Sweet Carrots and Uncomfortable Sticks

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by Colin Fiske

Climate chaos presents a clear and urgent mandate for people to change many of their behaviors. With transportation now accounting for the largest share of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, transportation behaviors are among those in most desperate need of changing. Specifically, most people need to drive a lot less. Even with a transition to zero-emission vehicles under way, studies estimate that people in the United States will have to reduce the miles they drive by somewhere between 17% and 70% per capita over the next decade or two in order to meet international climate targets.

Unfortunately, the academic literature in the fields of both psychology and transportation makes a pretty compelling case that—even when presented with the evidence—people will not simply make the “rational” choice to drive less. Instead, we’ll have to create new conditions—financial, social, and infrastructural—that encourage people to make the right choices. And let me be clear: when I say “them,” what I mean is really “us.” In order to compel our friends, our families, our neighbors and ourselves to behave differently, we must be willing to face our own complicated psychologies.

In the policy world, behavior change strategies are often classified as either “carrots” or “sticks,” named after the prototypical alternatives for encouraging a horse or other beast of burden to move faster. (It’s a notable coincidence that this widely used metaphor comes from the world of transportation.) Generally, of course, carrot policies are much more popular than stick policies. On the North Coast, for example, new trails, bike lanes, sidewalks and bus routes are all broadly popular, as are employer and landlord incentives for biking, carpooling or transit. These are all “carrots,” in that they create incentives or remove barriers to the kind of low-carbon transportation that we need to see more of. And they work—up to a point. That’s why CRTP advocates so hard to support these critical improvements.

But the research shows that the most effective way to change transportation behavior is to apply both carrots and sticks—particularly “sticks” that increase the price of driving. That means that in order to meet our climate goals, we’re going to have to use some less appealing measures too: things like removing parking spaces and charging for those that remain, reducing speeds on major thoroughfares, removing lanes, and even closing some streets to vehicles entirely. In other words, we’re going to have to make it take longer, cost more, and be less convenient to drive.

It’s important to note that when advocating for policies like these, it’s rarely a good idea to talk about them as “sticks”—even if they will have that effect. Another well-documented psychological phenomenon is that people are much more likely to take an action if it is framed in terms of potential gains rather than potential losses. And most policy sticks in the transportation world do have major upsides, too. Removing parking or driving capacity in our towns, for example, frees up space for bike lanes, parklets, outdoor dining, and more. Those are the kinds of things we should be talking about.

Nevertheless, sticks are generally unpopular policy options. But if you believe in science—both the science of climate change and the science of behavior change—it’s time to start advocating for uncomfortable policies like these. We need to provide just as much support for removing a row of parking spaces or a lane of travel as we do for building a new trail or sidewalk. Because the science is clear: we need carrots, but we need sticks too.