SALT LAKE CITY — Some studies say it takes 28 days to form a habit, others say 66 days. Rob Weidmann, 40, has been taking public transportation to work for 10 years. Doing so has become automatic, like brushing his teeth or looking both ways before he crosses a street.
His commute from Salt Lake to Lehi — bus to TRAX to Frontrunner — takes an hour and a half. On the way there, he catches up on email or writes in his journal. On the way home, he reads books.
Every now and then, he stops to answer questions about his mask.
It’s a black mouth and nose covering that he wears on bad air days, with an activated charcoal filter and one-way valves, so breath goes out and clean air comes in.
“Once you go outside for a walk on an inversion day and your throat starts to burn, you realize the air is poison,” said Weidmann. “Sometimes I get looks, but when the days are really gross, people will say, ‘Cool mask, where did you get that?'”
At first glance, other than the mask (and his blue hair), nothing about Weidmann, or his decision to commute an hour and a half to work, is remarkable. But in truth, he is part of a small percentage of Utahns — between 2 and 3 percent statewide — who regularly take public transportation. The logic behind his decision-making may be the key to solving one of the most vexing problems along the Wasatch Front: how to clean the smoggy air that hovers over the valley during the winter.
While the causes of Utah’s bad air quality are many, and the solutions are complicated, the most straightforward fix, experts say, is to get individuals to change their polluting habits.
“Each car … home, business, every time we cook a hamburger, that’s a source of emissions,” said Bryce Bird, director of Utah’s Division of Air Quality. “The biggest challenge we have right now is identifying these small, diverse sources of air pollution and controlling them.”
But influencing individuals' habits is easier said than done, and the reason why lies in behavioral psychology.
Learning facts (fewer cars on the road leads to cleaner air) or even knowing right from wrong (burning wood on red air days can make things worse for neighbors with asthma) doesn’t change behavior, psychologists said. Breaking habits or forming new ones requires not just knowledge but emotional and environmental influences as well.
Weidmann, for example, doesn't just know dirty air is bad for him. Weidmann's dad was a respiratory therapist and when Weidmann was a kid, he saw firsthand how contaminants can damage a person's lungs by playing with healthy and unhealthy lung samples, sealed in plastic, that his dad kept on a sagging bookshelf in his office. Weidmann has also calculated that taking public transit is cheaper than maintaining a second car for his family, and he likes using the extra time to catch up on small tasks or destress after a busy day.
“Most of us think if you persuade someone that something is the right thing, they will therefore adopt the behavior. But that’s not the case," said Joseph Grenny, a social scientist and author of the book "Influencer." When it comes to a big problem like Utah’s air quality, people tend to think, “how does it make a difference when I am just one among many?”
I first met Weidmann on the bus in August. For several months, I’d been reporting on Utah’s clean air problem and trying to find a solution. I studied how cities like Oslo, Norway, have made their air cleaner, and I looked into what Utah has tried, what has worked, and what the biggest obstacles are to real change. I concluded there aren’t enough people like Weidmann. And I concluded that if I really wanted to see change, I had to start with myself.
So I decided to go without a car for one week. It wasn’t easy. Trips on public transit took about three times longer than driving. And more than once, I had to walk three miles home (alone, at night) because the buses didn’t run when or where I needed them to. At the same time, I learned that there are a lot of public transit options during commute times, and getting to and from work was easier than I thought. Biking wasn’t bad either. In fact, it was a nice way to get myself outside and moving in the morning.
Already, in an effort to make green transportation more convenient, Salt Lake has built bike lanes on more than half of its major roads. Bus lines and TRAX connect all over the city. And city officials are thinking ahead with mass transit and cycling plans that will make getting around even easier. But critics say planned changes aren’t happening fast enough. The city’s transit master plan would give us buses that come every 15 minutes along major roads, like State Street and 900 East, so people don’t have to plan ahead, and better night and weekend service, to help people get home safely from a late shift. But that plan will be implemented over the next 20 years. And bicycle lanes typically only get put in when it’s time for a road to be repaved.
"There are roads in SLC that haven't been redone in 10 plus years. How long do you have to wait?" said Phil Sarnoff, executive director of Bike Utah.
In the meantime, so far this year, there have been 142 days when the daily air quality index (AQI) for Salt Lake City reached cautionary levels for ozone or particulate matter, two pollutants that have been linked to a variety of diseases, including asthma, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Physicist David Roberts and physician Nick Riesland calculated that living in a city with moderate AQI can reduce a person’s lifespan by up to 30 minutes a day for the rest of your life. Other research shows that even short-term exposure to air pollution can have negative health effects, like increased respiratory infections.
Cutting air pollution by regulating big polluters like refineries and power plants has already been largely achieved, said Deborah Burney-Sigman, executive director of Breathe Utah. Today, more than 70 percent of air pollution emissions come from the general population of the urban area. These include emissions from cars and trucks, and pollutants from homes and small businesses. Individuals burning wood, in fire pits or in their homes, produce as much emission on some winter days as all of big industry combined, Burney-Sigman said, citing a 2017 Utah study.
“With air pollution, we are all contributing but in small ways as we go about our daily lives,” said Christina Manning, professor of environmental psychology at Macalester college in St. Paul, Minnesota. “So there’s nothing obvious to change.”
After talking to behavioral psychologists, it became clear to me that the majority of Utahns are never going to make public transportation a regular part of their routine, or adopt other behaviors that would make our air cleaner, unless some things change.
Step 1: Redefine good and bad
There are six ways to influence people’s behavior, and all of them are necessary to create widespread social change: “Help them love what they hate, help them do what they can’t, provide encouragement, provide assistance, change the economy and change the space,” Grenny said.
The first step, “help them love what they hate” means giving people a framework for rethinking behavior.
In 2013, Mike Daniels and his team at The Behavioural Architects, an international behavioral science consulting firm based in Australia, tried to reframe how Melbourne motorists viewed their commute, explaining that if they spend 1-2 hours commuting a day, that adds up to nearly four work weeks in a year. Then, commuters were asked to think about how they could use that time more effectively — writing a novel, starting a business or planning a vacation — if they took public transit instead of driving a car.
But while convincing people that a behavior is good is an important first step, it is not enough. Search engine data show that Utahns research air quality more than residents of any other state, but that awareness does not always translate to action, according to a poll commissioned by the Salt Lake Tribune.
It’s especially hard to turn intention into action when there are barriers in the way, when short-term costs are competing against long-term benefits and when large-scale collective action is required to make a difference, said Manning.
“Environmental concern is competing with a lot of other considerations in our daily lives — getting to work on time, picking up the kids from soccer practice or visiting your elderly parents.” said Steffen Kallbekken, research director for the Center for International Climate and Energy Policy in Norway. “We are psychologically wired to deal with immediate and visible ‘threats’.”
Before change can happen, Grenny said Americans need to stop thinking about convenience as the “highest moral good,” and start prioritizing the environment and people’s health.
Take smoking in public, for example. Research showed secondhand smoke was unhealthy, decades before there were any laws dictating where you could and could not smoke. Thirty years ago, the majority of buildings and airplanes had smoking areas. But attitudes quickly shifted. In 1987, Beverly Hills, California, and Aspen, Colorado, banned smoking in restaurants and several cities across the country followed suit. By 1990, San Luis Obispo, California, became the first city in the world to ban indoor smoking at all public places, including bars, and the federal government banned smoking on most domestic flights.
According to Grenny, rapid change happened because the issue was morally redefined. “Whereas freedom of choice used to be the primary concern, the issue became: your smoking is affecting my health,” Grenny said. “When that idea became part of the popular conversation … the norms started to change.”
Burney-Sigman compared smoking in public to driving a car that pollutes. Rather than protecting the freedom to drive, we should prioritize protecting a person's freedom to breathe uncontaminated air, she said.
Step 2: Make it easier
If a city wants to get people to take public transit, carpool, get regular emissions checks or practice trip chaining (clustering errands so you make one long trip instead of multiple short trips throughout the week), two things are necessary, according to Grenny. People need the know-how and the right tools.
For example, to ride the bus, people need to know how to read a bus schedule, where to get on and off and how to pay. The environment also plays a role. If there are many bus stops, if they are accessible and if they are well marked, people are more likely to use them, Grenny said.
“A lot of our thinking is done at an unconscious level, lightning fast,” said Manning. When we don’t know how to do something or we’ve never done something before, our immediate unconscious response is fear, she said.
It takes longer to consciously process questions like, what are the costs and benefits of this? And how much pollution or money will I save? That’s why the gut reaction is often more important than analytical reasoning, said Manning.
“You have to have a really good economic argument to get over the fear of feeling incompetent,” she said.
I experienced the fear of incompetence when I went without a car for a week. Before my experiment, I didn’t know what buses ran near my house or where they went. I didn’t know that I couldn’t get change on a bus if I paid in cash, or that I could use the UTA app to pay. I didn’t know what the little white transfer slip was when the bus driver handed it to me for the first time. I was embarrassed when I had to ask, “what do I do with this?”
The good news is I overcame those barriers after riding the bus just one time.
Like businesses that offer a discount on your first purchase, “free fare days” for public transit can be a good way to get people to try something once, said Manning. HEAL Utah is working with UTA to promote a bill that would provide free fares on certain days in the winter, when inversions are typically the worst, according to HEAL’s executive director Scott Williams. Last year, UTA tried making public transit free for just one day and found that it cost about $70,000 in lost fares, but increased ridership, Williams said. UTA reported that 17,560 cars were removed from the roads that day, and three tons of pollutants were prevented from entering the air.
“The challenge we have today is that we are increasing population at a faster rate than we have before,” said Bird. Because bedroom communities are being developed in places where there are no jobs, “commute distances are increasing and vehicle miles traveled is growing at twice the rate of population.”
Half of vehicle trips made along the Wasatch Front are less than three miles, a distance that is easily bikeable, Sarnoff said. Since nearly a quarter of car emissions come from starting a car, especially “cold starts” when the engine has been turned off for a while, eliminating smaller trips would have a significant impact on air quality, according to Sarnoff. Lest you think the answer to avoiding turning your car on and off is idling, studies show that idling for more than 10 seconds uses more fuel than restarting the engine.
Experts, including Sarnoff, agree that when bike lanes improve, cycling increases because people feel safer. Salt Lake’s previous mayoral administration made a big push to build bicycle infrastructure, but those efforts have stalled under the current administration, said Bird.
Step 3: Social pressure
Even though all six categories of influence are necessary to spur widespread change, Grenny admits the two categories that require social pressure, “providing assistance” and “providing encouragement,” are the most powerful. In other words, we’re much more susceptible to peer pressure than we may think.
“Research shows the primary reason people are honest is because we’re afraid of being caught and being shamed, not because we’re decent people,” Grenny said. “If you get people jumping turnstiles, jaywalking or cheating on their taxes, if that’s a norm, most of us will start to cheat.”
A 1990 experiment, conducted by psychologist Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and colleagues, showed that people were more likely to litter after they saw someone else throw a paper flier on the ground in a polluted environment. But when they saw someone throw a flier on the ground in a clean environment, they were less likely to follow suit. The behavior stood out and was therefore easier to disapprove of.
According to Manning, if 10 percent of people are doing something, it starts to become a trend. Grenny said it’s more about velocity, “If you can get three to five percent adopting a new behavior in a short period of time, it starts to tip.”
Close friends and respected people in a community have the most influence, they agreed.
“Wealthy people might think of taking public transportation as something that only poor people do. Some might see biking as something for people wearing spandex,” said Manning. “But if your peers start adopting that behavior, the social conception changes. People start to think, ‘this is a normal thing that people like me do.’”
For example, imagine your friends asked you to check the air quality, or wood-burning ban status, every time you lit a fire.
Hermione Taylor, founding director of Do Nation, a nonprofit that helps communities adopt sustainable behaviors, said people should be encouraged to see home wood-burning fires “as a treat” and to only use them when absolutely necessary or when the weather is clear and pollution isn’t likely to linger.
Zero emissions buildings, or buildings that create the same amount of clean energy they use, have been around for many years, according to Charlie Woodruff, a director for the U.S. Green Building Council for Utah & the Northern Rockies. But even though the construction techniques are widely known, and several groups have demonstrated they don’t have to cost more than conventional buildings, most contractors in Utah are sticking with old ways, Woodruff said.
The reason? The social pressure isn’t there. Energy efficiency is not typically a person’s top priority when looking for a place to live. And as the demand for housing and office space continues to grow, builders don’t have time to stop and learn new construction techniques, according to Woodruff.
“People get into their routine,” he said. “They say this is how I’ve done it for the last 10 years, and it’s working, so this is how I’m going to keep doing it.”
At the same time, Utah’s energy codes are lagging behind the national standards, Bird said. Twelve states have adopted more stringent codes for residential buildings. Two years ago, the Utah Legislature chose not to adopt the stricter energy code, fearing it would make housing prices go up and make it harder for first-time buyers to qualify for a home, even though calculations show people recover the additional upfront cost of greener buildings through energy savings, said Bird.
Step 4: Incentives
That brings us to the final category of social influence: cost.
“Are there incentives? Is it cheaper or more expensive to do it one way or the other?” asked Grenny.
This year, a tax incentive that allowed for a credit of up to $1,500 when Utahns purchased an electric vehicle was taken away and replaced with an additional $122 electric vehicle registrations fee, based on the fact that those vehicles don’t contribute to road maintenance by paying tax on gas.
Utah legislators have also rejected attempts to adopt California's Zero Emissions Vehicle Program which has been enacted in nine other states and requires car manufacturers to reach a quota of electric vehicle sales. Currently, the same electric vehicles cost up to $6,000 more in Utah than California because there is less supply, said Bird.
Economic incentives for electric cars are working in Norway, where there are more electric vehicles per capita than any other country. And Norway is using the strategy for more than just cars. GreeNudge in Norway showed shoppers the long-term costs of running household appliances based on energy efficiency to help people to think beyond the price at the point of purchase.
“It is often helpful to look for the cases where what is good for the environment aligns with personal incentives,” said Kallbekken.
Despite stubborn human nature, experts agreed that people do change, if you give them a reason to.42 comments on this story
For Weidmann, the cost of owning and maintaining a second car is enough to convince him to take public transit to work. He’s been able to reframe the time he spends on the train as time he’s taking for himself. And even though wearing an air filter mask isn’t quite the social norm in Utah, he’s decided it’s necessary to protect his health — and the health of his wife and two children, ages 10 and 13. That’s why each member of the family of four carries around masks, in their school bags and work bags, in case bad air strikes. Weidmann hopes one day his family won’t have to do that.
“I wish more people would take public transit, I wish public transit went more places that it wasn’t hard to get around … if there were more electric cars," said Weidmann. "A lot of things added together would make a huge difference.”