If behaviours change, systems change

Interview with Ralf Risser

Surprisingly critical for a psychologist who has dedicated his professional life to research, Ralf Risser blames a poor situation of long-term and representative data on people’s attitudes and behaviour towards mobility as an origin for bad political decisions.

Risser observes that politicians talk a lot about sustainability, but it is difficult for them to take action. Often, they seem to be afraid that citizens reject the necessary measures. However, they cannot know what the citizens think because of the lack of reliable studies and even do not know which data is missing. Many people still get involved in the debates, but,

“[…] those citizens we hear, and that’s an old problem even from before digitalization, belong to a very distinct minority. The most negative people usually cry loudest; the others don’t react so much.” ” 

Traditional European mobility studies have methodological problems – he instead suggests a mixed-method approach – to assess the real interests of people. That would most probably lead to other outcomes than the current numbers show. Consequently, making the attitude of the majority transparent could lead to new political decisions. Risser assumes from experience that there would be a majority in favour of sustainable transport. People are prepared to accept measures to change, but communication with the citizens is lacking.

The steps that need to be taken towards new mobility first need to act ‘against’ the car drivers. People need to be convinced that renouncing a car actually is not renouncing but gaining life quality. Very good marketing is necessary because everybody can enhance life quality and convenience by decreasing car use. People are well aware of problems in traffic, but only those who do not rush through it by car actually experience them. Risser misses a ‘grown-up’ discourse about the positive effects it could have for each of us and society. Still, people believe that the whole system collapses when we make changes, and the economic argument is still there. He does not know any study that shows financial losses when we reduce the speed of cars. Reducing speed is essential for empowering other modes, and car drivers will understand that they can keep convenience by slowing down. Convenience is derived by different factors depending on the mode of transport. Whereas drivers in a car may perceive speed as convenient, a walker’s convenience is mainly determined by slow or even no cars what enables appreciating the environment and feeling safe. If we want people to be convinced to walk, we need to take care and slow down. Sustainable transport users need more convenience, not car drivers.

Some practical examples can be tracked during the last years, where cities attempted a change of their narratives – Risser sees them as single but exemplary cases and not the predominant narrative. Usually, even if much is done to enhance the quality of walking and cycling, nothing is done against a growing car burden.

The key is that the people have to change, and there is a certain role of politics in it. “If behaviours change, systems change”, he summarizes.

What makes Risser optimistic about mobility trends is that asking young people whether they would renounce their car or their mobile phone, they renounced the car. That could be a trend out of car dominance.

Risser finished the conversation with a call for change: “We need a dialogue. We need to understand the people better and stop only listening to those who cry loudest. We need science and studies and better marketing. We need to understand chances to change without a revolution. And demonstrate that the conflicts between the modes are not that big. The last thing is to read and listen to measures that really enhance sustainable modes, no ‘blabla’. That means reducing cars in their amount and their actions. It will happen because it’s necessary.”

Interviewed by Jens Schade & Lisa-Marie Schaefer, TU Dresden

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