Driving to Distraction

by | Dec 22, 2010

UK politics is taking a very spooky turn.

I came across this today in the course of some research…

Lords Science Committee expand Behaviour Change Inquiry to consider interventions to reduce car usage in towns and cities

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee have launched a new call for evidence as part of their inquiry into the use of behaviour change interventions in delivering Government policy. The Committee, who have been investigating behaviour change since July, have so far focused on Government efforts to promote healthy eating and reduce obesity. With the publication today of a second call for evidence, they are now turning their attention to policies designed to reduce car usage in towns and cities.

Call for Evidence ( PDF 228 KB)

The Committee are inviting written evidence on the issue from any interested parties by Friday 21 January 2011.  Some of the questions they are seeking answers to include:

  • What are the most influential drivers of behaviour affecting an individual’s choice of travel?
  • What role does infrastructure play in encouraging and facilitating changes in travel-mode choice?
  • What are the most appropriate type and level of delivery of behaviour change interventions to change travel-mode choice?
  • Are current policy interventions addressing both psychological and environmental barriers to change?
  • Are policy interventions appropriately designed and evaluated? What lessons have been learnt as a result of these evaluations?
  • What lessons can be learnt from interventions in other countries?

Baroness Neuberger, Chairman of the Inquiry on Behaviour Change, said in comment:

“We have had some very interesting evidence sessions in this inquiry, which has so far focused on efforts to reduce obesity. However, Government programmes to change behaviour go much wider than personal health alone.

“We will now focus on programmes designed to reduce car usage in towns and cities. Reducing the number of journeys made by private car is likely to be a big part of a  successful programme to reduce the level of carbon emissions in the UK.

“We will look at examples of where successful schemes have been implemented and examine what lessons can be learnt and applied elsewhere.”

I haven’t got much to say about this right now — nor the time — but a couple of points should stick out.

First… That there are Government programmes to change behaviour should worry us immensely. Aren’t they supposed to ‘work for you’?

Second. It’s interesting that climate change is the legitimising basis of this proposed intervention.

Third. There seems to be no call for evidence regarding the rightness or wrongness of intervening in this way, whether or not climate change is happening.

Perhaps it is incumbent on us to take the initiative. If you have any time this Christmas holidays, consider responding to the “Science Committee’s” social engineering project.

It’s time to modify their behaviour!


  1. geoffchambers

    This is indeed spooky, but hardly surprising given the demand that university education (including the social sciences) should concentrate on commercially profitable activities. Was it Thatcher or Blair who said: “The problem is not to understand behaviour, but to change it”?

    It’s interesting that reducing carbon emissions is considered such a priority. The same programme could be used to save lives directly by reducing pollution and accidents, or making us healthier by encouraging us to walk.

    This kind of thing has been going on for a while under the aegis of the Central Office of Information, who oversee government information campaigns. I see no problem in a campaign aiming – say – to persuade us to drive carefully, since the idea is to change our behaviour by getting us to obey the law. Changing behaviour in order to allow the government to conform to a Euro-directive about emissions in 10 or 20 years time is something else.

    Of the committee members, Baroness Neuberger, who is President of the sub-committee carrying out the inquiry, is one with the least expressed interest in climate matters, her areas of interest being health, citizens’ rights, asylum and refugees, and Ireland.

    All those expressing an interest in the environment etc. are Labour or Crossbench, including: Chairman Lord Krebs (Chair, Adaptation Sub-Committee, Committee on Climate Change); Lord Cunningham (Labour) (Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Energy 1976-79; Shadow Environment Secretary 1983-89; Chairman, North-East Sustainable Resources Board); Baroness Hilton (Labour): (Opposition Spokesperson for: the Environment 1991-97); and Lord Rees (Crossbench) (President, Royal Society)

    Reading their call for evidence, I can’t see that a private citizen’s submission will count for much, unless backed up by evidence that e.g. attempts to change behaviour are economically counter-productive. (I’m sure evidence could be found from the period of slavery or the concentration camps).

    I’ll give it a go though. I’ve got nothing better to do this Christmas, since I can’t travel to England for the holidays, due to the trains being disrupted by the wrong sort of global warming on the rails.

  2. Ben Pile

    Geoff – ‘Changing behaviour in order to allow the government to conform to a Euro-directive about emissions in 10 or 20 years time is something else.’

    There’s also the tacit acknowledgement in the exercise that they know it’s wrong; they can’t legislate against the use of cars, but they want to find ways of ‘nudging’ us against otherwise lawful behaviour.

    You’re also right about the questions — they are framed in such a way as to preclude criticism of the strategy. It’s already been decided that this is what is going to happen. Elsewhere, however, they do say they are going to consider the ‘ethics’ of this form of intervention… But nothing about the politics!

  3. George Carty

    If you want to reduce excessive car use (I think this would be a good thing, not down to any Green agenda, but simply so that people aren’t wasting so much time sitting in traffic jams), wouldn’t the best approach be to abandon the Home-Owner-Ist policies followed by British governments since the Thatcher era?

    People are forced to live further from work than they’d like because houses are too expensive in locations where there are more jobs. Also in many households, husband and wife work in widely separated jobs in order to have enough money between them to pay the mortgage, meaning that at least one of them is faced with a long commute wherever they choose to live.

    There is no Divine Right to High House Prices…

  4. Ben Pile

    George, why not allow the construction of more homes, so that people are able to move where they want to be, as home owners or renters? Why not allow the expansion of cities, so that new development centres could offer more efficient use of public space and access? The UK’s transport infrastructure isn’t coping, but not because of a material shortage of anything, like space. It’s a failure of imagination, and a growing scepticism towards development.

  5. Alex Cull

    “That there are Government programmes to change behaviour should worry us immensely. Aren’t they supposed to ‘work for you’?”

    I think they do work for us and work very hard, just like any parent does who needs to bring a wayward toddler into line, or a pet owner who wants to instil a little discipline into their wayward beast. :o)

    Like Geoff, I did wonder why this was framed primarily as a CO2 emission issue, but if you look at the First Call for Evidence pdf, via the link, the rationale for this study is given as:

    “To meet many of the societal challenges we are currently facing – such as achieving an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 or reducing the burden on the health service as a result of smoking, drinking or the rise in obesity – individual and collective behaviour will need to change significantly. Governments, therefore, are becoming increasingly interested in understanding how they can influence the way we behave using a range of different types of behaviour change policy interventions that rely on measures other than prohibition or the elimination of choice.”

    They appear to be looking, then, at areas where policies are not currently successful and where targets are not being met. They want the policies to succeed and they want to meet their targets, even if we don’t necessarily share their motivations. The questions these inquiries and studies never seem to be ultimately concerned with are “whether” and “why” – with them the “whys” are given, and the all-consuming question is “how”. “How” is important for them – outright prohibition and the elimination of choice being unpopular and therefore dangerous to them.

    Although it’s about behaviour modification relating to climate change generally, rather than car use specifically, this might be of interest when pondering the “hows” – it’s a 2009 paper by sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard called Cognitive and Behavioral Challenges in Responding to Climate Change; the link is very long so I’ve tinyurled it: http://tinyurl.com/329ygzm

    This is a digression, but I think it might be my favourite bit (about how to frame the climate call to action):

    “It is very important that suggestions be realistic in order to be deemed credible. They should highlight doable changes at the same time as they encourage significant action. In order to elicit a response, people must be given not only information, but something to do. Communities should be encouraged to think carefully about what actions COULD and MUST be undertaken on all scales, and engage in hopeful collective action. Honest conversation about how much reduction is needed, where it could come from, what the benefits will be of responding, and what the costs will be of not responding should be encouraged. The trouble with many proposals which are “doable” is that they are inadequate and may thus appear to be little more than a smokescreen for business as usual. Instead, highlight tangible, positive outcomes. For example, a number of studies have highlighted the ability to respond to climate change while achieving other social benefits (e.g. energy efficiency has economic benefits in the short and long term, independent of any climate benefits).”

    Re how to reduce traffic congestion and other car-related woes, an obvious reason for people choosing to drive (as well as a lack of abundant, affordable and decent housing near where they want to work) is encapsulated in the following Evening Standard article, again, tinyurled: http://tinyurl.com/2c6768u

  6. George Carty

    Ben, if we built more homes then the value of existing homes (inflated by restrictions of supply imposed by the requirement for planning permission) would fall, and therefore the Home-Owner-Ists will fight tooth and nail against any new developments of houses (or roads or other infrastructure for that matter). In fact I wonder if the government has neglected our infrastructure in order to appease such NIMBYs, while claiming that “it’s to reduce excessive travel which contributes to climate change”.

    Maybe a Land Value Tax would be a good idea in order to break Home-Owner-Ist power…

  7. George Carty

    If reducing CO2 emissions is the goal (rather than a ruse behind which the real goal is hiding), then why not replace all fossil-fuel electrical generation with nuclear ASAP? If man-made global warming is the imminent armageddon the alarmists say it is, then why not push ahead ignoring any lawsuits from anti-nuclear groups intended to delay construction, and simply shooting anyone who dares oppose the construction by direct action?

    After all, some of the more extreme alarmists (such as those writing in the 28th February 2009 issue of New Scientist) claim that AGW will turn huge areas of the planet (including its main breadbaskets) into desert, killing billions through famine. . Compared to that, another Chernobyl — hell, another HUNDRED Chernobyls — would be peanuts…

  8. justn ert

    Happy Christmas, I realise I am arriving a bit late to this thread…

    Very interesting post and what’s been said in the comments. I too am very concerned about the Orwellian behavioural change lexicon, but would it be fair to suggest that behavioural modification is now at the fault-line between (post-normal) science and policy?

    Not too long ago we had this gem from the “Climate Change Advisory Group”:
    …And it didn’t go unnoticed on WUWT here:

    Then of course there was “The Hartwell Paper” – with some real heavyweights behind it:
    Suggesting that the modification of “consumer behaviour by settling a carbon price” was necessary to achieve “radical decarbonisation” and should be “priced as high as is politically acceptable”.
    A “hypothecated carbon tax” was the bizarre proposal the biggest names in science could muster in the area of politics.

    Slightly oblique to this specific channel of climate change behavioural modification, but nevertheless very interesting is this essay that I only found last night. I thought it was very unnerving, and it certainly affirmed my suspicions that the “climate change” or “global warming” narratives are but (small economical) vehicles for the deployment of “Sustainable Development” as the all-encompassing world-view for citizens in the 21st century:
    “Under the Green thumb” is well worth a read, if a little US-centric.

    Happy new year.

  9. Ben Pile

    George, wouldn’t H-Os be just as angry about LVT?

    Just on a point of history, doesn’t land licensing / regulation / green-belt stuff precede the problems caused by the excesses of home-ownership-ism?

    Good point about Chernobyl vs desertification. However, I think the point is that the notion of ecological limits serves the predominant mode of politics. It’s not really about solutions; it’s about legitimising authority.

  10. George Carty

    Yes, the H-O-ists would no doubt hate LVT, but I know that Mark Wadsworth (from whom I nicked the term “Home-Owner-Ism”) is a strong advocate of such a tax. Don’t know what his answer would be though.

    You are of course right about planning restrictions (which in the UK date from the postwar era) predating Home-Owner-Ism (which didn’t really get going until the Thatcher era). I wonder if the roots of car dependence were laid way back in the 19th century though, when people began to view dense cities as Dickensian hell-holes (and therefore wanted to be more spread out).

    On the subject of why more warmists haven’t embraced nuclear power, a commenter on one of the nuclear blogs I read divided such people into seven categories:

    1. Tribalists who stick to the environmentalist movement’s traditional anti-nuclear stance, for fear of splitting the movement. Perhaps they were leery of the kind of self-destructive factionalism which plagued Marxist groups in the West (and was satirized by Monty Python’s Life of Brian, only to go too far in the other direction?
    2. Radiophobes and paranoids who have an exaggerated view of the dangers of nuclear power, or who believe its technology is closely related to that of nuclear weapons
    3. Wishful thinkers who have an exaggerated view of the capabilities of solar and/or wind power
    4. Wishful thinkers who fail to understand that it is extremely difficult to store large quantities of electrical energy.
    5. Romantics who fail to understand the importance of energy in general to our way of life.
    6. Malthusians who think that the real problem is not CO2 emissions, but overpopulation and The Limits to Growth.
    7. Misanthropes and primitivists who think that the real problem is not CO2 emissions, but technology, industrial society or even civilization or humanity itself.

  11. geoffchambers

    Brendan O’Neill has a good article on behaviour change as government policy at
    in which he links to a fearful government document, the full version of which is here
    “Orwellian” is an overused concept, but how else to describe this? The above document demonstrates clearly how policy-making is being handed over to committees of top academics who speak bootlicking marketingese to power. There are 300 references to peer-reviewed articles to guarantee intellectual quality – and not an original thought in sight.


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