How can we spur and incentivize the shift from private cars to public transportation?

  • Samah  Karaki

    Samah Karaki

    Founder and director of the Social Brain Institute

20 February 2024

Given the limits of our decision-making and attentional resources, we should first and foremost address the structural issues that hinder change, instead of putting the onus on individuals.


First, individuals must be given the means to change their habits. When it comes to mobility, real and meaningful investment in public transportation infrastructure is the first prerequisite for change. Change requires an increase in accessible and reliable public transportation services, especially for people living in residential or isolated areas, where the use of private cars is deemed necessary.


Simply wanting to change isn’t enough — we must be given the tools to change. Only when we are able to change can we rethink explicit norms, such as dissuasive road pricing models (tolls, parking spaces), or higher gasoline prices for private vehicles.


Following this stage, we can start to think about changing the implicit norms that inform our motivations. As conformist beings, we are influenced by anything involving social status. The willingness to use public transportation must therefore become an implicit norm to which we collectively adhere. To achieve this, we can draw on new, influential narratives gleaned from social media and mass media.


Once there's both a will and a way, we reach the third challenge: the knowledge barrier. This refers to our availability bias, which is our tendency to favor or overestimate information that is immediately available. For example, our minds will prefer to remember a missed appointment because of a late bus, rather than all the other times the bus arrived on time. We need to craft a new narrative that will make the positive and attractive features of public transportation — such as punctuality, cleanliness and reliability— available in our brains, while highlighting the negative aspects of private vehicles (costs, parking, breakdowns). We also need to render environmental information more accessible to individuals.


Finally, we must address the cognitive barriers that underpin our decision-making and attentional resources. Because of our limited attentional resources, we perpetuate the status quo by clinging to our habits. Although we may be convinced that we need to change, we will still tend to value our established habits. To counter this bias and foster behavioral change, we need to pick the right moment to encourage individuals to change their habits. By creating the conditions for long-term transformation, transition periods open windows of opportunity for change and new habits.