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The MRCagney Blog

How to talk about urban transport

Tue, November 1, 2022  |  General 

This article from Rachel Lees-Green, a Sustainable Transport Consultant at MRCagney, was originally published on Linkedin.

Big changes are needed in our cities so people can travel in ways that are better for the environment, better for our health, and that enable everybody to move about easily, including people who can't drive or can’t afford a car. Building support for these changes depends on how we talk about them. 

I recently read The Workshop's Short Guide on How to Talk About Urban Mobility and Transport Shift. Here are my key takeaways. 

Tell better stories instead of filling people up with facts

As transport professionals, we often rely heavily on facts and figures to support our proposed solutions. This is the ‘information deficit model’, where we assume that people will come around to our way of thinking if only we give them enough evidence. But this approach doesn't work in practice. People process information using mental shortcuts that reinforce their current understanding of the world. And the dominant narratives in our society tend to offer simplistic explanations about complex issues. To help people understand the types of the solutions that will improve urban transport, our evidence needs to be woven into stories that are designed to shift narratives.

Empower people to develop a deeper understanding of complex issues

One of the dominant shallow narratives about transport is that individual behaviour change is the key to reducing transport emissions. When we talk about transport shift, we should focus on how urban transport systems need to change, not on individual change.

We can also help people understand that the way things are now didn't come about through individual choice or because it's the natural state of the world. Real people made decisions that led us to the present day, and real people can make decisions that change the direction we're heading in the future. This insight can give people a greater sense of agency.

Connect with collective values

Build narratives that lead with values like protecting the environment, looking after people, and giving everybody the opportunity to move freely and independently. Focusing on these types of values motivates people to think about collective wellbeing. On the other hand, when we invoke values like economic progress or cost effectiveness, people default to small fixes or technological solutions and shy away from bigger systems change.

Choose your words carefully

Some of the language we use frequently in our work can have layers of meaning that evoke things we weren’t intending. Two words stood out for me.

  • Sustainability: I often use ‘sustainable transport’ as shorthand for ‘walking, cycling and public transport’. But research shows that, for many people, the word sustainability conjures “moralistic ideas about transport choices [and] leads people to focus on technological and behavioural solutions.”
  • Safety: Road safety is a critical issue in transport. But safety values “were used to help build a car-centric culture, e.g. cars to help people escape dangerous urban environments and live in suburban safety.”

The Workshop’s guide recommends focusing instead on other values – like fairness, freedom, and protecting the environment. If you choose to (or need to) talk about safety or sustainability, it’s important to clearly define the term so your audience is on the same page as you.

I encourage you to read The Workshop’s guide yourself and consider how you could communicate differently, whether in your work or when talking with friends and whānau.