Could your family survive three months without a car?

Unique experiment reveals opportunities and challenges

Today, governments, universities, commercial companies and NGOs around the world are pushing themselves to find answers to the environmental challenges without losing the conveniences of modern civilization.

In 2018 the University of Umeå in northern Sweden asked 10 ordinary families with kids and teenagers to leave their family cars in the garage for fully three months, and study how the various family members would overcome the loss. The scientific methodology included rigid controls against cheating, like independent recording of the cars’ odometers before and after the three-month period.

Umeå is a pleasant, relatively small university town (85 000 people) with high ambitions for reduced use of private cars. The target is that 65 percent of the residents’ local transportation should be by public transport, bicycle, or by foot in 2022.

To enable necessary transportations to work, school and shops each family in the study was provided with local bus cards for each family member, and one electric bike per family. The test period, from mid-September through mid-December, was chosen to include varied weather conditions. Umeå is situated in northern Sweden where December typically offers reduced daylight hours, frequent rain and sub-zero temperatures (Celsius), a highly relevant fact when it comes to alternative means of transportation.

10 test families

After a screening process 10 test families with kids aged 0-17 were recruited, and their behavior and experiences were recorded through logbooks and recorded and transcribed interviews.

For obvious reasons the test families who agreed to endure some inconveniences during the test period can be expected to be positively biased towards eco-friendly travel, and hardly representative of society at large.

After the completed test period one family estimated that 80–90 percent of their private car travel could be replaced by other alternatives. Another concluded that they could use their family cars in an eco-friendlier way, for example by better planning:

“We have also scaled down some of our ambitions. Less important matters can be taken care of later. Before this, we tended to took care of each transport matter as it came up, which resulted in a lot of additional car trips.”

Towards the end of the test period one participant said that they felt less happy, as they could not fully uphold the social relations they would have liked.

Time is obviously a major issue, and one respondent said: “I felt that the everyday routines were delayed. And the additional time needed (in the mornings) could steal a lot of energy.”

For several of the families their experience from the three months test period have taught them that their changed transport behavior actually works. It also made them more motivated to reconsider their behavior in terms of recycling, eating habits, and even the relative geographical locations of homes, schools and workplaces.  

So, the motivation was there alright, but there were also major obstacles to overcome. And making buses and electric bikes a realistic alternative to private cars would also require considerable infrastructure improvements in terms of as bus lines and timetables.