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U.K. transport firm Steer Davies Gleave takes "motivational interviewing" door to door.

Clinical psychologist William R. Miller stumbled upon "motivational interviewing" while working with heavy drinkers in the early 1980s. The therapy is based on the idea that telling people they need to change is a terrible way to get them to change; in contrast, motivational interviewing helps people identify their own reasons for change; it's often described as "non-judgmental." Over the years, motivational interviewing has proven effective in treating a range of behavioral challenges, from alcohol abuse to dietary change to gambling.

And, most recently, car reliance in cities.

This latest application comes courtesy of the U.K.-based transportation consultancy Steer Davies Gleave. A few years ago, the firm incorporated motivational interviewing into its door-to-door personal travel planning program. Instead of bullying people into using the bus or train for ideological or social reasons, SDG travel advisors help metro area residents recognize situations in their own lives when it makes more sense to travel without a car.

"We're not guilt-tripping people. It's really easy to do that in behavior change," says SDG's Eleni Harlan. "Rather than us telling them the benefits or what the facts are or what other people think, it's about guiding them through the process of what would motivate them."

Often working with local governments, SDG identifies areas with the potential to reduce car use or increase use of more sustainable modes. While community-based travel programs in the United States often rely on direct mailing, SDG deploys at least a dozen advisors to knock on thousands of doors in the area. One recent two-year program in the city of Ely visited more than 8,000 households in a few months; another, along a corridor in the West Midlands, visited 17,500.

A typical doorstep motivational interview involves lots of open-ended questions (What kinds of journeys do you make?), plenty of reflective listening (It sounds like you thought about that…), and some well-timed summaries of what the resident has been saying. Most conversations run about 15 minutes, says Harlan, and the goal is to get a sense of the person's daily life and travel routines. It's a chance for self-reflection for people normally too busy getting somewhere to realize they have a car habit in the first place.

Critically, these Willy Lomans of transit don't aggressively push their behavioral wares on unsuspecting consumers. They don't jump in and say take the bus!; they intentionally don't use words like sustainability. Instead their conversational probing will often reveal one or two key areas where a change in travel habits might actually make the person's daily grind easier or more enjoyable.

"What it does do is show a genuine interest in who they are and where they're coming from, instead of just jumping in with your agenda," says Harlan. "Quite often I end up telling people we're not anti-car. We're not asking you to get rid of it. We're just exploring what other options might be available to you."

So far the program has been quite effective. Harlan says that last year SDG found an 11 percent reduction in car driving trips among nearly 25,000 households across 9 cities. (SDG measures results with either before-and-after trip diaries in a sample population, or self-report surveys.) In the West Midlands program, which began in May 2011, SDG found a 24 percent reported reduction in car trips more than a year later.

Courtesy Steer Davies Gleave

The program has some obvious challenges and limitations. Its individual nature has a far narrower impact than, say, an improvement to transit service or an infrastructure upgrade. (Though it's a fraction of the cost, says Harlan, and the benefit-cost ratio is high — 6.8-to-1 in one recent analysis.) Training the advisors in motivational interviewing takes time and effort, and maintaining behavior change over the long term is extremely difficult.

There's also the simple fact that not everyone appreciates someone knocking on their door. Harlan often encounters resistance, especially from people who have heard about the program. But when motivational interviewing is done right, it alleviates tension by focusing on the person instead of the message; one of her recent interviews in Essex began with a man calling the program "a waste of money" and ended with him saying he'd like to go shopping by bike more often.

"If you say, we just want to talk to you, it's really amazing how much that changes their perspective," says Harlan. "And how much more willing they are to explore other things."

Top image: Strels / Shutterstock.com

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