Understanding the value of disruption as an agent for changing unsustainable travel practices

At a local authority level in the UK.

PhD researcher

David Williams


Dr Tim Chatterton and Professor Graham Parkhurst


In the UK, the majority of everyday journeys are made by private vehicle, which is inefficient and damaging to the environment. Traditional methods of changing travel behaviour focus on the individual. A social practice approach looks at changing wider society to enable people to change their existing travel practices. The research forms part of the wider EPSRC/RCUK Energy Programme Disruption project, focused on understanding the extent to which travel practices are as fixed as commonly assumed by both theory and policy.

Disruption Work package 6 is designed to enable implementation of the project findings through government policy at national and local levels. The main challenge is to explore how an approach based on social practice theory, looking at travel in a wider social context, rather than focusing on individual behaviour change, and whether social practice can be used to develop innovative new transport policies. The way we travel is influenced through our environment, government policy and the social networks that we keep. When these are disrupted, what lessons can we learn from these disruptions to change to more sustainable travel behaviour?

Research aims

This research draws on the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) bids of 2011 and 2012 to investigate how sustainable transport is being delivered in England and whether disruptive or dis-incentivising schemes form part of the delivery of sustainable transport measures. The research objectives are therefore:

  • How is the current sustainable transport policy in the UK designed to create a change in people‚Äôs travel practices? How is this being implemented at a local authority level?
  • If disruption offers a natural break in linkages between the materials, meanings and competences of a travel practice, how can policy makers exploit these events to increase take up of create sustainable travel practices?
  • If a travel practice is unsustainable (in terms of carbon emissions) and is therefore seen as undesirable, can social practice theory offer an alternative means of engendering change to contemporary approaches?
  • Is the current sustainable transport policy design disruptive enough to lead to behaviour change? What scale of disruptive change is acceptable to the public and media?

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