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One Way To Get Drivers Out Of Cars? Anti-Addiction Therapy

A technique called motivational interviewing, originally created to help alcoholics stop drinking, could remove our addiction to cars, too.

One Way To Get Drivers Out Of Cars? Anti-Addiction Therapy
[Image: Traffic via 1000 Words / Shutterstock]

Most car owners have heard the arguments about why they shouldn’t drive–alternative transportation is cheaper, healthier, better for the environment, and, if you walk or bike, can make you happier. But even when public transit is readily available or a bike is in the garage, many people still choose to drive. A public service campaign touting the same old messages isn’t likely to have that much of an effect.

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What might work, instead, is borrowing a technique from addiction treatment. For the last few years, the U.K.-based transportation consultancy Steer Davies Gleave has been using a technique called motivational interviewing, originally developed to help alcoholics stop drinking, to get people out of their cars.

Instead of telling people that they should change their habits, or trying to impose any sense of guilt, the technique focuses on listening to the everyday details of someone’s life and then helping them notice times when taking the bus or riding a bike might make life easier. Unlike typical marketing campaigns in the U.S., it all takes place in person, with a team of workers going from house to house.

The consultants had tried door-to-door work in the past, but without much success. “People were resistant to the idea of feeling like they were being lectured or told what to do,” says Eleni Harlan from SDG. “We’d say, ‘We have some information, we can help you,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, I don’t need any help.”

Now, the conversations start with general questions about travel, rather than any mention of the bus or the environment. “I think it’s about first getting a more positive attitude from people, and that makes them feel more comfortable and feel more open to considering alternatives,” Harlan says.

By the end of the meeting–which are as long or as short as the interviewee wants, and happen without any scripts–the canvasser from SDG shares some information about local transit alternatives. The technique works: Last year, across 25,000 households SDG worked with in nine cities, car trips decreased by 11%.

Anyone who wants to encourage behavior change, Harlan says, has to recognize that sometimes the choices we make aren’t always rational or straightforward. “Someone who smokes probably knows all the reasons that smoking is bad for them–but they still have other reasons that they continue to do so,” she says.

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“Car driving is similar,” she adds. “There are pros and cons, and what motivational interviewing does is try to bring those out without making someone feel like there is only one side to the argument.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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