In Choosing Vehicles, Americans Not Hypocritical, But Pragmatic

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According to conventional wisdom, Americans are environmental hypocrites. We express concern about pollution and climate change, but when it comes to the personal decision that arguably has the biggest impact on the environment — our choice of a personal vehicle — we consistently opt for gas-guzzling SUVs and light trucks.

But new research suggests the notion that our behavior does not match our beliefs is not entirely accurate. According to a just-published study, the extent to which we understand and appreciate the environmental challenges we face significantly affects both our choice of vehicle and how frequently we drive it.

In the journal Transportation Research Part D, Bradley Flamm of Temple University's department of community and regional planning reports on a mail survey of 4,000 households in and around Sacramento, Calif. Respondents were asked questions to gauge their knowledge of environmental issues, their attitudes regarding the importance of environmental protection, and their current commuting habits, including how the specific vehicles are driven by members of their household.

Flamm found that people who expressed knowledge of and concern for environmental issues did not, on average, own fewer vehicles than their blissfully ignorant neighbors. But they did "buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and use them less — both significant decisions with important environmental benefits related to the consumption of fewer resources," he writes.

"For planners and policy makers, these findings suggest two potentially useful strategies," Flamm writes. First, a social marketing campaign should be designed and implemented to "highlight the connection between environmental impact and behavior" — in other words, to get people to understand that their choice of car or truck truly makes a difference. Once that (compact fluorescent) light bulb goes off over their heads, they're far more likely to think in environmentally conscious ways when making a vehicle purchase.

Second, Flamm suggests local and regional governments should "make it easier to reduce vehicle ownership and use by providing high-quality alternatives." He notes that it is unlikely too many people will give up their cars if their other transportation options "are few and inconvenient."

Refusing to throw away our car keys when there is no other way to get to work hardly makes us hypocrites. It simply means the infrastructure isn’t in place that would allow us to act on our beliefs.

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