Among the many reasons that an overwhelming majority of people commute by car is that driving to work literally becomes a habit. Once the routine is established, you wake up and follow a chain of automatic cues that end on the road. In a practical sense, whatever choice you once had about your travel mode no longer exists.
That’s a lot of neuroscience standing between cities and reduced car reliance. But it turns out drivers aren’t the only ones whose brains get beholden to a certain manner of commuting. New evidence claiming to be the first of its kind suggests that people who walk or ride a bike to work also become behaviorally attached to their travel type—and may even form stronger habits than drivers do.
The work comes from psychologists Gregory Owen Thomas and Ian Walker of the University of Bath in the U.K., who have studied the overlap of habits and commuting in the past. For the present study, Thomas and Walker collected data on the travel routines of roughly 1,600 staff and students who made regular trips to campus by driving (37 percent), riding the bus (34 percent), cycling (7 percent), or walking (16 percent). Participants also completed a series of standard self-report assessments, including one on the habit strength of their preferred travel mode.
To the surprise of Thomas and Walker, who suspected that weather might make non-drivers frequently adjust their travel patterns, participants who commuted by bike or on foot showed significantly stronger habits than those who traveled by bus or car. On a scale from 1 to 7, with 7 being the strongest, walkers and cyclists each rated their commuting habit at roughly 5.2. Bus riders reported an average of 4.8—and drivers came in dead last, at an average below 4.7.
The researchers report their findings in an upcoming issue of the journal Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.
In a separate analysis, based on self-reported ratings of work trip satisfaction, Thomas and Walker found that cyclists and walkers had the highest affective appraisal of their commute mode—significantly above drivers, who were themselves significantly above bus riders. Those findings are in line with previous research showing that active transport modes lead to happier commutes. Cyclists were generally positive and excited about their trips (though not always relaxed); walkers were positive and relaxed (though not always excited); bus riders were, well, bus riders.
Drivers were more or less neutral toward their commute mode—another surprise, considering the common belief that people love their cars. Thomas and Walker suspect that neutrality might reflect the “default” status of driving to work: something “people adopt relatively unthinkingly because it is seen as the ‘proper’ or ‘normal’ thing to do in societies.” In contrast, they write, walking or cycling requires a more deliberate initial level of choice, which in turn might lead to a stronger emotional connection to the mode.
That bond might hold the key to the habit strength findings. Perhaps the initial reward of being able to walk or bike to work strengthens the habit at an emotional level, which then combines with the general behavioral cues that accompany all habits to form a more potent routine. Here’s Thomas and Walker:
If this interpretation is correct, car and public transport users, whose habits are weaker, likely have these habits based around contextual cues alone, without the additional habit-strengthening force of positive affective appraisals.
The study needs to be replicated in other populations. College towns are known for being more conducive to non-car commuters than other places; indeed, the share of car commuters among participants, at 37 percent, is far below most city-wide figures. The mean age among drivers in the sample, at 41, was also much higher than that of bus riders (24), walkers (27), and cyclists (31), which brings an age component into play as well.
Taken at face value, though, the findings offer a great deal of encouragement to cities and employers trying to promote alternative commute habits. Not only does the study suggest that people don’t love their car commute as much as conventional wisdom would hold, it also suggests they can form even stronger attachments to walking or biking. Getting people to try these modes in the first place remains a tall order—timing the shifts to major life events is the most promising strategy—but getting the change to stick is not a hopeless case.