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Opinion: The Challenge (and Necessity) of Getting Drivers to See the Light

8:28 AM PDT on November 2, 2022

Active transport is good for us and our society. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

The following was submitted to Streetsblog by a Senior Active Transport Planner at the City of Newcastle, New South Wales Australia, but was written in her private capacity. The views expressed are her own.

Anna Gurnhill
Anna Gurnhill
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The reasons, attitudes and perspectives for the different transport modes and behavior we each choose are complex, sensitive and controversial (did someone mention car-parking!?!).

As transport planners, bike advocates and others in related sectors, our responsibilities toward sustainable transport play a key role in public relations, marketing, branding and relationship management of a mode we know is better for the planet and our communities.

If we want to win the war on encouraging and enabling more people to engage in active transport and micromobility, we cannot afford to have a war with those exact same people whose hearts and minds we’re trying to win. People who drive cars can be our friends.

Four types of drivers

Like Geller’s "four types of cyclists," recent research from Cathy Tuttle in Oregon has identified four types of drivers: the Entitled Driver; the Habitual Driver; the Reluctant Driver; and the Non-Driver. Habitual and reluctant drivers, coupled with the "interested, but concerned" cyclists, are a perfect target market for active transport and transport mode shift.

Driving a private motor vehicle has become completely normalized. It’s often unquestioned. As more and more people do come to question it, we need them to do so from a perspective of curiosity and interest, not from a standpoint of defensiveness.

As creatures of habit, it's often very difficult to step out of our comfort zones. We’re not going to convince anyone to take a leap, or even a small step, towards modal shift if we’ve already diminished their confidence and put them offside by criticizing how they live — and driving is often central to a particular lifestyle.

As any good brand manager, marketing executive or PR consultant knows, messaging, narrative and language must be positive. Guilting, accusing, ostracising, shaming or blaming people into a different course of action or travel behavior is unlikely to succeed. People are often willing to change, given the right circumstances and context, but are generally also resistant to "being changed." Our messages must inspire, empower, enable and encourage. 

An unfair advantage

We in the cycling industry, transport planning, bike advocacy and related sectors have an unfair advantage. We know how much fun it is to ride a bike! We know how good it feels. We know the many benefits — for ourselves, our communities, our environment and our local economies and businesses. It can be incredibly difficult to convey this to someone who has never experienced this power and joy and freedom. (And we need to remember we’re often in various positions of privilege to be able to choose cycling and other sustainable transport modes, though that needs to change, too.)

Those of us who live and breathe this stuff know what’s possible, and we know how to get there. Others don’t necessarily know or see this opportunity and the art of the possible as we do. It can be frustrating for us because we rely on everyone to make our vision a reality. We need their help. And for others to help us, we need to help them.

Active transport is not an individual ‘burden’

We should also not expect individuals to bear the burden of responsibility for reducing traffic congestion, carbon emissions, undoing the sprawl of their suburban neighborhoods and more. Australian author and journalist Jeff Sparrow has called this out in the context of a very successful PR campaign run by British Petroleum. BP coined the term "carbon footprint" and did so by placing the responsibility of reducing carbon footprints on individuals! Sparrow argues this is a mere distraction from BP itself taking responsibility and that individuals have little effect in comparison to what organizations, industries and government are capable of.

In a similar way, industries, corporations and governments have responsibility to aid individuals in a transition to active transport, micromobility and public transport. This work is underway, but there remains a lot to be done, and a lot of room for improvement.

Sparrow, in his recently published "Crimes Against Nature," highlights this further: “Think of electric vehicles. … Like solar power, electric vehicles will surely play an important role in a sustainable future… However, they’ve been seized upon by the automotive industry to preserve and extend car culture. … Their success in selling high-tech private vehicles will, accordingly, forestall sustainable options such as bicycles and public transport (and) push cities to maintain the wasteful infrastructure designed around cars.”

As bike advocates, transport planners and others, our work with individuals, our messaging and narrative should not be about their responsibility to cut emissions, to improve the environment, or any other virtue-signalling behavior. Our work is to consider and compellingly convey the "WIIFMs" (What’s In It For Me) for more people to walk, ride, scoot and catch public transport; and to ensure the appropriate infrastructure and other conditions are in place to enable those who do want to reduce their car dependency to be able to do so. We need to make it a realistic and viable option — both tangibly and intangibly; on the ground and in people’s minds.

Many of us hold influential positions within our governments, our organizations and industry; it is here that we must be brave and bold — in our policies, programs and push for funding.

It's not wrong to try and change someone's mind. In fact, it’s what we must do. But there are right and wrong ways to go about it. We need to continue to finesse our art as masters of persuasion — with messages that resonate and are relatable for our audience and target market; keeping in mind that we are not our audience.

Better infrastructure benefits everyone

What are the broad WIIFMs for the habitual and reluctant drivers who are interested but concerned about cycling? There are many, but among them is simply that better infrastructure benefits everyone. Australia’s leading cyclist safety organization, the Amy Gillett Foundation, has created a short animation, eloquently making the point that our roads are safe when they’re fit for purpose and all users have the space they require, including freight trucks. 

Much of our messaging doesn't even have to be about bikes or cycling — it’s better to discuss the type of city or town in which we all want to live. We need to design paths, streets and roads that prioritize the appropriate use and behavior for that environment.

For many decades, Australia’s urban planning has been based on assumptions that we need private vehicles to meet our daily needs. For a long time, this has been the most attractive and, often, the only realistic option to get from A to B. We have work to do to achieve 15-minute neighborhoods and cities. We need to design out the types of vehicles and speeds from certain streets to humanize them and make it safer for all.

Concurrently, we need to work with a critical mainstream mass to help our neighbors and broad communities realize how enjoyable and pleasurable it is to ride bikes, walk and scoot in areas where they don’t mix with high-speed, often heavy, vehicles. "We want streets which are complex enough to make it instinctively clear that your truck’s regular road speed is not suitable for the neighborhood you’re in," Norm Van Eeden Petersman recently wrote in Strong Towns.

In Australia, most jurisdictions have a "Movement and Place" framework which is a multi-disciplinary approach to our public, shared streets. It broadens our thinking about road and street design beyond transport alone, to also recognize the important role these spaces provide for people and communities to live, work, socialise, support local economies and spend time. This approach recognizes the need to design the right road environments and public spaces for the right purposes and functions. In some cases, it’s about enabling movement of people and goods in various different modes of transport. In others, it’s about creating places where people want to linger. Local councils across the country are working toward implementing this framework.

We will slowly create a critical mass which will result in a virtuous circle of more voices for better infrastructure and political influence. 

The right tool for the job

Let’s not have a war on cars, or the people who drive them. Instead, let’s be inclusive, inspiring and empowering to help others choose “the right tool for the job," noting, of course, that — generally — the #BikeIsBest!! (thanks to Adam Tranter for that gem!).

Riding bikes is fun. And those of us in transport planning and related fields need to make sure it’s safe, convenient and easy so that it absolutely, unquestionably, irrevocably is fun, for everyone! We have to be bold and visionary in our programs, policies and projects.

We have to do more than just this. We have to bring the broadest possible set of people on the journey with us. To do that, we have to befriend them. We cannot assume they see the world from our lens. We can only bring them on a shared journey if we empathize and understand and begin at their start line, not ours.

Anna Gurnhill is a longtime cyclist, adventurer, traveller, bike advocate, transport planner, city dweller and, yes, the co-owner of a 4WD SUV. She’s a strong believer that the humble bicycle can solve many of the world’s most complex challenges and is committed to help make it happen. And she loves good coffee.

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