We need to build a future where the green choice is the obvious choice. To achieve our climate change goals, making public transit, biking, walking, or green commuting the obvious choice will be critical.
Globally, transport emissions are rising faster than those in any other sector. In Canada alone, transportation accounted for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, a 16% increase from 2005 levels. How people get to work contributes to this issue.
Commuting behaviours are tough to shift. For many, driving is the only option that makes sense. Structural issues, such as land use planning decisions and a lack of convenient and reliable public transportation mean there just aren’t other good options. Even for those with good options, cognitive barriers, such as following the status quo (i.e., driving because that is how I have always gotten to work), make adopting new habits difficult.
However, COVID-19 has forced change. Commutes transformed overnight from rush hour drives to turning on a computer. The proportion of teleworkers in Canada increased from 4% pre-pandemic to 32% at the beginning of 2021. Now, as restrictions are lifting and more people return to working in-person, this disruption to pre-existing habits offers a valuable opportunity. We can reset how we commute.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is striving to ensure a clean, safe, and sustainable environment for present and future generations. As part of their Green Economic Recovery work, we published a research report offering evidence-based approaches to encourage environmentally-friendly commuting behaviours as we recover from the pandemic.
The 19 recommendations detailed in the report are grounded in commuting data trends, behavioural science literature, and consultations with academic experts and government officials. Because structural and individual factors influence commuting, we suggest both behaviourally-informed policy changes and complementary “nudges” to tackle the challenge.
Make public transit faster than driving
The strongest policy solution in our report is to invest in public transit infrastructure. Be it building a major transit line or transitioning to a zero emission bus fleet, leveraging infrastructure investments is a sound strategy to help shift behaviour long term.
Reducing frictions (i.e., any barrier to an action) and making something easy to do are powerful behavioural insights. If regions can make public transit faster and more convenient than driving, we have strong reason to believe that people will use it to get to work.
However, even when a structural barrier like public transit infrastructure is addressed, other policies and solutions can be enhanced by understanding how people process information, make decisions, and behave.
Use complementary nudges
To reinforce behaviourally-informed policy, we recommend a suite of interventions to encourage sustainable commuting. Two complements to infrastructure investment are:
- Provide personalized travel plans at moments of transition. Moments of transition like moving, starting a new job, or returning to in-person work after nearly two years of teleworking are ripe for behaviour change as old habits are naturally broken. A personalized travel plan that outlines employees’ transportation options and incentives can help overcome two common cognitive barriers: lack of knowledge and availability bias (i.e., choosing what you know about already), and ultimately encourage greener commuting.
- Make hybrid working arrangements the default. People tend to prefer default options over alternatives. We’re even more likely to choose the default option in cognitively taxing situations. Employers may still view in-person work as the default and have complex approval processes for remote work arrangements, which can reduce the likelihood of employees seeking them out. To support sustainable commuting, employers could adopt a hybrid work model as the default, prompting managers and employees to decide how time should be split. This active choice framing makes the choice salient, which encourages people to consider tradeoffs.
These recommendations are just the beginning. As many countries return to in-person work, there’s a major opportunity to use this small window of transition to make commuting more sustainable. Download the full report for all 19 of our evidence-based recommendations and learn how behavioural science can play a role in making the green commuting choice the obvious choice.