The vast majority of people in the UK still commute to work by car rather than by using public transport or cycling. Obviously this has serious consequences for the environment: cars are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. But changing the way people commute can not only help the environment, it can make them healthier and happier, too.
When we think about the choices that workers make when travelling to their jobs, we might assume that they make informed decisions, and that giving them new information to challenge their currently held attitudes could change their behaviour. For example, tell a person that it is not only quicker and cheaper for them to cycle to work, but it is also better for the environment too, and you might expect them immediately to hop on their bike.
In reality, however, it is extremely difficult to change how people travel to work: car users resist change and fear losing their autonomy if they switch to another mode of travel – so far, interventions to reduce car use have had limited success.
One reason why it is so difficult for people to give up their cars is that the act of commuting is largely habitual. Most of us get behind the wheel and drive to our jobs via the same route day in, day out, without a thought.
Previous research has shown that habits can override the best of our intentions. Even people with pro-environmental views who would like to give up driving may find it difficult to break their habit, particularly when travelling by car to their place work has been ingrained over a long period of time.
Most of our daily behaviours, including commuting, are carried out in the same time and place. Repeating behaviours in the same context over and over again makes us associate the behaviour with that context. A change in context may therefore help to disrupt a habit.
In a previous study, we found that when an organisation moved to a new office, their employees’ travel habits weakened. This effect was seen for everyone, regardless of whether they changed the way they travelled to work or not. This suggests that people re-evaluate the way they travel when it is no longer triggered by the same familiar context.
The psychologist Bas Verplanken thinks that moving home is the best time to start a new habit: it provides a window of opportunity where people can shift their actions in line with how they would like to behave. To test this idea, he conducted a survey among staff working at a university in England. He found that people who had recently moved house were less likely to travel by car, and that this effect was strongest for people with pro-environmental views.
In our recent research, we wanted to see whether this was the case for the whole of the UK. We analysed the Understanding Society survey, with data from 18,053 individuals working across the country. Having first looked at how long people had lived at their current address and how they chose to travel to work, we found that people who had recently moved were far less likely to commute by car than those who had lived for longer at the same address.
We then examined whether people’s environmental attitudes made a difference. We found that people with strong pro-environmental attitudes were less likely to commute to work by car, and that this effect was stronger if they had recently moved home. The effect was short-lived, however: this difference in behaviour was only found during the first six months of a person living in a new house, after which commuters appeared to lapse back into old habits.
The study shows that major life changes, such as moving home, offer an excellent opportunity for people to break their old habits and reconsider the choices they make.
This is good news for policy makers, who could use this break to deliver key information at a time when people are most ready to engage with a new behaviour, and encourage them to maintain healthier and sustainable choices for longer. A recent experiment also found that an intervention to promote several sustainable behaviours can be more effective for people who have recently moved home, and this principle could be applied to a range of different topics such as promoting healthy eating or exercising.