How to break a habit

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As I mentioned in my last post, David and I recently traveled to Austin, Texas.  While we were there, a number of people asked me what I thought of the city and how it compared to Sydney.  Each time, my answer was pretty much the same – I was astounded by the city’s dependency on cars, the extent to which the ‘city’ sprawled and the awful, awful traffic jams.

Austin is a city with very limited public transport.  While there is a bus service, it regularly took over an hour for me to travel the 10 miles into the city centre from where we were staying.  When I mentioned to local people that I was using the bus to get around (and walking around 10 or more kilometres per day), a lot of them seemed genuinely shocked – ‘but you’re so brave,‘ said one person.

I’m not brave.  I’m accustomed to using public transport as much as possible, because at home it’s often faster, more convenient and less stressful.  That’s not to say that Sydney’s public transport is perfect – far from it.  But the mentality in Sydney is quite different.  Most people that I know take public transport to work, and although there’s traffic congestion, it doesn’t really rate compared to Austin.  That’s hardly surprising – one evening, as Dave and I drove to Downtown in heavy traffic, I think I only noticed two cars with any passengers.

The question then, in cities like Austin, is not just how to improve public transport (although that is absolutely important).  It’s about creating a complete shift in how people choose to get around.  It’s about removing the stigma attached to public transport and the expectation of car ownership.

Things are changing.  ZipCar and Car 2 Go both have a presence in Austin.  There are bike shops everywhere, especially around the Zilker and South Congress areas, and the city does seem to be working on improving its public transport offerings, with work on an urban rail system expected to start in 2016.  All of these things are great, but without a shift in how people choose to get around, they just won’t be that meaningful.

So, I’m curious.  How do you get people to change entrenched habits and beliefs about something as integral as how they get around?

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6 thoughts on “How to break a habit

    • They’re no more dangerous than in Sydney, from what I could tell. It’s just that there seems to be this huge stigma, like only the poor and/or crazy get the bus, and as such, you’re likely to get hassled/ mugged. Reality is, most passengers seem to be uni students.

  1. Although I wish you could simply convince people of the benefits of public transit, walking and biking, I think it comes down to money. North Americans pay much too little for their gasoline which allows us to not only all own vehicles, but own large, inefficient vehicles.

    So, I would start by increasing taxes on gasoline (or ideally putting a national price on carbon which would bring the increase in gasoline prices). Then, when creating public transit, you have to do it right! It has to be quicker than being stuck in traffic! And it has to be on time. Oh, and you can do what Copenhagen does (I believe its Copenhagen, but don’t quote me): Give the drivers of buses and trains the ability to control traffic lights!

    Finally, while doing all of the above, you need to tout the advantages of investing in public transit. This includes the creation of jobs, decreasing the amount of air pollution and saving individuals money.

    • Yes, the petrol prices in the US are unbelievably cheap! It would be nice to be able to change a mindset without needing to resort to prohibitive prices though – cars are certainly useful in some situations (such as going out of town) and it would be a shame to have to price some people out of having that advantage.

      • I completely agree. However, I the past, it has worked. I remember in 2008, when gas prices hit $1,40 per L (which is very expensive here), everyone was selling their trucks and SUVs and small car sales were doing well.

  2. Pingback: TED Talk: Mark Bittman on how we eat | eek.ology

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