needs of all users, tackle the barriers they currently face and the highlight the rewards we’ll reap if we collectively meet our goals.

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