Giving up cars – Summary of the article

This post is a summary of my recent article, which is published online at the Journal of Cleaner Production (Laakso, S., Giving up cars – The impact of a mobility experiment on carbon emissions and everyday routines, Journal of Cleaner Production (2017),  The actual article contains all the references omitted here for readability. 

Mobility plays an important role in the transition towards sustainability: not only does it account for 20% of carbon emissions in Europe, other negative consequences include local air pollution, noise, accidents, increasing congestion and land use, and social exclusion. Countries and cities globally have pursued strategies and plans for sustainable transport. However, the discussion on sustainability transition in mobility has focused predominantly on technological developments and encouraging changes in behaviours and choices of individuals, while overlooking the embeddedness of mobility in our daily, and social, life. Consequently, research has recently shifted to emphasise the importance of understanding the broader contexts in which travel choices are made and mobility practices performed.

Experiments are considered an innovative way for people to ‘trial behaviour’ and for local policy to gain new knowledge and find alternatives to status quo. For experiments to promote local sustainability and to gain understanding of the adoption of new practices (and discarding of old ones), the experiences of participants are nevertheless important. Relevant questions include: how participating in an experiment affects participants’ routines and everyday living, what effect these experiences have on the success (or failure) of experiments, and how could future experiments – and local policy in general – take these experiences into account?

My article presents the results of a study of an experiment called ‘Give up your car’. The experiment was targeted at two-car households interested in replacing their driving by using buses. The aim was to encourage the use of buses and to lower carbon emissions, as well as to test whether projects like this could be useful in promoting public transportation in the future. Altogether eleven households of different sizes participated in the experiment. One condition of participation was that the participants sold (one of) their cars: they had to present a transfer certificate before the experiment started. Four of the households gave up their only cars, seven of them owned two cars and gave up one of them. The City of Jyväskylä offered the participants free travel cards (1–2 per household) for local buses in return.

Advertisement at the web page of public transport authority in Jyväskylä.

The total carbon emissions of participants reduced significantly during the experiment, the average reduction being 43%. Of the four participants who sold their only cars, three did not drive at all during the last surveillance week. The participants who still had one car used it more efficiently. Driving was replaced by using buses at the beginning of the experiment, and by walking and cycling towards the spring.  Eight participants increased their bus use, but three hardly used buses at all. Six months after the experiment, only one of the participants had bought a new car due to moving house. Other participants who gave up their only car continued using buses regularly, but most other participants reduced their bus use after the experiment.

Simply put, the process of change in everyday practices in mobility can be divided into three alternative processes: easy, manageable and hard. The processes varied, depending on other practices of working, parenting, taking care of oneself or of others, shopping and spending spare time, as well as on the complex interdependencies between the practices. There were thus different, and complex, paths of restructuring practices – also within the households – for commuting and business travel, school and day-care travel, visiting family and friends, shopping and leisure travel, reflecting the whole organisation of everyday life. Processes also varied depending on the practice in question: changing commuting practices was mainly easy, whereas changing practices of shopping or visiting friends was more laborious. In many households, mobility practices diverged due to the experiment: those who had sold or given up their cars became car-free, whereas the other adult continued driving as usual, despite the opportunity to test the bus use. This was mostly justified by long distances or lack of proper bus connections to work, or the need to use the car during the work days. Also the maintenance of the car was left to the car-driving adult, who also took a greater responsibility for shopping and running other errands, or adjusting schedules or routes in a way that the car-free partner could also join the trips.

The results indicate that selecting participants already interested in car-free living made these participants take the final step and give up ownership of their cars.  Relocation to a new city, or within the city, as well as unemployment and retirement, were efficient points for intervention. The timing and targeting of the experiment was thus important. Co-operation between public transport authorities and work places, schools or housing associations could thus prove fruitful.

Handing out free travel cards valid for a couple of weeks has been a successful way of making people aware of the benefits of public transport. The effects often remain temporary, however, and do not show decreases in car use. Combining the requirement of giving up car ownership with a financial incentive that lasts long enough was effective. Giving up a car was a forceful disruption, and the threshold of getting back to old habits grew quite high during the experiment. Given that price promotions are virtually free of charge for public transport operators (as long as they have unused capacity), promotions are often worth the effort.

Focusing mainly on two-car households proved valuable, as participants could both ‘have the cake and eat it’. Most of them still had another car in the household, or they could borrow one, but they still got the opportunity to experiment with bus use. The experiment forced the participants to adjust their everyday living on the prerequisite of not having a car available all the time, which made them also estimate the need for driving in the first place. The experiment was a means to tackle the culture of each adult family member owning a car.

However, the experiment faced similar limitations to previous price promotions, by assuming that structural conditions (e.g., bus routes, frequencies) do not significantly limit the use of public transport. However, these factors define the mobility practices to a high degree, especially in smaller cities which have not enough resources for idel public transport that attracts people to switch from private driving to bus use. Before price promotions or other soft measures can be considered effective, it is important to promote sustainable mobility also at the national and global level, to support local initiatives and change the cultural and economic landscape. One of the targets must be to reduce the need for travel in the first place, as mobility now ties many everyday practices together.

Feelings and emotions – from the joy of learning to regret, embarrassment and fear of failure – were important in the experiment. For some, the freedom from car maintenance was liberating, and the positive experiences of gaining new competences and learning how to use buses as a new means of being mobile, as well as shopping without a car and finding new time slots for exercising, strengthened the feeling of having made the right choice. For others, not owning a car meant being dependent on others’ help, having to bother their friends and neighbours, and stressful rescheduling of daily tasks. For them, the memory of the car was related to ease, comfort and privacy, fortifying, in turn, the negative experiences related to the experiment. These positive or negative feelings should not be underestimated in experimentation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *