Can "car free days" really change our travel habits?

Well, this is gonna be a pain to fix. Traffic jams in Shanghai. Image: Getty.

It is said that, on average, we take 66 days to form a new habit – so when an initiative sets out to change our habits in just 24 hours, there’s cause for scepticism.

World Car-Free Day aims to do just that. The thought is that, by closing city centres to cars for one day a year, people will make a long-term switch to alternative modes of transport and help us to address the many problems caused by our dependence on cars.

Car-free days have been running for almost 20 years, with cities as far afield as Washington, Paris, Brussels, Stockholm and New Delhi participating. And though the impact of these initiatives has not been well evaluated, there are studies which suggest that events which disrupt the transport system can lead to longer term behaviour changes. Strikes and road closures, for example, force people to try something different, and alter their knowledge and perceptions of the travel alternatives on offer.

One worldwide 2002 study of over 70 road closures due to natural disasters and planned roadworks found that, on average, 11 per cent of vehicles previously using the road could not be found in the surrounding area afterwards.

A more recent study on the impact of strike action on the London Underground in February 2014 used data from travel cards to examine travel patterns before, during and after the strike. It found that 5 per cent of travellers carried on using their newly discovered routes after the disruption was over.

Please use an alternative route. Image: Ian Halsey/Flickr, CC BY-NC.

While these findings sound encouraging, it’s worth questioning whether the changes to travel patterns after a disruption are any greater than the day-to-day variability we see anyway. Even if they are, there’s still no guarantee that enough people maintain these changes for long enough to alter overall travel patterns, such as the total kilometres driven from one year to the next.

A three-year study on these topics confirmed that individual travel patterns undergo significant day-to-day and year-to-year churn. For instance, although over half of those who were asked by the researchers before and after the 2012 Olympics in London said they had changed their journeys to work during the games, three quarters said they did not always travel to work the same way on a typical day anyway.

Similarly, half of council employees in York revealed they could not be certain how many days they would travel in to the office in the following week. The study revealed that these variations were due to myriad reasons, from changing family and work schedules, to avoiding bad weather, to just feeling like making a change.

Get multi-modal

But if there’s so much churn and flexibility in the system already, why is it so difficult to achieve deep reductions in car use? For these reductions to materialise, we need more people to avoid taking single occupancy journeys in their car more of the time, so that being “multi-modal” – that is, relying on more than one mode of transport – becomes the norm.

To achieve this, we’ll need a much broader understanding of how and what shapes people’s travel choices in the first place, and how this varies across locations and societal groups. The three-year London disruption study suggests that we should think about these issues in terms of a broader “mobility system”.

The mobility system includes the transport system (infrastructure, legislation, fiscal arrangements like charges and fares, and public transport operators). But it also involves the communication system (patterns of work, shopping and socialising as well as the information we use on the go); and the social context (the norms about how things are done, the know-how and resources of those in the system, including workplaces and communities).

At the centre of the mobility system are the activities which each generate travel and are influenced by the institutions and expectations in the system, such as school start and end times, or standardised business hours.

The mobility system. Image: Jillian Anable/Disruption Project.

Unfortunately, the supporters of car-free day – like most policy targeting transport patterns – fall into the trap of thinking that altering the transport infrastructure and services is all that’s required to alter travel behaviour. While these initiatives can play a role in changing the behaviour of some people, for one day, occasionally, it is far from adequate to influence longer term changes at the scale required. Instead, we need to make changes across the whole mobility system, to continually reinforce greater uptake of alternative transport methods.

Flexible working hours, which relax rigid time and place constraints is an important part of the solution. So is wraparound childcare (such as before- and after-school clubs) to allow flexible schedules. Transport system solutions include payment systems to cater for multi-modal journeys such as the Netherlands' Mobility Mixx card, which can be used to pay for all public transport, taxis, car pool, bike and car rental and park-and-ride tickets. Another option is seasonal reallocation of road space to pedestrian spaces or non-motorised road users as they did in New York.

We need to think more carefully about how, where and when activities are carried out, and then look at how transport provision fits with that. Only then could car-free days go from being rare annual events to part of making non-car journeys more likely, more of the time.The Conversation

Jillian Anable is professor of transport and energy demand at the University of Aberdeen

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.