How to sweet talk car drivers into using the bus

Wed, 2014-06-25 06:00 -- Doug Cooley

What’s the best strategy for getting people to ditch their cars and ride the bus? How about trying a friendly conversation.

CityLab reports that a U.K.-based transportation consultant is doing just that and seeing results. The firm Steer Davies Gleave (SDG) has instigated door-to-door “motivational interviewing” to help residents see for themselves the wisdom of opting for public transportation. Based on therapies used to treat behavioral challenges such as alcohol abuse and poor eating habits, the technique avoids guilt-tripping people and confronting them with environmental or social reasons for riding the bus. Instead, the SDG “travel advisors” that knock on doors ask residents questions that help them reflect on their travel habits and recognize when traveling without a car makes sense.

“Rather than us telling them the benefits or what the facts are or what other people think, it's about guiding them through the process of what would motivate them," says SDG's Eleni Harlan in the CityLab piece.

Reduction in car trips reported

Before initiating these one-on-one conversations, SDG typically works with local jurisdictions to identify areas where there’s a potential to reduce car use. One two-year program in the English city of Ely visited more than 8,000 households. Another, along a corridor in the West Midlands, visited 17,500.

All those visits appear to have changed some habits  Last year SDG found an 11% reduction in car driving trips among nearly 25,000 households across nine cities. In the West Midlands program, SDG found a 24% reported reduction in car trips more than a year later.

In spite of these positive results, the program has recognized shortcomings as a means for building transit ridership. Many say that money spent improving transit service might would provide the best motivation for drivers to leave behind their cars. In addition, it takes time to train interviewers and deploy them to thousands of homes. Then there’s the reality that many people simply don’t want to talk to the person on their doorstep.