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Changing travel behaviour

Juliana O'Rourke
25 May 2018
On Manchester’s Oxford Road, the nudges towards travelling by sustainable modes take the form of restricting private car traffic in favour of cycling, walking, bus travel and BRT
Bike share users in Portland, Oregon, were four times more likely to sign-up for bike share if they were prompted after recently moving to the area
Bike share users in Portland, Oregon, were four times more likely to sign-up for bike share if they were prompted after recently moving to the area


The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which started life inside 10 Downing Street and is now a social purpose company part-owned by the Cabinet Office, aims to apply a realistic understanding of human behaviour to policy challenges. Toby Park, Senior Advisor, Head of Energy & Sustainability at BIT, tells LTT about the behavioural challenges relating to sustainable transport choices

Toby Park is Senior Advisor, Head of Energy & Sustainability at BIT, and works on behavioural challenges relating to energy, transport and sustainability. BIT’s focus is rooted in the idea that policy outcomes can be improved through a more realistic understanding of human behaviour. Their approach makes use of rigorous research to find out what works, and has an ethical basis: while millions of pounds are invested annually in transport solutions and policy changes can have potentially profound impacts, traditionally politicians have had little insight into if, or when, their policies have had the desired outcomes.

‘We try to get under the skin of a particular challenge,’ says Park, ‘by understanding why people make decisions. We try to understand the structural, practical and psychological barriers to shifting behaviour and making different choices.’ One of BIT’s key insights is that shifting behaviour in the transport sector is very challenging.  ‘People frequently don’t respond to being asked, implored or even begged, so it’s really important to understand these structural barriers to change,’ says Park. And while it might seem likely that strong interventions, for example road pricing schemes or low emission zones, will encourage drivers to change their behaviour, so-called ‘sin taxes’ simply don’t work when there aren’t acceptable alternatives available, says Park, although they can be very effective in the right context, he adds. Understanding what constitutes the ‘right context’, of course, is one of policy-making’s holy grails.

BIT uses notions of interventions at ‘timely moments’ to nudge people out of familiar behaviours and to encourage change at key decision points. Our transport behaviour is often highly habitual, says Park. ‘Sometimes with no good reason beyond habit and inertia, we stick with what we know, which is often driving. However, research shows that disruptive moments – when our habits are disrupted – are good moments to intervene and encourage citizens to try alternatives. For instance, when people are forced to explore alternative commuting routes due to rail or tube strikes, many of them stick to their new route after the strike is over, highlighting that we often fail to optimise our behaviour, but disruption can be beneficial. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘fresh start effect’.’

BIT sought to test this fresh start effect with the City of Portland, USA, which in 2016 launched its new bike sharing service. BIT was brought in to help design postcards to promote the scheme. Overall, sign-up rates were low, with less than 1% of postcard recipients choosing to sign up to the service despite an incentive of free rides.  ‘To test the fresh start effect, we compared the impact of the leaflets on people who had just moved home close to a bike share station, to those who had been living there for some time but who had a new bike share station built near them. We found that movers were nearly four times more likely to signup than non-movers, suggesting that disruptive moments can be harnessed when trying to change existing habits.’

Employer influence

Policy interventions can, in themselves, be considered disruptive enough to create their own timely moments, for example the introduction of a workplace parking levy. ‘There is evidence to show that workplace parking levies are one of the few interventions that have a strong impact with drivers,’ says Park. Research shows that most instances of charging for parking creates some kind of behavioural change, with studies in the US showing that drivers who have been given the choice between free parking and a public transport subsidy equivalent will often take the latter choice. A similar effect was noticed at Heathrow when airport employees were offered public transport subsidies in order to alleviate increasing pressure on parking spaces during the Olympics. This means, notes Park, that employers are in a powerful position when it comes to influencing employees’ travel choices, but often don’t realise the potential they have to influence such change. 

Framing an effective message

‘We will potentially work with an employer or with employees or with policy makers, and possibly have a different approach to dealing with each of the three, depending on the behaviours we are trying to influence and where the most powerful levers can be found,’ says Park.  For example, he says, the government offers generous incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles, but BIT thinks that there’s much that can be done with the framing of this offer to harness behavioural factors. Would you rather have £2,500 towards the cost of a new electric vehicle applied at the point of purchase in a very low key manner, or your first 80,000 miles of travel free? This is exactly the same cost of offer, given the low running cost of EVs, but with an injection of behavioural science into the messaging, which can rapidly increase people’s engagement, he says.

Social norms

Our behaviour is highly influenced by the perception of ‘normal behaviour’. Research shows that householders who are told they are using more energy than their neighbours will start using less energy. BIT has used similar techniques in a number of their projects. For example, telling late-payers that ‘9 out of 10 people pay their tax on time’ brought forward hundreds of millions of pounds for HMRC. Similarly, targeting the highest-prescribing GPs and letting them know that 80% of GPs in their area prescribe fewer antibiotics per head, led to significant reductions in antibiotic prescriptions – a vital step in the fight against antimicrobial resistance. In the same way, says Park, in a transport fleet environment, a social norms ‘league table’ could influence new behaviours by leveraging the ‘social expectation’ element of human nature to start producing more sustainable driving behaviour.

Of course many of the behaviours that we want to encourage are not yet viewed as dominant social norms. But behavioural science also suggests that humans have an innate tendency to want to ‘jump on bandwagons’, says Park, so we can harness cultural shifts by pointing out to people what are increasingly popular behaviours, for example cycling or purchasing an electric car. 

However Park is cautious not to over-state the potential impact of these more novel ‘nudge’ approaches. In the right context they can be highly effective, but most transport behaviour remains rooted in cost, convenience and availability. New behaviours that are particularly attractive or convenient for the user, for example taking Ubers, will therefore be most rapidly adopted. Hence the need for operators and practitioners to continue to work towards offering more demand responsive services, easily accessible mobility as a service offers and a wider range of car and bike share options; electric bike share, for example. Policy makers and practitioners take note!

Lack of rationality

The way that we perceive costs, in particular, is very skewed from reality, notes Park. ‘We're really poor at estimating aggregated costs, so we tend to always under-estimate the cost of car ownership and driving and over-estimate the cost of public transport. Insurance, petrol, vehicle depreciation and all other driving costs are difficult to quantify, especially on a per journey basis. This has led to more people driving private cars then is rational in terms of cost.’  But as platforms such as Mobility as a Service (MaaS) become more popular and prevalent, the key focus of MaaS developers will be on marketing – and communicating – more accurate costs for daily and weekly travel, accessing a range of modes, using their packages. The success of MaaS will be partly dependent on operators being able to successfully communicate that their mobility packages – which at first glance can seem expensive at 300 per month – are actually very competitive with traditional, yet unrealised, car ownership costs.

Travel trends

As recent research shows, travel trends seem to be changing in favour of more sustainable transport choices. Depending on who we are, there are now noticeable differences in our travel patterns; baby boomers over 60, Generation X-ers between 60 and 35, or millennials under 35. New evidence from the Commission on Travel Demand reveals that even though the population is growing and employment rates are high, we drive less. We are travelling less by car and more by train and bike. Fewer of us are getting driving licences, and we are getting them much later in our lives. Only the over-60 baby boomers – a key sector of the population and the first generation to fall in love with the car – are driving more than their predecessors.

Juxtaposed alongside changing travel trends comes new analysis showing that the so-called intergenerational contract is in danger of breaking down. The contract is under threat, says The Resolution Foundation, as concern grows that young adults may not achieve the progress their predecessors enjoyed. And as baby boomers continue with environmentally perilous behaviours such as driving polluting cars and buying and owning homes that are now not available to many millennials,  it is clear that our all-important social norms are evolving in ways that policy-makers – hopefully guided by resourceful behavioural scientists – need to both understand and be able to react to on a rational basis.

Toby Park spoke with Juliana O’Rourke for this interview. Andy Hollingsworth, Senior Advisor, BIT: North, will be speaking about the BIT approach at Cycle City Active City in June

Reducing speeding offences: tests and trials 

In this trial, BIT re-designed penalty notice letters for speeders, with the new letters highlighting the legitimacy of speeding limits, highlighting the impact that accidents have on people’s lives, adding a distinctly ‘human element’ often missing from formal, legalistic and bureaucratic communications. The study had two parts. Initial analysis on payment rates showed that payment rates were 13.7% higher, payment times were shorter, and prosecutions were reduced by 41.3%, saving the criminal justice system £1.5 million per year in the West Midlands alone (bear in mind the intervention itself is costless, as BIT is just redesigning letters which are being sent out anyway). Even more interestingly, subsequent analysis some months later showed that receiving one of BIT’s new letters reduced speeding re-offences by 20%.

Predictiv: an online experimentation platform

BIT is well known for running field trials, for example Randomised Controlled Trials, through which it rigorously tests the impact of an intervention or policy change in the real world. However sometimes there are benefits to doing a laboratory study - although it lacks ‘real world’ validity, it can be more controlled, cheaper and quicker. For example this allows BIT to test multiple variations of, or rapidly iterate on, an intervention design such as a new piece of communications, before taking the most promising option into the field. Predictiv is a proprietary online experimentation platform BIT has developed for doing exactly this, putting people through virtual experiments and testing things like their self-reported responses, their retention of information, the time they spend reading, or their comprehension - all important things to get right in government services and communications. For example, with a view to protecting consumers from bad foreign exchange deals on the high street, BIT recently tested the impact of different framings of price information, on peoples’ ability to choose the best deal.

Using Predictiv, BIT was able to identify the format of fee disclosure which led to the best consumer decisions. In a time where consumers are faced with a bewildering amount of information and complex T&Cs, there is enormous value in running these simple and often-cost effective experiments to inform government policy, whether in consumer protection, transport or beyond.

About the Behavioural Insights Team

BIT was ‘spun out’ from the Cabinet Office in 2014, and now has a focus on redesigning public services, drawing on ideas from the behavioural sciences, economics, psychology and research methodology. It tests and trials new ideas before they are scaled up, enabling BIT to understand what works and, importantly, what does not. Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge, is one of BIT's Academic Advisory Panellists. BI Ventures, a team within BIT, works on building scalable digital products that address social issues, and currently has three revenue-generating products in its portfolio, with more in development. As a social purpose organisation, BIT focuses on work which offers public benefit.

Behavioural Insights Workshop, Cycle City Active City

The Department for Transport has its own internal social and behavioural unit, and its team will be running a live workshop at Cycle City Active City that aims to help Manchester and the region with specific challenges such as getting more women and children cycling.

Researchers from the unit work across DfT sections such as road safety and active and accessible travel to deliver evaluation reports, guidance and toolkits which help shape policy and operational delivery across the Department and its agencies. They work internally and with external bodies on social surveys, focus groups, interviews and case studies that provide data, evidence and technical expertise on the social and behavioural aspects of transport to inform policy. Using behavioural insights can help policy makers and internal teams design effective solutions to behavioural challenges. This provides the department with greater accountability and a strong evidence base for future decision making. 

Check the Cycle City Active City website for the full agenda.

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