Friday, November 10, 2006

Changing Routine Choice to Rational Decision-making

Deciding how to get from one place to another becomes a deeply ingrained habit for most people. Unhooking people from these habits is one of the important challenges that carsharing faces.

Europe seems to be significantly ahead of North America in research by social psychologists on how to change the habitual nature of most people's travel. A paper from the 2003 Swiss Transportation Conference "From routine choice to rational decision-making between mobility alternatives" provides valuable background for all carsharing companies in promoting their service. Author Dr. Sylvia Harms wrote this report while at the University of Zurich and she is the author of many reports on sustainable transportation and now on the faculty of the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research Centre, Leipzig-Halle, Germany. This report is very readable and is based on her research with Mobility Carsharing Switzerland customers.

Harms describes the situation this way:

"car owners... first had to undergo a break-through of their car-use routines before they became aware of the car-sharing offer and [take] into consideration as their own behavioral alternative. Triggering events for such a break-through were changes in a person’s life situation or her outer mobility conditions which led to a change in her mobility requirements, opportunities or abilities. I.e., the own car either could not be used anymore or its use was less and less wanted so that the need for new mobility options increased. After this change from a routine to a conscious, rational decision-making state, the adoption of car sharing depended on actual mobility needs as well as personal attitudes and values."

The paper summarizes research on how habits are formed - "stable decision-making context and frequent, satisfying performance of the behavior within that context". After that, travel decisions often become "frozen" with little consideration of choices in future situations. In her research with carsharing and non-carsharing members, she examines the possible reasons for this:

* Cognitive blindness - people don't consider options or only superficially
* Motivational blindness - people don't consider options contrary to their own convictions
* Uncertainty - new options have so many uncertainties they aren't considered fully; tending to rely on personal communication rather than evaluating things more objectively

Harms reminds us that new attitudes, a precursor of considering an option, must be reinforced multiple times before the option is likely to be considered. Harms identifies that "trigger events" were reported by 85% of the car owners who became carsharing members in her research. Only 55% of members who did not own a car before joining (or owned a car more than six months before joining) reported trigger events, but attributed their decision to join carsharing to gradual changes in their situation. She identifies the importance of these "context changes" in the decision to join carsharing. Such trigger events may be a new job, moving a new city or getting married or divorced. But her research indicates that even those with strong transportation habits will seek information about carsharing, although they will be less likely to join.

The decision to adopt carsharing is related to what Harms calls the "behavioral distance" of the person to the new technology. Heavy car users have to significantly modify their habits while heavy public transport (PT) users find that occasional access to a car enhances their lifestyle. Interestingly, she notes, heavy PT users are less likely to join carsharing than people with weak public transport usage habits. This may because heavy PT users may find carsharing nice but not necessary and they probably find it expensive in comparison to public transport.

Harms' full paper (in English 30 pages) is available by clicking here.