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“Public transport can become more attractive than the car”

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Climate protection is important to everyone, but hardly anyone does it without a car. Psychologist Meike Jipp explains why this happens and how traffic switching can still be successful.

It is well known that train travel is climate friendly, yet most people prefer to drive. © Peter Rutherhagen/​single image

When Corona arrived in Germany, car traffic initially completely collapsed. An opportunity to change traffic towards a more environmentally friendly mobility? After two years of pandemic, it no longer seems so. The streets are almost as crowded as they were in 2019. Even high fuel prices mean traffic barely slows. Why is it so difficult to give up the car? Traffic psychologist Meike Jipp can explain.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mrs. Jipp, in polls, Germans regularly mention climate change as one of the most important political issues. Despite this, neither car ownership nor use has decreased so far. Even short distances are still often traveled by car. Why is it so difficult to give up the car?

Meike Jipp: This is due to two points. The first is routine. We have practiced our mobility behavior for years or decades and we no longer think about it. If you’ve been driving to the office for the last five years, you’ll drive to the office tomorrow. It’s the same with car ownership: If you’ve always owned one, you’re so used to the benefits that when the old one breaks down, you’ll buy a new one.

ZEIT ONLINE: And the second point that makes it difficult to give up?

jeep: Technological advances in mobility have given us a lot of freedom over the decades. We have traveled longer and longer distances in shorter and shorter periods of time. Now people are afraid of having to do without something. but she would have traffic change many positive effects, for example, for health. But the fear of loss prevents us from changing anything.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is this why so many electric cars want a thousand-kilometer range, even though they don’t really need it?

jeep: Exactly. And if you ask people how many hydrogen filling stations there should be, they demand more than the classic filling stations out there today. We are afraid of losing our former comfort and want the greatest possible cushion of safety when venturing into the unknown.

ZEIT ONLINE: Does sustainability not matter to most?

jeep: It becomes more important, but it is still subservient. If you ask people how important sustainability is to them, they will tell you: very important. But then they don’t behave like that. First of all, there is a contradiction between attitude and behavior. In psychology this is called cognitive dissonance. People often compensate for this by justifying their behavior to themselves. For example, telling each other: If I’m the only one traveling climate-friendly, that won’t save the climate.

ZEIT ONLINE: What should politicians do to promote traffic change?

jeep: Alternatives to the car must become more attractive. Can’t public transport also become a status symbol? Why isn’t there first and second class on the buses? So it might be a perceived gain for some to switch to the bus.

ZEIT ONLINE: This is how society is divided: those who sit in second class on the bus feel even more losers.

jeep: We already have these mechanisms on the train and on the plane. And the buses and trains could be further improved. Many people like to make phone calls in the car, but it is more difficult on the train. Here you could offer individual cabins for reservation. Public transport can become even more attractive than the car if you can relax on the phone, work or sleep while driving.

ZEIT ONLINE: Despite billions in subsidies, the state has still failed to provide good local transportation across the country. Does it make sense to further increase the demands?

jeep: The improvements must be so great that people are willing to pay for them. So they count too. In addition, transport companies can save a lot of money through digitization. On-demand buses only run when someone wants to ride.

ZEIT ONLINE: Public transport is often criticized for being so expensive. It’s cheap compared to a car. However, the actual costs of the car itself are often drastically underestimated. How did this happen?

jeep: We rarely have to pay to drive. I only notice fuel costs on the day I refuel. I have to pay for each bus ride if I don’t have a subscription. The solution would be an app that automatically recognizes when I’m taking the bus and sends me a statement at the end of the year. So I don’t have to worry about buying tickets and fare zones. And in the global calculation you would see that public transport is cheaper than the car. These applications are already being tested.

ZEIT ONLINE: Buses and trains could also become more attractive if the state subsidized them further and made tickets cheaper or even free.

jeep: Yes, but that could push public transport to the limit. In the big cities at rush hour it is already overloaded. And I would be cautious for another reason: cheap and free has a negative connotation. This can put people off the bus and train because they lose status.

ZEIT ONLINE: Are you perhaps too critical of public transport because it is state owned? The costs and problems with the car you have chosen for yourself tend to be minimized.

jeep: Maybe. The choice of transport is not purely rational. It is based on half knowledge and emotions. In the car you have the feeling of being in control. When you’re stuck in traffic, you still have the wheel in your hand. Many people then abruptly step on the gas when things continue. So you have the subjective feeling of progressing faster. On the other hand, if you are waiting for the bus and it doesn’t come, you are powerless. It’s also particularly unpleasant on crowded buses and trains when people accidentally bump into each other. The acceptance of public transport continues to fall.

ZEIT ONLINE: At the beginning of our conversation, you said that routine is the biggest enemy of traffic change. Can these routines be broken?

jeep: Yes, when there are convulsions in life, for example when we move. So we reconsider what mode of transportation we take. The pandemic has shown how quickly that can change.

ZEIT ONLINE: And what can politics do to break with routines?

jeep: The apps can recognize which vehicles you are traveling with and calculate the CO₂ footprint of your own mobility. You can use this to create a competition to find out which people in a company or district are the most environmentally friendly and reward them.

ZEIT ONLINE: … but not with a new car …

jeep: It doesn’t have to be expensive. In a village on Lake Garda there was a deed of the mayor. The attention and praise were enough to rouse people.

ZEIT ONLINE: The climate would improve if cars did not continue to grow. How did this trend come about?

jeep: Big cars are associated with high status. Plus, it’s easier to get into bigger cars.

ZEIT ONLINE: Are the hopes that we will evolve towards a post-material ecological society in vain?

jeep: So far it looks like this. It’s easy to have that attitude when you’re young. But most buy a car as soon as they can afford it, or at the latest when they have children. We make it too easy for ourselves when we expect the next generation to solve the climate problem.

ZEIT ONLINE: According to a KfW survey, the car remains a status symbol, especially for low-income youth. Why for this group?

jeep: The car is the turning point in status. When you haven’t been able to afford a car for a while, it feels like a deficit: everyone has one but me. This increases the subjective value of the car. As soon as you have it in front of the door, you feel proud of having achieved it.

ZEIT ONLINE: During the pandemic, the car had another advantage over buses and trains: there is no need to fear contagion. Will this have long-term consequences?

jeep: I worry that new routines will be established. Initially, the car was only used when the number of corona cases was high. But for about a year now, usage has remained high, regardless of incidence. Many people have canceled their public transport subscriptions. Since the pandemic situation will not end on day X, but will gradually fade, there will be no reason to question car use again.

ZEIT ONLINE: Do you have hope that the change in traffic still works?

jeep: All in all, I am sadly pessimistic. For one study, people were asked how climate change can be curbed: most hope that one day there will be a miracle technology that will solve the problem for us. I find that depressing. People don’t want to start with themselves. But he also doesn’t want to be restricted by politics. This is not how we solve the climate crisis. We must be willing to change.

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