What key life events of young adults have to do with sustainable mobility

The problem of habits

In terms of carbon emission reductions, the area of mobility is of major concern. Although CO2 emissions within Europe have decreased since 1990, transport-related emissions have increased significantly during this period [1]. One reason why mobility emissions are notoriously difficult to tackle, is the broad range of interdependent factors that affect them. Apart from available transport infrastructure, technologies, regulations and social norms, the behaviour of individuals has a major role to play. Many of these individual transport decisions are not even taken consciously – our everyday trips for going to work, going shopping or regular leisure activities are strongly governed by routines and habits [2]. Once the car is the habitual choice for the daily commute or for the weekly shopping trip, it is hardly given any further thought.

Key life events as a chance …

In principle, such routines are necessary elements of our daily lives – we do not have the capacity to reconsider the multitude of habitual choices in our lives on a daily basis. But how can carbon intensive transport habits be shifted towards more sustainable ones? One approach is to focus on key life events – major changes in people’s lives such as relocating to a new area or starting a new job. Several studies have shown that such moments in life favour or require the reorganisation of everyday practices and therefore also make people more open towards reconsidering their transport choices [3,4]. As new routines are established, personal values such as environmental awareness are more likely to be factored in – especially if supportive interventions are made. For example, promising experiences have been made with the provision of free trial passes for public transport to people who have recently relocated [5].

…but also as a risk

Unfortunately, the story does not end here. In the same way as key life events can favour a shift to more sustainable mobility practices, they can also have the reverse effect and facilitate more carbon intensive ones. Young adults, in particular the so-called Millennials born between 1980 and 2000, are an interesting case in this respect.  For one thing, this age cohort has been found to be less car-dependent than previous generations. They are more multimodal in their transport choices, adapting flexibly to different situations [6,7]. As ‘digital natives’ they have developed their mobility practices in conjunction with the use of smartphones, apps and real-time public transport information and appear less fixated on individual car ownership (ibid.). However, as Colli [8] demonstrates in a Europe-wide study, economic factors still have a significant influence on car ownership among Millennials. Entering the workforce and progressing further in their career may thus push them towards buying a car. Furthermore, an Australian study [9] has shown that in spite of the largely pragmatic approach of Millennials, starting a family represents another turning point that favours a shift to car ownership. In other words, key life events of young adults (entering the workforce, starting a family) can prompt a turn towards more emission intensive mobility practices.

The project Mobile Millennials

These life events thus deserve special attention in terms of interventions to support the shift towards or maintenance of sustainable mobility practices. The research project ‘Mobile Millennials’ at the Interdisciplinary Research Centre for Technology, Work and Culture (IFZ) and the Graz University of Technology will contribute to this challenge and explore how young adults in Styria reconsider their mobility practices when they enter the workforce or start a family. The project focuses on these turning points, aiming to gain a deeper understanding of opportunities and risks associated with them, and how Millennials can be supported in maintaining or switching to sustainable mobility practices when they reach them.

I am very happy to be part of this project, which I am pursuing in addition to my position at the Doctoral Programme Climate Change.

(Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash)

[1] EEA (2019). Greenhouse gas emissions by aggregated sector, data visualization published 19 Dec 2019, https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/daviz/ghg-emissions-by-aggregated-sector-5#tab-dashboard-02 [21.07.2021]

[2] Harms, S. (2003). From routine choice to rational decision making between mobility alternatives, Conference paper Swiss Transport Research Conference 2003, Monte Verità / Ascona, March 19-21, 2003.

[3] Verplanken, B. & Roy, D. (2016). Empowering interventions to promote sustainable lifestyles: Testing the habit discontinuity hypothesis in a field experiment, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45, 127-134.

[4] Holz-Rau, C. & Scheiner, J. (2015). Mobilitätsbiografien und Mobilitätssozialisation: Neue Zugänge zu einem alten Thema, in: Scheiner, J. & Holz-Rau, C. (Hrsg.) Räumliche Mobilität und Lebenslauf: Studien zu Mobilitätsbiografien und Mobilitätssozialisation. Springer VS, Wiesbaden, 3-22.

[5] Bamberg, S. (2006). Is a Residential Relocation a Good Opportunity to Change People’s Travel Behavior? Results From a Theory-Driven Intervention Study?, Environment and Behaviour, 38, 820-840.

[6] Hopkins, D. (2017). Destabilising automobility? The emergent mobilities of generation Y, Ambio, 46, 371-383.

[7] Jamal, S. & Newbold, K.B. (2020). Factors Associated with Travel Behavior of Millennials and Older Adults: A Scoping Review, Sustainability, 12, 1-27.

[8] Colli, E. (2020). Towards a mobility transition? Understanding the environmental impact of Millennials and Baby Boomers in Europe, Travel Behaviour and Society, 20, 273-289.

[9] Delbosc, A. & Nakanishi, H. (2017). A life course perspective on the travel of Australian millennials, Transportation Research Part A, 104, 319-336.