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Car users prepared to change behaviour if positive benefits are clear

01 September 2010

Pricing policy is regarded by economists as one of the most effective ways to influence driving behaviour. However, resistance from the public is usually very high. Psychologist Geertje Schuitema has discovered that support increases significantly if people become more convinced of the positive benefits for themselves or for society. Schuitema: ‘People are definitely prepared to adapt their driving behaviour – on condition that it is to their advantage.’ Schuitema will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 9 September 2010.

Schuitema: ‘What is noticeable is that people focus mainly on the positive effects and much less on the effect of pricing policies on their own driving behaviour. Car users think that it is important that both they and society benefit from pricing policies, for example through a reduction in traffic-related problems. Or the measures should ensure that environmental problems are solved.’

Emphasize positive effects

Support is not created by rationalizing away the negative effects but by emphasizing the positive effects. Schuitema: ‘Don’t emphasize that the costs for car users are not nearly as high as people think but talk about the potential advantages of the pricing policy. A reduction in the number of traffic jams has positive economic effects. It is also important to emphasize that pricing will lead to a reduction in harmful emissions because there will be fewer cars on the road. Many people indicate that they think that the environment is an important factor.’

Trial period and referendum

Schuitema conducted part of her research in Sweden. There the introduction of a congestion charge in the Stockholm region was preceded by a seven-month trial period. Schuitema tested the acceptance of the pricing policy at various moments. The extra costs of the congestion charge were less than many users had predicted. In addition, the positive effects turned out to be much greater than predicted. The charge clearly contributed to a reduction in traffic jams, emissions and parking problems. In the referendum, a majority thus voted in favour of the congestion charge.

Increase in acceptance

In London, too, a congestion charge has been introduced. Since 2002, every car user who drives into the city centre has to pay a charge. ‘When the policy was introduced, there was a great deal of resistance to it. Nevertheless, after a year the number of supporters had increased dramatically. People could see with their own eyes that the pricing policy was having an effect. Even when the charge was increased from five pounds to eight pounds after a few years, this had no negative effect on the acceptance.’

Practical test of support

The best way to increase support for pricing in the Netherlands is a practical test, according to Schuitema. ‘Let people see and experience that the effects are positive, preferably in a place with major traffic-related problems. The people who live and drive there are certainly aware of the problems. That will increase the support base faster once it turns out that pricing is having an effect.’
Schuitema does highlight one important point: ‘If a practical test does not show positive effects, that will probably result in a negative effect on acceptance. So it’s important to hold the test in a location where you are sure that the effects will be positive. The chances of success are higher in a place with relatively major traffic problems. The chances of the support base increasing are also higher too.’ 

Curriculum vitae

Geertje Schuitema (Groningen, 1978) studied Social Psychology at the University of Groningen, and then became a researcher and lecturer in the Department of Psychology. Her thesis is entitled ‘Priceless policies. Factors influencing the acceptability of transport pricing policies.’ Her promotor is prof. Linda Steg. She is currently a postdoc at the University of Aberdeen.

Note for the press

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Last modified:15 September 2017 3.29 p.m.
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