We need the artists
In the fourth Rebalance Dialogue, Andrea Ricci moderated the dialogue between Jens Schade and Stefan Gössling about the role of the car in the future and how private car use is recognized as having significant negative impacts on environment, health, and safety. The car generates congestion, consumes significant urban space, and affects the quality of life in general. Access regulation, initiatives to foster active mobility and micro-mobility, and to make public transport more attractive address some of these concerns. But private car ownership and use is deeply ingrained in our culture, and car sales keep growing.

REBALANCE explores the congruity of a perspective consisting of a radical shift away from cars and the “key values” that should be promoted in order to achieve it. Driving a car is perceived as an expression of freedom: the driver is “in control”, and can decide where, when, at what speed, and with what itinerary to move around. Although, this is sometimes a delusion as drivers suffer frustrating congestion, time losses to find parking spots, impotence in avoiding accidents provoked by others, along with high economic costs.

“Agency” is arguably a fundamental determinant of mobility choices. Nevertheless, it is worth researching how more and better evidence of the true costs and benefits, both individual and collective, could help deconstruct the current paradigm, and convince people that their real need is to move, not to drive.

It is often stated that the main reason behind the prevalence of private car use is the “status symbol” notion attached to the car, and the subsequent reticence to give up ownership. The emergence of shared vehicles and shared rides schemes can be optimistically interpreted as a promising signal in this regard. To become prevalent, “soft spots” in peoples’ values and perceptions must be addressed for this to happen, also considering the “generation gap” and differentiated perspectives across age groups. On the other hand, if it is sustained, the generalized acceptance of shared schemes could lead car use to become an integral part of more sustainable, multimodal, and seamless mobility patterns. This would then further rule out any perspective of phasing out cars as such! Ultimately, a radical shift to shared schemes could not be enough to curb the dramatic impacts of automobility.

The participants agreed that the car is part of one’s personality, showing the real economic cost and impact will not change anything. Many costs do not steer behaviour because they are indirect and invisible. However, giving immediate feedback on your behaviour does have an effect. Possession has its value. Ownership will be more determinant than electric or autonomous. In this case, safety and self-protection discourses could help change minds.

Powerful automotive industries in some countries (Germany, Italy) convey a message of car dependency, much more than the reality. Changes are easier in countries without a car industry (The Netherlands, Denmark). Car sharing of AVs could increase traffic and create additional problems. Perhaps the future of sharing will depend on convenience (and availability).

The discussants agreed that societal change will not be fast, but resistance can grow quickly. To avoid that, awareness of wrong policy direction must be considered. Western societies do not accept restrictions well. Indirect measures (price, parking…) could work but will not lead to structural changes. The participants wondered why the vast majority of the population accepted COVID restrictions but show reluctance in other cases. Education is important to give information and awareness, including subsidies and internalisation of external costs and benefits and even the need to be open to addressing taboos like speed limits, driving licences renewal of elder people.

The conversation addressed some issues related to urban space, mainly focused on cycling and how every bicycle creates space and needs improving by creating safe spaces to allow people (who are willing) to switch from cars to bicycles. This change could be based at first on progressive city dwellers and concentrate on the progressive part of big cities. Cities are the place to start implementing alternatives but politicians (and the electoral agenda) are one of the main barriers for car-free cities. Nevertheless, big cities are closer to achieving this change.

Technological innovation is mostly presented as a promising pathway towards sustainability: cleaner propulsion, vehicle automation, “smart”, ICT-based mobility can undoubtedly bring – if only incremental – improvements in environmental and safety related performances of transport systems and services. This could simply mean a further step towards the consolidation of the car-based mobility culture, one that in the end definitively precludes a radical shift away from automobility. And even worse,

technological progress could generate perverse rebound effects that would ultimately mainly serve the interests of the automotive industry rather than those of society.

The urge to avoid crowded transport solutions due to COVID-19 has at least partially overshadowed what was observed, only a few years ago, as a progressive disenchantment with car ownership and use, especially among the young. To minimize contact with others, many people are traveling in their own vehicles. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the use of public transportation and carpools has declined significantly worldwide. Whether COVID-related concerns are an alibi to sticking to private car use, where all collective modes, but also shared cars, are perceived as a health risk or – especially among the younger generations – is the fall back on private car mobility only a “minor evil”, to get rid of as swiftly as possible has yet to be seen. However, the participants agreed that young people are becoming more conservative and could become more attached to cars and car ownership.

Related content

Andrea Ricci is a recognised foresight expert who is highly regarded for his knowledge on sustainability policy analysis, impact assessment and forward-looking analyses, with particular emphasis on public policy.

Learn more about Andrea Ricci

Jens Schade is an associate professor at the Traffic Psychology Unit of Dresden University of Technology and member of the Traffic Psychology speaker group of the German Psychological Association (DGPs). From 2009-2011 he was convenor of the Standing Committee on Traffic Psychology of the European Federation of Psychologist Associations (EFPA).

Learn more about Jens Schade

Stefan Gössling studied interrelationships of tourism, transport, and sustainability for a quarter of a century. In the early 1990s, his work focused on aviation and the sector’s contribution to emissions of greenhouse gases. Since then he started to investigate a wide range of different transport modes from diverse scientific perspectives, including the car, bicycle, and e-scooter.

Learn more about Stefan Gössling

Watch the full explorative conversation