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Formative Research on Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation

Authors:

Abstract

Car accidents are the leading cause of death among U.S. 10- to 24-year-olds (CDC, 2018). Motivating youth to drive less by choosing car-free mobility may reduce fatalities and contribute to positive environmental impact. Yet, little is known about how youth perceive car-free transportation or what may motivate them to choose it more often. Results from focus groups analyzed through the lens of the theory of planned behavior explore youth perceptions and experiences about car-free transportation. Perceived effectiveness of car-free messages also is presented. This study contributes to understandings of the theoretical underpinnings of an understudied area of public interest communications. Practical recommendations for strategic communication with youth about car-free transportation include appealing to their agency and autonomy and reinforcing their safety.
Journal of Public Interest Communications, Vol. 4 Issue 1, 2020
Introduction
Car accidents are the leading cause of death and a top cause of non-fatal injury among 10- to 24-
year-olds in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). The United
States has the highest traffic fatality rates per capita among 19 other high-income and populated
peer countries
1
(Sauber-Schatz et al., 2016). High fatality rates persist despite declining crash
rates per mile because Americans, especially youth, drive more than their peers in other countries
1
Peer countries include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel,
Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Formative Research on Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation
Autumn Shafer, Jared Macary
University of Oregon, University of Oregon
Article Information
Received: January 14, 2020
Accepted: April 17, 2020
Published online: May 22, 2020
Abstract
Car accidents are the leading cause of death among U.S. 10- to 24-
year-olds (CDC, 2018). Motivating youth to drive less by choosing
car-free mobility may reduce fatalities and contribute to positive
environmental impact. Yet, little is known about how youth perceive
car-free transportation or what may motivate them to choose it more
often. Results from focus groups analyzed through the lens of the
theory of planned behavior explore youth perceptions and experiences
about car-free transportation. Perceived effectiveness of car-free
messages also is presented. This study contributes to understandings
of the theoretical underpinnings of an understudied area of public
interest communications. Practical recommendations for strategic
communication with youth about car-free transportation include
appealing to their agency and autonomy and reinforcing their safety.
Journal of Public Interest Communications
ISSN (online): 2573-4342
Journal homepage: http://journals.fcla.edu/jpic/
Keywords
Car-free mobility
Youth transportation
Formative research
Teen driving
Theory of planned behavior
*Please send correspondences about this article to Autumn Shafer, School of Journalism and Communication,
University of Oregon. E-mail: ashafer@uoregon.edu.
https://doi.org/10.32473/jpic.v4.i1.p37
Copyright Journal of Public Interest Communications 2020. Published under a Creative Commons License.
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
38
(Litman, 2016). The United States is predicted to continue to experience depressed gains in
reducing traffic fatalities unless more is done to get high-risk drivers, such as youth, to choose
mobility or transportation options, such as walking, biking, or riding public transit, that do not
involve a car (car-free mobility). Yet, few studies have investigated how to motivate youth to
engage in car-free mobility.
Research shows transit ridership is associated with decreased fatality rates among youth and
the total population (Litman, 2016). Research also has found that U.S. cities with more transit-
focused access and supportive policies have about half the average youth and total traffic fatality
rates as cities with more automobile-focused policies and access (Litman, 2016). Promoting
youth use of car-free mobility is likely to lower the fatality and injury rates among youth, but
also among the general population, since most fatal car crashes involve multiple vehicles
(Litman, 2016). There also may be a safety benefit to increasing walking and biking. Analyses of
communities of varying size and in multiple countries have found that the presence of more
walkers and bikers in and of itself is associated with less pedestrian traffic fatalities, although
these studies were not done with youth specifically, and many scholars have correctly pointed
out the importance of increasing traffic safety systems in conjunction with promoting these
forms of car-free mobility (Bhatia & Wier, 2011; Elvik & Bjornskau, 2017; Jacobsen, 2003). The
U.S. government also has invested in improving youth access to safe car-free mobility through
the Safe Routes to School program, which has allocated more than a billion dollars of local
school district support with an emphasis on infrastructure improvements (McDonald et al.,
2013).
In addition to serving the public interest through the significant potential reductions in death
and injury, understanding the current attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of youth in relation to car-
free mobility contributes to the sustainability of a long-term environmentally conscious
transportation system. Promoting support for and use of a planned transportation system (e.g.,
transit, bike and walk paths) among youth helps contribute to a safe, healthy, and sustainable
transportation system and fosters livable communities by providing secure mobility to a segment
of the public typically restricted in their transportation choices (i.e., may not be old enough to
drive or cannot afford a car).
Increasing youth car-free mobility is also a strategic investment in our future to help grow
and sustain long-term use of car-free transportation options because the transportation system
related beliefs and behaviors of youth are likely to influence their willingness to access
transportation services, such as transit, as adults (Cain, 2006). Encouraging youth to understand
and engage with car-free transportation options also may increase their interest in transportation
systems, which could translate into future transportation system support through voting, citizen
engagement, and interest in a transportation-related career (Cain, 2006). Thus, it is important for
transportation communities to actively communicate with youth who are or could be future
transit riders or who have access to other car-free options. However, communicating what young
audiences may see as complex or dry information in a way that is motivating and engaging
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
39
requires specialized age-appropriate communication strategies and tactics that must be developed
and tested prior to implementation.
This study seeks to build on the sparse car-free mobility-related research with youth to
create and evaluate communication messaging that fosters more positive attitudes, intentions,
and behaviors related to transit and other car-free transportation options among youth. The
theory of planned behavior was applied to the interpretation of focus group data among youth.
This research also analyzed youth feedback on test messages aimed at encouraging car-free
mobility. Three focus groups were conducted with participants (N = 28) who were entering the
seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. This study used a systematic theory-based approach that
consists of two stages of formative research consistent with best practices in strategic message
development (Berkowitz et al., 2008; Noar, 2006). The first stage is preproduction, which
sources an audience’s attitudes and beliefs to develop strategic messaging for a representative
population. The second stage is production testing, where an audience reacts to specific
messages to test the appeal and perceived or actual effectiveness of those messages. This study
tested 15 text messages that were grouped under three themes: appeals to FOMO (fear-of-
missing-out), Generation Z empowerment, and Autonomy. The results contribute to our
understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of an understudied area relevant to health and
environmental communication that is important and potentially life-savinghow to
communicate with youth to increase their support and use of car-free mobility.
Literature review
This example of public interest communications focuses on formative research for a strategic
campaign. Public interest communications applies strategic communication theories and
practices to support positive behavioral changes that are in the public’s interest (Fessmann,
2017). In this case the positive behavioral change of engaging youth in car-free mobility has the
potential to benefit both individuals and society across the domains of health, safety,
environment, and civic engagement. Formative research fits well within public interest
communications as it is a strategic communication best practice and also aligns with the public
interest communications priority to do no harm (Fessmann, 2017) because formative research
seeks to understand a public, its experiences, needs, and preferences to shape the social change
strategic campaign rather than imposing the beliefs of an organization onto a public.
Promoting car-free mobility among youth
A gap in the literature exists among studies about effective transportation messaging targeting
youth. Taylor and Fink (2003) identified two types of transit studies: descriptive (i.e., related to
rider attitudes and perceptions) and causal (i.e., related to systems or institutions impacting
ridership). Neither category finds much representation in peer-reviewed articles about promoting
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
40
car-free mobility among youth, although some descriptive studies about youth attitudes and
perceptions of public transit use do exist at the national level (Brown et al., 2016; Clifton, 2003;
Davis & Dutzik, 2012) and within regional data sets (Cain, 2006; Grimsrud & El-Geneidy, 2014;
Thomas, 2007). Important lessons from youth-targeted transportation studies have concluded that
youth use of public transit increased in the 2000s (Brown et. al, 2016; Davis & Dutzik, 2012)
from the mid-1990s (Clifton, 2003). Clifton (2003) analyzed a 1995 national survey to argue that
as adolescence progresses and the social lives of teens increase, greater reliance on cars follows:
“Teenagers appear to abandon walking and [public] transit use as soon as the automobile
becomes an option” (p. 11). Research has shown there may be racial and economic
underpinnings to youth mobility, with Black, Hispanic, and low-income children being more
likely to walk or ride a bike to school compared to White or higher income children (McDonald,
2008).
By contrast, Brown et al. (2016) and Davis and Dutzik (2012) analyzed 2001 and 2009
National Household Travel Survey data to argue an increase in youth use of public transit.
Brown et al. (2016) suggested this shift may not only be economic due to high costs associated
with automobiles, but also a factor of youth moving closer to urban areas. Brown et al. (2016)
posited that youth find urban areas more attractive, resulting in favorable impressions of
transportation modes found in those areas. Davis and Dutzik (2012) suggested the shift in the
2000s may be techno-social due to the popularizing of bike- and ride-share programs. These
programs reduce social stigma in not owning and operating a vehicle for personal transit. The
assessments of Brown et al. (2016) and Davis and Dutzik (2012) also suggested that
characteristics of New Urbanism (promoting environmentally sustainable habits through urban
design) may share a relationship with youth use of public transit in growing urban areas. Wolcha
et al., 2014) argued that increases in green space and active transport in urban areas are both
issues of environmental justice and public health. Improvement of ecosystems and opportunities
to engage with them can improve the public health of urban populations when implemented
appropriately.
Few studies, however, have focused on connecting the transportation-related attitudes and
behaviors of youth to developing messages that promote car-free mobility. One exception is a
study that conducted extensive formative research on the types of transit messaging that might
work with teenagers (Cain, 2006; Cain et al., 2005). The Cain study recommended three
potential communication strategies that could be successful with teenagers: (1) highlight how
transit allows teens to be more independent and less reliant on their parents for transportation; (2)
highlight the safety benefits of using transit compared to the responsibility of driving; and (3)
highlight the high cost of car travel and the better uses of their money to save for things teens
care about (e.g., clothes). The Cain study’s messaging recommendations were based on five
mobility themes related to teen use of public transit: safety, cost, access-availability, reliability,
and image. Via focus groups, Cain (2006) found that teens associated public transit such as buses
with a negative self-image (e.g., colloquially “uncool”). Teens also reported public transit to be
less reliable than personal transit; however, teens reported public transit to be more economical.
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
41
In synthesizing qualitative data from teens with a survey of transit agencies, Cain (2006) found
that agencies viewed their social image as an obstacle to increasing youth ridership (e.g.,
stereotypes among teens about public transit). Both agencies and individuals express cultural
frames as communication barriers in relation to increasing ridership. It is important to note that
findings from Cain (2006) may reflect specific regional factors (e.g., favorable weather), which
support the need for more research in different geographic locations to understand how findings
may be comparable across geographies and to reflect that more than a decade has passed since
the last study.
At least two transportation reports discussed the implementation of youth-target transit
campaigns in terms of the development and materials created, but only process (distribution) data
were available rather than formative evaluation data on the perceived or actual effectiveness of
the materials (Cain et al., 2005; Lindsey et al., 2003). As an outcome of his research in Florida,
Cain (2006) suggested strategic approaches to public transit agencies to increase youth ridership;
however, the study did not make claims about the effectiveness of those strategies and
encouraged future research on this issue.
Applying the theory of planned behavior
The theory of planned behavior was applied to the interpretation of the focus group data among
youth collected for this study. The theory of planned behavior has been used successfully to
predict and explain car-free mobility by adults (Heath & Gifford, 2002; Lo et al., 2016; Lois et
al., 2015). Thus, the current study seeks to apply this theory to youth transportation behaviors
and reactions to promotional messaging.
The theory of planned behavior is a model of behavioral determinants (Ajzen, 1991). Within
the theory of planned behavior, behavior-relevant attitudes, normative beliefs, and perceived
behavioral control come together to predict an individual’s intention to perform the behavior,
which then affects behavior (Ajzen, 1991). Attitudes related to car-free mobility are observed
when an individual attaches positive or negative value to the behavior or its attributes or
outcomes. For example, a young person may express a positive attitude about how much he/she
enjoys the feeling of wind on his/her face when riding his/her bike or a negative attitude about
how slow he/she thinks the bus is compared to driving. Normative beliefs within the theory of
planned behavior are subjective beliefs about whether other people, typically other people an
individual is motivated to comply with, approve or disapprove of the behavior (Fishbein &
Ajzen, 1975). For example, youth may discuss how much their parents want them to ride the bus.
Perceived behavioral control describes an individual’s sense of perceived ability to perform the
behavior. A young person’s perception of how easy or difficult it is for him/her to ride light rail
or walk to his/her destination are examples of perceived behavioral control beliefs. Personal
agency or control over the ease or difficulty is often associated with perceived behavioral control
(Ajzen, 1991). Lastly, intention to perform the behavior is seen as a crucial predictor of the
actual behavior in the theory of planned behavior (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). A young person
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
42
may express his/her plans to walk more or, conversely, to drive less as an example of car-free
mobility intentions.
Formative research for channel selection
Secondary outcomes of this study involved investigating the potential of delivering car-free
mobility promotion messaging to youth via text and graphics sent to their mobile phones. Using
mobile phones to deliver campaign messages is likely to be less costly than print materials,
which are commonly used, and when automated, require minimal staff oversight. The use of
mobile phones as marketing outreach tools is increasing as teen access to mobile phones
increases. Among U.S. 13- to 14-year-olds, 68% own a smart phone, 14% own a basic phone,
and only 18% do not have their own phones (Lenhart, 2015). The mobile phone ownership
numbers are expected to increase over time, as teens get older, and are higher among Black teens
and teens living in urban areas (Lenhart, 2015).
Participants and research questions
This study focused on middle school students transitioning to high school within the next few
months or years in anticipation of increased opportunity to access transit services, increased
independence in making transportation decisions, increased opportunities to drive with peers or
alone in the coming years. Findings were analyzed using a combination of qualitative coding and
quantitative content analysis. Findings addressed the following research questions:
RQ1: What are the car-free mobility relevant attitudes, norms, perceived behavioral control
beliefs, intentions, and behaviors of study youth?
RQ2: Which communication channels and settings may be effective with study youth in
regards to transportation system information and promotion?
RQ3: How is each of the communication strategy themes promoting car-free mobility
perceived by study youth?
Method
This study used a systematic theory-based approach that consists of two stages of research
2
consistent with best practices in strategic message development (Atkin & Freimuth, 2013;
2
This project was funded by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC-SS-1077),
a U.S. DOT University Transportation Center.
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
43
Berkowitz et al., 2008; Shafer et al., 2011). The first stage is preproduction, which sources an
audience’s attitudes and beliefs to develop strategic messaging for a representative population.
The second stage is production testing, where an audience reacts to specific messages to test the
appeal and perceived or actual effectiveness of those messages (Hennink-Kaminski et al., 2014).
The approach in this study focused on ascertaining youths’ perceived message effectiveness,
which documents participants’ reactions to tested messages in terms of perceptions about the
message that may impact its effectiveness (e.g., relevance, authenticity, likability) (Dillard et al.,
2007). As scholars have suggested, understanding perceived message effectiveness may be a
necessary but not sufficient determination of a message’s actual effectiveness at producing
behavior change (Dillard et al., 2007; Fishbein et al., 2002). Since this study’s topic is relatively
unexplored in communication campaign literature, a strategic decision was made to first
investigate perceived message effectiveness using qualitative methods that allow for participants
to provide open-ended responses with the recommendation that future studies build on this initial
work and test actual message effectiveness through field trials and experimental research.
Preproduction and production testing in this study consisted of three focus groups moderated
by the Principal Investigator (PI) and a graduate researcher. Focus groups have long been a
staple in formative research because of their flexible design and the value of group discussions
that help participants build off each other’s ideas and perceptions (Atkin & Freimuth, 2001). In
each focus group, the preproduction research was conducted first and was followed by the
production testing with the same participants, which has been shown to be a useful way to utilize
hard to reach participants, such as adolescents or their parents (Shafer et al., 2011; Patel et al.,
2014). Moderators used the same discussion guide in each focus group that included questions
about participants’ transportation habits, barriers to and motivations for car-free transportation,
communication and information seeking habits and preferences, and perceived effectiveness of
sample messages. All procedures were approved by the researchers’ university institutional
review board (IRB).
Participants and recruitment
Focus group participants in this study (N = 28) were teenagers on summer break who were
entering the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades who lived within the boundary of Portland, OR.
This demographic (i.e., middle school students) in this geographic location are eligible to receive
a free transit pass to use public transit upon entering a local public high school. Of the 28
participants, 16 were male and 12 were female. Of the 28 participants, 22 identified their race or
ethnicity as African American, three as Hispanic, and three as White.
Thirteen teenagers were recruited from a youth-focused community program whose mission
is to provide enrichment activities for local youth. Researchers recruited these participants
following in-person visits with program administrators and the strategic placement of
promotional fliers advertising the study within the program’s public spaces. The remaining 15
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
44
teenagers (Focus group (FG) two: 7 teens; FG three: 8 teens) were recruited by an informational
website that the researchers created to communicate the study’s objectives. The researchers
called and emailed more than 30 youth-focused community programs in the study area
representing a variety of program types, such as sports, science, outdoor recreation, spiritual,
summer camps, and community clubs, requesting that they direct parents and youth to the
website via organizational newsletters, emails, or conversations. The informational website
explained the study’s objectives to parents and teens alike, allowing teenagers to register online
to participate in one of two focus groups. The graduate researcher called teens who registered
online via the information website to speak with youth and parents to confirm eligibility and
participation in the youth’s preferred focus group time slot. Other than grade-level and
geography, no demographic targeting or screening was used during recruitment and all youth
who produced a signed consent form and assented to the study participated. Thus, the authors are
unsure why the demographic representation of volunteers was skewed toward African-American
and male youth.
Focus group procedures
Three focus groups were conducted. No parents or guardians participated in any focus group
following signature of parental consent forms authorizing youth to participate in the study. Youth
participants also provided assent to participate. The PI conducted the first two focus groups,
while the graduate researcher conducted the third under the supervision of the PI. Both
researchers applied a semi-structured approach to focus group moderation to allow for probing
questions based on participant responses to the initial query.
The average time of all three focus groups was 1:02:55 minutes (FG one: 54:30 minutes; FG
two: 1:01:30 minutes; FG three: 1:12:07 minutes). The average duration of each focus group in
the preproduction stage was 37:24 minutes [based on FG one: 35:40 minutes; FG two: 28:11
minutes; FG three: 47:00 minutes). Production testing immediately followed preproduction, such
that moderators presented each focus group participant with a printed copy of the text messaging
prompts (see Table 1) after preproduction questions were finished. Printed copies had three
pagesone page per theme. Each page featured five text messages within iPhone skins and
room underneath each phone to write reaction comments. Moderators requested that participants
write their thoughts, feelings, and impressions on each text message as a reaction to how
effective it would be at getting them to use transportation options other than driving or riding in a
car. Participants completed this as individuals and were free to write any thoughts about their
reactions to the messages. There were no reaction prompts other than the instructions mentioned.
Production testing lasted an average of 25:59 minutes (FG one: 18:50 minutes; FG two: 33:19
minutes; FG three: 25:07 minutes). Focus groups were audio recorded with the permission of
participants and their parents. Audio files were de-identified and transcribed for qualitative
coding. After each focus group, participants received cash or a Visa gift card in exchange for
their participation.
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
45
Production testing message development
Six undergraduate students under the direction of the PI and graduate researcher developed the
messages for production testing. Undergraduate students reported to the development team about
relevant peer-reviewed articles. From discussions with undergraduate students, production-
testing concepts were developed. By way of discussion with the PI and graduate researcher,
production testing concepts became themes that acted as frameworks to craft strategic
messaging. Three themes were selected as potentially relevant for the development of strategic
car-free mobility messaging targeting youth: FOMO (fear-of-missing-out), Autonomy, and
Generation Z. Once themes were identified and defined, the research team developed sets of
visual text messages to represent the frameworks as actual text messages. After several rounds of
ideation and editing among the research team, five text messages that incorporated a mix of text
and static images were developed for each of the three themes. A total of 15 individual text
message prompts were developed and presented to focus group participants in the form of mock-
up mobile smart phones (e.g., Apple iPhone skins with the text and images inside).
Message themes
FOMO. Fear-of-missing-out
The FOMO theme appeals to teens’ desire for social connection and to be seen as operating
within the social norms of the group. This theme presents an idea to an audience member as
contagious (e.g., popular, trending). This strategy may not be as effective at changing strongly
held opinions but can sway the undecided and serve as a useful reminder for message supporters
(Austin & Pinkleton, 2006). Crafted messages may attempt to demonstrate that a behavior must
be normal because so many people like the audience member do it or think it. Messages within
this theme attempt to show or discuss other teens practicing car-free mobility and enjoying it
(e.g., having unique or fun experiences with public transit). Messages within this theme may
suggest or hint at how teens make comparisons between themselves and others. Messages within
this theme may highlight things that can be seen or done solely via car-free mobility. Message
appeals within the FOMO theme may hint at anticipated regret teens may feel if they do not
engage in car-free mobility. Other studies have found associations between FOMO in youth,
mobile phone or social media use, and risky communication, such as distracted driving (Hefner
et al., 2018; Przybylski et al., 2013). The current study sought feedback on the potential for
applying FOMO in messaging that promotes positive communication and behaviors.
Autonomy
The Autonomy theme appeals to teens’ desire for independence from their parents. Messages
within this theme may suggest that by teens choosing their own car-free transportation they attain
greater freedom, which reduces reliance on others to meet transport needs. Messages with an
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
46
autonomy appeal may try to get teens to recall a moment when they felt frustrated by their
reliance on others. Autonomy appeals are likely to associate teen selection of car-free
transportation with supporting teens’ goals of autonomy, achievement, and competence.
Messages within this theme are likely to encourage teens to explore their environment and decide
for themselves where they want to go, when, and how they will get there. The autonomy theme
follows Cain’s (2006) strategic recommendation to reach teenagers through messaging that
highlights increased independence and decreased reliance on parents for transportation. In
research on mobile media, Ling (2005) concluded that teens use mobile devices to increase
integration with peer groups as well as increase emancipation from their parents.
Generation Z
The Generation Z theme appeals to teens’ desire to be valued and seen as having important needs
and wants. Messages within this theme validate teens’ experiences and needs by communicating
their importance (i.e., empowerment messaging). Messages with a Gen Z appeal are likely to
impress upon teens that public transit authorities consider the needs and wants of teens when
authorities design services. Gen Z messages may employ a form of personalization and/or help
teens to feel like they have ownership of their public transit choices (e.g., “make it yours”
messaging). Within this theme teens are encouraged to share their opinions and feelings because
they would be heard by the transit authorities. Although a dearth exists in academic research on
what motivates the Gen Z population, there is considerable speculation among popular and
marketing industry media about how best to communicate with the Gen Z population that we
drew from for this study (e.g., Kantar Millward Brown, 2017; Wegert, 2016).
Table 1
Production text message prompts by category
FOMO. Fear-of-missing-out
Generation Z
Autonomy
People around Portland are
giving us a behind the scene
look into how they are getting
around town and what they see
along the way. Join the fun!
Check out
http://howweroll.trimet.org.a
Be the power behind your
transportation! Personalize
your trip at Trimet.
Tired of waiting for a ride from your
parents? Set your own schedule by
walking, biking, or riding the bus.a
Spend quality time with your
friends by experiencing new
things walk, bike, or ride
public transportation
together!b
It’s your transportation; go
wherever, whenever. Show
us where you go in PDX
@ridetrimet.
Portland is your city own it! Step up
your navigation skills by finding a new
route to your favorite destination.
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
47
Do you feel like you miss out
from the passenger seat of a
car? Try a different mode of
transportation like walking or
biking.b
Find a new hangout spot
with TriMet’s help, visit
http://bit.ly/2pMYwhn and
go explore!
Here in Portland, we are Trail Blazers.
Try blazing your own trail by biking,
walking or bussing around town. Find
your route here:
https://trimet.org/ride/planner_form.
html
Meanwhile in Portland.
Show us what makes your
trips with TriMet unique
@ridetrimet.
Portland is packed with cool places,
but did you know you can get to most
of them without relying on your
parents for a ride?a
Stumble upon Portland’s weird
culture. Share it. Impress your
friends.
Let your voice be heard!
Please take a minute and
fill out this survey.b
Car = commitment & expenses. No car
= freedom. Walk, bike, and ride toward
independence.b
Note. This table shows text of sample messages, which were shown to participants within iPhone
skins and included some complimentary images (e.g., group of friends, map of city).
a Most positively reviewed messages. b Most negatively reviewed messages.
Findings
Preproduction
Focus groups were first transcribed. Then, the three focus group transcripts were uploaded into
Transana, a qualitative research analysis software program. The PI then manually coded each
transcript with the unit of analysis as an individual’s response to a moderator’s question. Codes
were organized by theory of planned behavior constructs (attitudes, norms, perceived behavioral
control, and intentions) and discussion guide themes (i.e., transportation use habits and contexts,
car-free mobility barriers and motivations, and communication habits and preferences). Coding
was analyzed across the three focus groups with the overall goal being to contextualize, such that
more weight was given to responses that occurred more frequently; included words that connoted
intensity of feeling (e.g., a strongly held opinion or deeply emotional response); were specific
and based on personal experiences (vs. vague or impersonal responses); and received agreement
(vs. disagreement) from other participants. Analysis also looked for patterns of co-occurrence
among topics (e.g., biking and walking often were discussed simultaneously) (Krueger, 1998).
This phase of research sought to answer RQ1 and RQ2.
3
3
The quotes presented in the study were edited to remove vocal utterances such as “um.”
Shafer, Macary, Promoting Car-Free Youth Transportation, JPIC, Vol. 4 (2020)
48
Attitudes relevant to car-free mobility
Participants generally expressed positive attitudes about walking and biking, although most
stated they did not do either regularly. Participants were quick to indicate that walking can be fun
and that it was cheaper than any other mobility method. Some participants also mentioned the
exercise benefit of walking or biking. Riding light rail (locally referred to as “the Max”) also was
discussed with a positive attitude by several participants, mostly because it was faster than
waiting for their parents to give them a ride. For example, a participant in the first focus group
stated, “I like taking the Max because it’s faster—cause by the time you get there my momma
would probably just be walking out the house.” Parents taking a long time or not wanting to give
their children rides was a common experience among the participants. For example, a participant
in Focus group one stated, “When I try to ask them [his parents] to take me somewhere, they
wanna be slow about (it). Then I’m just gonna catch the Max.”
Participants expressed negative attitudes about riding the bus or light rail that were steeped
in their personal experiences. These negative attitudes often were centered on feelings of
uncertainty, anxiety, safety concerns, and sexual harassment that they have personally
experienced when riding public transit. Here is a sample of some of the experiences:
“Men, when they come up to you and they approach you and they’re like, and you’re
grown and you’re like, I’m a little girl, or you’re just not interested at all. And they don't
take no for an answer. That’s really scary cause I’ve been groped and grabbed and it’s
because I said no. They just don’t listen.” Focus group one participant
“Somebody yelling and yelling at other people or a guy with a knife was on the bus
once standing right next to the bus driver and he wouldn’t go sit down. He’d just stay
next to the bus driver, so we had to get off the bus.” Focus group three participant.
“You, if you’re on the Max, sometimes you see drunk people.” Focus group two
participant
“So I remember when me and my brother…we were getting on the Max from the Lloyd
Center and it was super dark cause we had been everywhere that day. Right? And there
was this guy, it was I’m telling you. It was three people—me, my brother, some guy. It
was just weird. He was looking down at this phone he was like this, and my brother was
sitting like this on the other side, and the guy came up to my brother like, ‘You got a
cigarette?’ My brother was like, ‘no’…and he came to me…, ‘Do you have a cigarette?’
I’m 12 years old; why I got a cigarette? Anyways, …where would I have a cigarette,
and then he was like, ‘I was just asking.’ And then he keep trying to talk to me, ‘You
know you’re very pretty.’ I was like, I know but I don’t need to hear it from you.”
Focus group one participant
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49
Nearly every participant expressed some negative attitudes about public transit. The main
negative associations with walking or biking were that they can be boring or tiring; however,
some participants disagreed, maintaining the opposite. A minority of participants said they
disliked walking at night due to safety concerns.
Normative beliefs relevant to car-free mobility
Normative beliefs came up less often than attitudes throughout the discussion, although there
was some overlap as demonstrated by this string of participant responses from Focus group
three:
Participant 1: “Yeah people only really talk about the bus if it’s…
Participant 2: Bad
Participant 3: Terrible
Participant 4: Something weird happens.”
The most common normative belief among participants was related to their parents’ support or
lack of support for them riding transit. It seems like most participants’ parents encouraged or
mandated that participants ride transit, but sometimes parents also were described as having
safety concerns related to transit. For example, one said:
“My dad—he doesn’t like giving me the rides, but like I said before he’s really over-
protective so he’s confusing sometimes cause I ask him for a ride and he’s like, ‘No,
you have to go on the bus’ and then when I don’t want to go on the bus, no when I want
to go on the bus, he’s like, ‘No, I’m going to give you a ride.’” Focus group two
participant
Normative beliefs associated with walking or biking were mostly non-existent from the
conversation other than when participants agreed that their friends have similar car-free mobility
habits as they do.
Perceived behavioral control beliefs relevant to car-free mobility
Participants had a high degree of confidence in their ability to navigate the transportation system
by walking, biking, or riding public transportation. Participants felt they knew most of the
information they needed to know to get around without a car and could easily find any
information they did not know using their smart phones. For example, a participant in Focus
group two stated, “I know where I’m going cause I’ve been here all my life so…isn’t no worry
for me.” Another participant in Focus group two expressed a similar sentiment, “I use the app
sometimes to check when my bus and my Max come but I know where everything takes me
now.”
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50
The main issue connected to perceived behavioral control was not about being able to travel
without a car, but more about being unable to control or predict the type of experience they
would have once they choose to ride transit. Participants discussed the measures they take to
achieve some degree of control over their safety and experience riding transit. Many of these
personal agency concerns co-occurred with negative attitudes expressed about riding transit. For
example, a participant in Focus group one stated, “I [try to] block off so nobody sit by me, sit
next to me (laughs). I put my foot up and I put my backpack up there. I like no one to sit next to
me if I don’t know you.”
Another issue related to control that came up in two of the focus groups was that a few
participants lacked access to a bicycle despite wanting to use that mode of transportation. For the
participants who mentioned this issue, their bike was either broken and they did not know how to
repair it or it had been stolen.
Intentions relevant to car-free mobility
Nearly every participant stated that they intend to drive rather than use some form of car-free
mobility as soon as they are old enough and/or have the money to get a car. For example, a
participant in Focus group one stated, “Driving is the best. If I get a car, I’ll never ride again.”
Another participant in Focus group three stated, “I’m fine with doing it now, but when I turn 16,
I plan on getting a car; it’s just faster.” Although still expressing their preference for driving
when they are able, several participants cited financial constraints as a reason they may still use
car-free mobility in the future. For example, a participant in Focus group one stated, “It depends
[on] the distance. Maybe you have [a] little bit of gas; you don’t got enough money, so.”
Participants were asked if they ever thought about walking, biking, or riding transit more than
they already do and nearly every participant said “no,” with some expressing that they wished
they practiced less car-free mobility. For example, a participant in Focus group three stated, “If I
can ride it less, I would definitely ride it less.”
Channels and settings for car-free mobility messages
Channels and setting commonly used by participants included: smart phones, the TriMet transit
tracker app, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, broadcast news (usually because their parents are
watching it), local radio, and peer-to-peer in-person or texting conversations. When probed about
whether they follow any local personalities, government, or organizations on the social media
channels they use, the universal answer was “no.” There was a wide variety of well-known
celebrities or national figures who participants followed, but no local figures.
Participants were asked if they would follow a transit agency on any social media or if they
would want to receive text messages from or about local public transportation (including walking
and biking paths) and most participants said “no” or provided a lukewarm reception to the idea if
any text or alert was relevant to them at the time they received it and if these texts were not
frequent. For example, a participant in Focus group two stated, “It depends on how frequently
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51
they text like my phone. If these text messages come like every day, I’m going to start getting
irritated and delete the number or something. If it’s not that often I’ll probably do the text thing.”
Some participants suggested sending text messages no more often than once per week. Of the
minority of participants who said they would even consider opting into text messages from
TriMet or another public transportation agency, they only would consider it if they were
incentivized by the possibility of winning prizes, such as a free bus pass. The majority of
participants said that their parents were the preferred source from whom to get transportation-
related communication messages.
Production testing
Written comments from participants associated with each of the 15 sample messages were
transcribed into a document that was organized by participant and sample message, resulting in
325 individual reactions with an additional 95 non-reactions (meaning a participant left the
reaction space to a message blank). The approach to analyzing the perceived effectiveness
reactions involved a quantitative categorization of the reactions because we were looking for
specific categories of reactions common to perceived effectiveness measures (e.g., reaction
valence, perceived relevance, intentions) (Noar et al., 2018) and from patterns noticed within the
reactions. Analysis included several rounds to refine the development of the codebook and attain
inter-coder reliability.
The production testing reaction codebook contained five sections. Each section contained
two columns. One with terms and their definitions followed by examples of responses related to
those terms taken directly from the data. The first section assessed message valence (positive,
neutral, and negative). Positive appraisal included enthusiastic and warm/lukewarm responses.
Neutral appraisal included non-sequitur, conditional or qualifying, and clarifying responses.
Negative appraisal included rejection, criticism, counterarguments, and critical reactions to the
persuasive intent. The second section assessed message humor as either funny or not funny. Both
appraisals counted explicit statements made by participants. The third section was follow-
through assessed as a participant’s ability to likely follow through on a message’s solicitation or
non-likelihood to do so. Intent to complete the request made by the message was the focus of the
third section. The fourth section considered whether the content in the message was helpful to
participants. Helpfulness provided participants with new and useful information. The fifth
section was authenticity/realism in which participants’ responses to messages were assessed as
either true to their lives (i.e., authentic and realistic) or false/not true to their lives (i.e., not
authentic and not realistic).
Each researcher independently coded all reactions in the final coding round. Strong inter-
coder reliability was achieved on all but one code (conditionality), which was removed from
analysis. Cohen’s kappa averaged .90 with all codes above .79. The PI’s coding then was used
for analysis and reporting. Since coding options were categorical (present/not present), cross-
tabulations were used to compare text message reactions for each coding category. Significant
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52
chi-square findings are organized by coding category below. This phase of the research sought to
answer RQ3.
Positive reactions
Autonomy messages received the most positive reactions with 55.9% of reactions coded as
positive compared to 50.9% of FOMO and 30.1% of Gen Z message reactions being positive,
χ2(2, N = 325) = 11.08, p < 0.005. No significant differences emerged among the themes for the
type of positive reaction each received. Enthusiastic was the most common positive reaction
among all of the themes, which was defined in the codebook as “emphatic approval or general
approval.” Between 53-67% of all positive reactions were coded as enthusiastic.
Negative reaction
Gen Z messages received the most negative reactions with 63.7% of reactions coded as negative
compared to 44.5% of FOMO and 44.1% of Autonomy message reactions being negative, χ2(2,
N = 325) = 16.56, p < 0.001. No significant differences emerged among the themes for the type
of negative reaction each received. Rejection was the most common negative reaction among all
of the themes, which was defined in the codebook as “non-acceptance of message or refusal of
message.” About 70% of all negative reactions were coded as a rejection, regardless of the
theme. Counterargument was the next most common reaction across themes, with 40.0% of
Autonomy’s, 33.3% of Gen Z’s, and 20.4% of FOMO’s negative reactions coded as
counterarguments (note: there was not a significant chi-square among the counterargument
findings). Counterargument was defined in the codebook as “user pushes back on message’s
points with his/her own counter point. User has a point.”
Humor reactions
The messages were intended to be engaging and entertaining to young audiences, which may
include being humorous. Autonomy messages (14.7%) were seen as funny more often than Gen
Z messages (0.9%) and FOMO messages (11.8%), χ2(2, N = 325) = 14.32, p < 0.005.
Helpfulness reactions
There were no significant differences among the themes for whether a message reaction included
comments about helpfulness or unhelpfulness. Very few message reactions discussed
helpfulness, with just 29 of the 325 reactions (8.9%) being coded for explicitly referring to the
message as helpful or unhelpful.
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Likelihood of following through reactions
There were no significant differences among the themes for whether a message reaction included
comments about likelihood of following through with the message. Very few message reactions
discussed likelihood with only 23 of the 325 reactions (7.1%) coded for indicating any degree of
likelihood or unlikelihood of following through with the message request or recommendations.
Personal relevance reaction
Autonomy theme message reactions included the most discussion of personal relevance with
18.6% of messages seen as personally relevant, whereas only 10.9% of FOMO and 3.5% of Gen
Z messages elicited relevance reactions, χ2(2, N = 325) = 14.32, p < 0.005. There was no
significant difference among the themes about reactions that indicated a message was not
relevant or inauthentic with between 10-13% of all messages eliciting a comment that indicated
the message seemed inauthentic or not personally relevant to a participant.
Individual message reactions
Although message reactions were primarily analyzed by theme because it is more helpful to
understand our target public’s reaction to a theme on which future message iterations may vary,
reactions also were analyzed by individual message in the hope of gaining additional insights
about the types of pro-transportation system messages that connect with youth.
Overall, the three messages from the 15 total messages that received a consistent amount of
positive feedback are featured in Table 1. These messages were likely to elicit comments that
described them in positive terms, indicated that they were in some way personally relevant or
authentic to the participant, and funny. Four messages of the 15 total messages featured in Table
1 stood out as receiving consistent negative feedback, such as comments that rejected and
counterargued with the message and indicated that the message was not helpful or relevant to
their lives.
Discussion
In a systematic review of 63 North American studies on youth’s active (e.g., walking, biking)
modes of getting to and from school the authors noted that only 16% of these studies included
youth voices and called for more youth mobility research to include youth participants (Rothman
et al., 2018). The current study answers this call and encourages more public interest
communications research with youth in service of promoting car-fee mobility.
Results from the preproduction and production testing research provided several key insights
and recommendations for car-free mobility message development and dissemination targeting
youth. In comparing this study’s findings with one of the only other studies looking at teen
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54
transit messaging (Cain, 2006), there are important areas of similarities and dissimilarities among
the findings. For example, both this study and Cain’s study found that parents are a key
influencer among this target public on this issue. Similar to Cain’s study, this research found
support for autonomy appeals that encourage teens to be less reliant on their parents for
transportation. Another similarity among the studies’ findings was teens’ beliefs that public
transit is more economical, even if it is slower or less reliable. One notable difference in the
current research findings from the findings in Cain’s Florida study of teens was that teens rarely,
if ever, expressed concerns about negative self-image associated with transit. Teens in our study
did not seem to feel stigmatized when using transit and expressed that it was normative behavior
among their peer groups. Cain’s finding that recommended highlighting the safety benefits of
transit compared to the responsibility of driving are likely to be seen as untrue and inauthentic to
youth in this study; one of the main and deeply engrained narratives around their transit
experiences is how unsafe and unpredictable it is. Related to Cain’s third messaging
recommendation about highlighting the high cost of car travel and the better uses of their money
to save for things teens care about (e.g., clothes), may ring true with youth, but based on our
participantsit is a reluctant truth that is unlikely to change youth driving. Participants clearly
stated that money was a barrier to car use, but they still felt driving was worth it.
Theory-based perceptions and messaging recommendations
In applying the theory of planned behavior, it is important to understand youth attitudes, norms,
perceived behavioral control, and intentions related to car-free mobility. As strategic campaign
planners, public interest communicators benefit from knowing which theoretical constructs may
be hindering compliance and which may be already well aligned with strategic goals. The current
study found that youth held both positive and negative attitudes about car-free mobility that
largely were based on their personal prior experiences. This finding suggests that public interest
communications in this area may need to work with transportation system planners to improve
youth experiences to improve future attitudes. Youth expressed that although there was little
stigma associated with car-free mobility, normative beliefs were nonetheless focused on sharing
negative experiences or stories. Public interest communicators should consider ways to
encourage positive normative experience sharing, which should be more likely if the
recommendation to work with transportation system planners to improve experiences is enacted.
One theory of planned behavior construct that was already well-aligned with car-free
mobility behaviors was that youth mostly felt capable of understanding how to access car-free
mobility. On the other hand, youth felt less control over the experience they might have when
engaging in car-free mobility and this feeling appeared to be associated with less desire to do so.
Increasing youth agency toward car-free mobility also may be improved with system experience
improvements. This study found that youth without the ability to drive themselves had positive
car-free mobility intentions, but also had future intentions to eliminate car-free mobility as part
of their transportation mix as soon as they are able to drive themselves. More research is needed
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with youth in transition to driving age to determine what may inoculate youth against the
intention to abandon car-free mobility or at least create an expectation that car-free mobility
would continue to be part of their mobility mix once they are able to drive.
Messages promoting car-free mobility may consider different themes or appeals based on
the type of car-free mobility being promoted. For example, teens are more likely to see messages
associating walking or biking with leisure or friendship as authentic to their own attitudes and
experiences with those forms of car-free mobility than their experiences with riding the bus or
light rail. Communicators promoting light rail may want to tap into existing positive associations
about how light rail is easy to use, fast, and allows for independence from their parents in their
messages. Due to strongly held negative associations with the bus and light rail, when
considering safety and negative interactions with adult passengers, transportation officials should
consider system changes and related messages that provide teens with more agency to avoid and
report those negative experiences. Messages touting the safety of the transit system are likely to
be seen as inauthentic to the teens’ experiences, and thus rejected. These safety-focused
messages are likely to need to demonstrate that tangible changes have been made to the transit
system and/or new information about what to do in situations where teens feel uncomfortable is
seen as relevant and useful to participants.
Normative beliefs predict behavior and this research found that most of the youth
participants had normative beliefs that encouraged current car-free mobility practices. Messages
could reliably feature normative messaging to further entrench this belief, especially in regard to
parental support for car-free mobility. Unfortunately, nearly all the youth in our study had future
intentions of not practicing car-free mobility once they were able to drive. Communicators
should consider including people who are 16-18 years old and actively choose car-free mobility
in messages. These older referents should be people with whom youth are likely to identify and
want to be like. The idea is to establish choosing to take the bus (or other forms of car-free
mobility) as a continued norm past the age of 15 years old. Further research should explore the
viability of incorporating the positive parental norms related to car-free mobility for older teens.
Similar to the Cain (2006) study, messaging highlighting teens’ abilities to be autonomous
and exercise independence from their parents by choosing car-free mobility instead of getting
rides is likely to be well received by youth. Humor could be used to remind teens of a common
experience of annoyance at waiting for their parents to give them rides.
Messaging that seemed to fail during production testing focused on Gen Z themes, such as
empowerment and providing feedback to decision makers. Additionally, individual messages
that highlighted negative aspects about driving, such as cost, were not well received, with the
exception of highlighting the hassle of getting rides from parents being positively rated. Upbeat
messages and those that featured local references or information were generally well received.
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Distribution and source recommendations
Based on feedback from participants, parents seem to be the best source for distribution and
endorsement of any car-free mobility messages. It seems unlikely that many teens would follow
transportation organizations on social media or opt-in to receive text messages. Despite initial
testing, this study does not recommend engaging in a text messaging campaign directly to teens.
Any messaging aimed at teens is likely going to have to reach parents first, who would then pass
the message to their children. Since parents were not part of this study’s research participants,
future studies should test the kinds of messages that are effective with parents, how to best
motivate parents to pass messages on, and where to reach parents. However, one channel was
mentioned as often attended to by parents and teens together: local broadcast news.
Outside of distribution through parents, teens are likely to be reached through their use of
local transit apps, billboards or posters near car-free mobility area (e.g., bus stops), and
advertisements on youth-oriented YouTube channels, youth-oriented local radio, and Instagram.
Although this study ultimately recommended abandoning the initial idea to target through text
messaging, the results of the production testing still provide important information about the
content of youth-targeted messages that could be distributed on other channels (e.g., posters,
social media advertisements). Since production testing in this study was conducted with the
assumption that text messaging could be the distribution channel, further production testing is
needed to adapt the results and recommendations to other channels (e.g., social media
advertisements, billboards) that may target youth directly to promote car-free mobility.
Limitations
An important limitation of this study is that the results may not be generalizable to all youth as
non-probability sampling was used and focused only on one city. Teens who volunteered to
participate may have been those who have more of a personal stake in transportation issues. The
sample racial and ethnic demographics are not consistent with the Portland’s demographics, such
that this sample is 79% African American compared to census data that indicates the site’s
population is 70% White and 6% African American (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). Future research
should expand to more youth and parents in more locations. Another limitation is that all study
participants were from a large city with supportive transit policies and access. For example, the
study city offers a free transit pass to all public high school students. More research is needed to
understand how findings may generalize to other geographies, such as those that are rural or lack
sufficient transportation infrastructure.
An important limitation is that because the preproduction and production testing research
was conducted within the same focus groups, the research team was unable to adapt the
distribution channel (text messaging) during the production testing stage. However, the reactions
to content framed with a photo of a phone are likely to apply to other delivery modes (e.g.,
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57
posters, social media advertisements) as none of the reactions specifically mentioned delivery
mode as a factor. What participants found personally relevant, for example, did not seem
predicated on delivery mode (text messaging), but rather was connected to the message graphics
and wording, which could be adapted to other channels.
Conclusion
Key insights found mixed attitudes related to car-free mobility that were especially dependent on
type of mobility and often based on the youth’s first-hand experiences. Youth mostly held
normative and perceived behavioral control beliefs supportive of car-free mobility, such as the
belief that most of their friends and parents support car-free mobility and the belief that it is easy
to ride transit. A dominant non-supportive belief was youth’s lack of agency related to safety on
public transit. Youth reported positive intentions to practice car-free mobility until they were old
enough and could afford to drive. A variety of channels and settings, such as YouTube
advertisements, may be effective at reaching teens, but this study concluded that teens are
unlikely to subscribe and engage with text messages sent to their mobile devices. Youth
responded positively to appeals to autonomy and generally disliked most of the Generation Z
targeted messaging. This research also contributes to the growing field of public interest
communications by demonstrating an example of formative research in service to public interest
communications.
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