Using one’s head to help people use their hearts and their feet to shift their minds and their world

Six years ago I was riding my bicycle to work along a shared path and as I past the old lady, who looked so grumpy but would greet me so sweetly, I realised that this moment needed to be captured. For it was that moment that gave me hope, both as an advertisement for getting out of a walled vehicle with a petrol motor, and as a way to see beauty in connection.

For years I had been trying to get people out of their cars after I had realised that indeed cars were responsible for so much destruction, waste and greed. I had thought that if I was smart enough I could find a way of engineering, planning, pricing or coaxing people out of the cars and then the world would become a better place. However, it wasn’t a new vehicle design, or city plan or travel demand management strategy that gave me hope that people could or would want to get out of cars. It was that moment – two ordinary looking people, with their own insecurities and struggles, smiling with each other on a daily basis.

I had been sifting through psychology and sociology literature related to transport use in an attempt to build up a framework of how to understand and shift people’s transport habits. The work examined values, norms, attitudes, emotion and perceptions of efficacy, as well as a better understanding of habitual behaviour. These could be classified as determinants of behaviour and had been shown in various experiments and case studies to affect one’s mode of transport choice or other lifestyle choices. I put this together with the particularities of transport behaviour (e.g. it’s routine, complex, uncertain, takes place in public, takes time and can be emotional) to build a more comprehensive picture of the mechanisms which could be determining our transport behaviour.

I then took a step further to better understand some of the transport-related messages we were receiving that could be influencing these determinants of behaviour. And I looked across a broad spectrum of the messages from planning information to sustainability campaigns, from what we directly observe on the street to what we see in films. It was while searching through mass media that I saw that almost nothing in the mass media was encouraging people to use non-car modes of transport. Meanwhile, carefully crafted car advertisements were everywhere and they were perpetuating various myths which made car use seem normal, exciting, innovative, responsible and affordable and more.

At the end of my thesis I came up with a few policy recommendations. However, it was a recommendation I was giving myself that I was most excited about. I had decided to try and make a film that was going to help shift people’s consciousness, blow their minds, save the whole damn world!!! Well, it’s not as motivating to say I’m going to make a video that a couple of friends will watch it and say sweet things about.

I had watched many documentaries and a film called the age of stupid, which felt like they had been designed to give us lots of facts and make us feel disgusted and hopeless. However, if all the psychology and sociology literature I was reading was worth anything, this filmmaking approach wasn’t helping us help ourselves. It’s probably the type of film I would have made at the start of my thesis – a film showing how bad cars are, how prolific car use was and how we are all fucked because of all the money and political power is wrapped up in the continuation of car use. However, I did learn a couple of things from those dubious social sciences that I tried to keep in mind while making my documentary.

Firstly, we don’t need to (and we shouldn’t) tell people about how many cars there are on the road. Yes, people see it every day – the one thing about transport is that (even privately owned) transport is very public. We only have to walk out on the street to know there are a lot of cars. It can be harder to know how many people are on buses and trains unless you are in them. The advertisements on buses that hide the people inside haven’t helped in this respect. The understandings we get about the prevalence of different behaviours, known as descriptive social norms, has been shown to influence behaviour. We somehow form an idea that a type of behaviour is acceptable because it’s so normal, we might forget some of our other values and focus on the value of being normal. So, if I wanted to encourage people to get out of their cars, the last thing I would want to illuminate is how prolific car use is. I would want to demonstrate that using other modes of transport is also normal. To do this, I would visit various cities where I can film the use of different modes of transport, and hone in on bicycles, pedestrians, motor bikes and public transport users.

Secondly, we need to put the audience in the shoes of people using different modes of transport. For the population out there that hasn’t had the privilege of using various modes of transport, their lack of familiarity may be stopping them. By seeing and feeling what it’s like to use different modes of transport, one can start to believe that they can successful have a go themselves (i.e. they have a higher perceived self-efficacy). This has also been shown to influence behaviour. Before I started catching trains I didn’t really know what it would be like inside a carriage and I had a strange fear of not being able to open the doors and missing my stop. By showing how all sorts of people manage to navigate their transport systems and exposing the audience to the environment of these people, perhaps this would elevate one’s self-efficacy and increase their potential to give a new mode of transport a go. It can’t hurt to empower someone with all these extra perspectives.

Thirdly, we need to show the emotional and aesthetic beauty of the world of sustainable transport. I have no desire to dictate how you live your life, any more than a car advertiser does…  Just like the advertiser, I don’t want you to think that I’m making decisions for you. But unlike the car advertiser I’m not going to create beauty using fabricated footage filmed by an amazing cinematographer. Not only can I not afford this but I don’t think it’s that ethical or necessary. There is so much beauty that is a natural part of the experiences of walking, cycling and taking public transport that can be captured even with my unsteady hand. It is through embracing this beauty, both the emotional and physical, that will help us transition our way of life away from car use – more than any feeling of sacrifice for the greater good. If we truly want a cultural shift, we need to love where we are going with it. Emotions are naturally shared, so we need to make sure we are spreading the good stuff when it comes to our future transport.

Finally, we need to demonstrate just how much you and the world will benefit from trying a more sustainable mode of transport. While self-efficacy is the ability for you to successfully carry out a type of behaviour, outcome-efficacy is the potential for this behaviour to lead to a desired outcome. By interviewing people about the positive parts of their transport, not only did I find out some personal benefits (like the joys of reading on the bus or feeling free on the bike), I also came to realise there were some cascading positive outcomes. For it was the use of more public and open modes of transport that helped people feel a part of a wider community and closer to their environment. These are vital precursors to creating a more caring, sustainable, liveable and just world.  And it turns out that an elevated perception of outcome efficacy also influences our behaviour.

Of course, my film has its flaws but perhaps other documentary filmmakers with a little more talent than me can use some of these ideas and make the mind altering film I had dreamt about. I don’t ride my bicycle to work along that shared path anymore but I hope that grumpy old lady is still inspiring idealistic cyclists with crazy ideas.

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