Can Commuters be Persuaded to Leave the Car at Home?

A number of cities are trialing different incentives to reduce car numbers. However, there is no ‘silver bullet’ and viable alternatives must be in place for initiatives to succeed.   

Air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people a year worldwide and vehicles are a major cause of CO2 emissions. Car reduction is therefore essential to tackle the unholy trinity of limited urban space, the climate crisis and public health burden. To this end, the UK is trialing mobility credits for use on public transport or bike- and car-share schemes in exchange for drivers scrapping older vehicles.

Transport authorities worldwide have been testing similar initiatives for some time, such as discounted or subsidized travel passes, cycle-to-work schemes and rideshares. Now, the US is even experimenting with ‘gamifying’ commutes. Users of the Incentrip app are rewarded with points to exchange for transport credits, gift vouchers or cash when they choose more environmentally-friendly transport or routes.  

The commute to work is an unavoidable constant for many people, so companies are in a good position to encourage employees to ditch the car. Options include offering tax-free government incentives as part of employee benefits, implementing carpools or parking cash-outs (offering employees the cash value of their parking spot).

While reducing overall numbers is the holy grail, the average car is occupied by just 1.2 people, so rideshares and carpools help by increasing occupancy rates. As well as corporate or municipal initiatives, peer-to-peer carpooling companies offer drivers a financial incentive to take passengers. However, people are naturally reluctant to share space with a stranger and multiple-occupancy transit can struggle with long-term engagement.

For any sustainable mobility initiative to succeed, simply appealing to our better nature by invoking climate change or the risks to our health is rarely effective. To give up the convenience of their car, people need to get something out of it personally. For some, the reward may need to be more than financial. For example, the added motivation of making the gaming experience competitive.  

Whatever the incentive, it’s unrealistic to expect people to give up cars without affordable, flexible alternatives in place. Sadly, in many cities, public transport has become so run-down and unreliable that it’s often the last option for many. Realistically, few people will regularly opt for a longer, more inconvenient or frustrating commute if they value their time more than any reward.

Schemes must also address all commuters’ needs and concerns. For example, guaranteed free rides home for unscheduled overtime or emergencies give car-free commuters peace of mind. Similarly, cycle-to-work schemes are more attractive when facilities like secure parking or showers are provided.

Disincentivization is another piece of the puzzle: Cities around the world are also experimenting with measures like congestion or emissions charges and parking reduction to squeeze cars out and make driving less attractive.

However, there is no silver bullet and the solution is likely to be a combination of initiatives. Real change will come when people have viable alternatives that compete with the convenience of the car. Services like Shotl On-demand Shuttles can help by working with public transport providers to supplement infrequent or inflexible services or cover unmet needs in, for example, rural communities. Also, by improving first-mile, last-mile connectivity, connecting residential areas to public transport links. However, while the private sector has a role to play, governments must continue to make incentives available to companies and individuals, and commit to spending on transport infrastructure and maintenance.

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