Want People to Go Car-Free? Make it Easier.

Encouraging individuals to lead car-free lifestyles – for the sake of the environment, the well-being of their neighborhoods, or their own health and happiness – is great. But when they don’t do so, we should ask why.

A study making the rounds last week identified going car-free as the second-most impactful step an individual can take to reduce his or her contribution to global warming.

This conclusion seems uncontroversial (unlike the study’s headline-grabbing claim that having one less child was the most impactful thing an individual could do). But it also leads to a more important observation: If going car-free is such a powerful individual step to address global warming, then the adoption of public policies that enable more people to go car-free must be a potentially powerful societal step to achieve the same goals.

Going car-free, or reducing one’s dependence on a car, not only delivers benefits for the environment, but also, in many cases, monetary savings for households, better physical and mental health, and increased happiness. Yet, for most Americans, eliminating or reducing their dependence on cars seems difficult or impossible.

A few decades ago, improving the energy efficiency of our homes and businesses or adopting solar energy were also generally considered to be good for the environment, potential money-savers and steps that could improve quality of life. Yet, a series of barriers – some large, some small, some intuitive and some unexpected – kept consumers locked into lifestyles that were disadvantageous not only to them but to society at large.

A great deal of clean energy policy-making in recent decades was aimed at overcoming these specific barriers. Can’t afford the upfront cost of a new refrigerator or home insulation? Invest in rebates on up-front installation costs and try out new forms of financing. Consumers having a hard time understanding the lifetime energy savings possible with efficient appliances? Require manufacturers to put the information on a big yellow label, create the Energy Star program, and set minimum technological standards to raise the bar on efficiency over time. Too difficult to install solar power due to red tape or interference from homeowners’ associations? Enact “solar rights” ordinances, streamline permitting, and so on.

These pinpoint policies weren’t the only ones that helped unleash the dramatic growth of clean energy over the last decade (which we will highlight in a new report later this month). Leading states also adopted big, bold commitments to renewable energy and energy efficiency, while behind the scenes, policy wonks worked to convince utility regulators and decision-makers that the benefits of clean energy to society and energy consumers – in both the short- and the long run – were sufficient to outweigh the costs.

If we want to give more Americans the option to go car-free, we need to confront the question of what really drives them to get into their cars each morning, and develop public policies that are responsive to those demands.

One group of people asking these questions are the academics affiliated with the Demand Centre in the U.K.  In one investigation, researchers examined the role of the car in 265 everyday activities, such as carrying cargo. Unsurprisingly, the bigger and bulkier the item to be transported – furniture or groceries – the greater the car mode share for that activity. Sports that require moving equipment (golfing) or transporting multiple team members are more car-intensive than those that are done individually and don’t require specialized equipment. And so on.

Barriers are also not always practical or economic – they can be social and cultural. Individual and collective ideas about what people perceive that they “need” and which practices are considered “normal” shape the options people are willing to consider and the decisions made by professionals designing the infrastructure we all use. Policies and measures that make seemingly “weird” sustainable behaviors “normal” – such as open streets events or tactical urbanist interventions – can help to overcome these barriers.

Challenging ourselves to understand the roots of car dependence can lead us to stretch our policy imaginations. If the need to accommodate a weekly shopping trip, for example, is a key determining factor in whether a person feels comfortable giving up a personal car, it may be an effective policy approach to encourage retailers to provide delivery service, expand access to carsharing, create safer places for loading and unloading of goods on city streets, or encourage the location of shops in walkable areas.

This type of granular policy-making may not be enough to enable a mass shift to more sustainable models of transportation – the big, gnarly issues of how to shift infrastructure investments, properly price travel, and reallocate space within the public realm remain critical. But it does represent a strategic opportunity that is too important to ignore.

Encouraging individuals to lead car-free lifestyles – for the sake of the environment, the well-being of their neighborhoods, or their own health and happiness – is great. But when they don’t do so, we should ask why. Asking deeper questions about how and why people make the transportation choices they do – and about the ways in which public policy can reduce or eliminate barriers to more beneficial choices – can enable us to demystify travel demand and unlock new opportunities for truly transformative change.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.