We care about clean air: It’s time to think about our next car purchase

by Dr Caroline Jordan, Centre for Behavioural Science & Applied Psychology (CeBSAP)

In Sheffield, the air we breathe has been above legal limits for Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) for 10 years, contributing to 500 deaths each year from lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke. The biggest cause of air pollution is transport, especially diesel vehicles. Sheffield City Council (SCC) have pledged to reduce the number of people driving diesel cars and are promoting electric car use with electric vehicle trials, alternative fuels, green parking schemes, publicity and awareness raising events.

Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Behavioural Science and Applied Psychology (CeBSAP) was recently commissioned by SCC to conduct research to understand car purchase behaviour in Sheffield and Rotherham. We presented selected results1 from this research at the 2021 ESRC Festival of Social Science, which had events themed around the environment, reflecting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). This year, COP26 reminds us that as we recover from the impact of COVID-19, there is a great opportunity for the UK to tackle climate change, through developing and investing in clean energy and transport. Our presentation reflected on the importance of behavioural science in research to supporting this aim.

In our approach to this research, we applied the COM-B model of behaviour change2,3, to help us understand the factors that are important influences.  Firstly, are people Capable i.e., do they have sufficient knowledge and understanding about electric cars and associated purchasing schemes? Second, whether people have the Opportunity to purchase an electric car. For example, do they have sufficient money, and a place where they could charge it, and is this something that their friends, family and community support. Finally, do people have Motivation to purchase an electric car – do they have positive attitudes, and perceptions of electric cars do they have any concerns, and how important do they believe electric cars are for air pollution and climate change?

In phase 1, we conducted focus groups with residents of Sheffield and Rotherham, to provide an opportunity to tell us about their car purchasing decisions and the barriers to buying and using an electric car. In phase 2, focus groups findings were used to inform the development of a survey, examining barriers to electric car purchase and use, in 1221 Sheffield and Rotherham residents. 

Findings from the focus groups showed us there was a lack of knowledge (a Capability factor) about electric cars, but that people also really wanted to know more about them to support their purchase decisions:

“I’d like to buy one, but I would like to know a lot more information”

Survey results found that only 15 percent of people knew that grants are available for installing a charging point at home and 34 percent did not know if they would be able to charge a battery electric car in the Sheffield/Rotherham area.  

We also found that intentions to purchase an electric car were predicted by a higher level of education, a higher income, and being younger. Interestingly, over and above these demographic factors, we found that perceptions of the cost of running an electric car compared to diesel, believing battery electric cars are becoming more popular, believing that friends and family are likely to buy them (Opportunity factors) and an increased sense of the importance of owning a less polluting car (a Motivation factor) predicted people’s intentions to buy an electric car.  

Overall, what this tells us is that people living in Sheffield and Rotherham would benefit from knowing more about electric cars, the charging infrastructure, and the financial benefits of electric car ownership, but importantly, irrespective of age, education and income, this is a community effort: we influence and are influenced by our friends and neighbours and together we can make less polluting choices…we care about clean air! So, now would be a good time for us to help protect the future of Sheffield’s air, by thinking about our future car purchases and making the move away from diesel to electric cars, with support from local and central Government.  In November 2020, the UK Government announced that sales of new petrol and diesel cars would end by 2030. Funding mechanisms are in place to improve the charging infrastructure and to make electric car ownership more affordable. However, the influence of Government funding on the decision to purchase an electric vehicle remains largely unclear4, which is unsurprising given that our evidence suggests Sheffield and Rotherham residents have low awareness of this investment.

CeBSAP’s recommendations to SCC were formulated around the Behaviour Change Wheel2,3 framework which advocates matching intervention functions and policy categories to COM barriers. Our research suggests that communications and marketing to educate residents about electric cars and the availability of charging points; to persuade residents about the financial benefits of ownership; and to promote awareness of social norms by showing ‘people like me’ who have purchased an electric car, could be useful for overcoming local barriers and promoting purchase.  

Following our presentation, public question time involved a discussion around charging solutions introduced in Norway, which has been the most successful country in achieving electric vehicle market penetration and market share. The secret to their success has been the Government’s investment in consumer affordability and charging infrastructure for the last 30 years. This has enabled a commitment to ending fossil fuelled car sales by 2025; five years earlier than the UK.  

If the UK intends to meet the ambitious 2030 goal, our research suggests a behavioural accelerant, in the form of community education, persuasion, and the promotion of awareness, to enable a public shift in car purchasing behaviour, and to make the most of UK Government investment. 

If you would like to know more about Clean Air Sheffield, home charging grants and the charging infrastructure, please visit the SCC website:  www.sheffield.gov.uk/cleanair

1 Jordan, C., Millings, A., & Arden, M. (2021). Examining Barriers and Facilitators to Electric Car Purchase and Confidence in Charging Capabilities in Sheffield and Rotherham. Project Report http://shura.shu.ac.uk/29344/

2 Michie, S., Van Stralen, M. M., & West, R. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: a new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions. Implementation science, 6(1), 1-12.

3 Michie, S., Atkins, L., & West, R. (2014). The behaviour change wheel. A guide to designing interventions. 1st ed. Great Britain: Silverback Publishing, 1003-1010.

4 Hurst, D., Winnet, J., & Hinson, S. (2021). Electric vehicles and infrastructure. Commons Briefing Paper 7480. London, Commons Library Research. Available online: https://commonslibrary. parliament. uk/research-briefings/cbp-7480/ (accessed on 11 November 2020).

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