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Learn these five points from psychology and your active travel scheme may flourish

Matt Higgins, Steer
21 September 2020
The Mini-Holland launch in Walthamstow Village provoked strong emotions
The Mini-Holland launch in Walthamstow Village provoked strong emotions


There has never been a bigger opportunity to change the status quo and increase walking and cycling in the UK. However, we’re already seeing Covid-19 recovery schemes being cancelled due to opposition from local residents and politicians. If you are a scheme planner or promoter, understanding the following five behavioural insights may just make the difference.

The field of behavioural economics shows us that humans are not super-computers that make wholly-rational decisions. We are instead emotional, sociable and take fallible cognitive shortcuts. The principles of behavioural economics have become the foundation for policy-making in many industries and professions, yet they remain mostly overlooked or misunderstood within transport planning. If we don’t catch up now, we risk missing the opportunity of a lifetime! 

Understanding these five insights will help scheme planners and promoters develop more behaviourally-informed approaches to better meet the needs of local people and mitigate the emergence of show-stopping opposition.

We hate losing something twice as much as we enjoy gaining something. With that in mind, do you think a big red sign saying ROAD CLOSED is going to help?
  1. The first information people see about the scheme is the most important. Reference points matter – this is why retailers hold so many sales (“was £50, now only £30!”). All subsequent information is judged against the first information seen or understood. Therefore, you should do your best to get things right from the start and carefully explain any changes made over time. This principle is known as anchoring. 
  2. What is seen as ‘normal’ is very important. We are strongly influenced by what others do or expect of us. This is the principle of social norms. Highlighting positive social norms to make your point can be a powerful tool (i.e. “most people wear seatbelts”). However, you must also avoid unwittingly reinforcing negative social norms. For example, it’s tempting to say, “too many people drive here” but what you would subconsciously be saying is, “the normal thing to do here is drive”. Try to highlight positive norms instead, like “most people want their children to be safe on this street”. 
  3. We hate losing something twice as much as we enjoy gaining something. It should be considered that for people who currently drive through a neighbourhood, introducing a ‘modal filter’ is probably going to feel like a loss (i.e. losing the most convenient way to make their journey). The principle of loss aversion helps us to anticipate that they won’t like it. With that in mind, do you think a big red sign saying ROAD CLOSED is going to help? The legal requirements for using such signage aside, technically the road isn’t closed; it can still be accessed by all vehicles, it’s just that motor vehicles now have a more circuitous route. But perhaps this point is best saved for another discussion… In practice, to mitigate reactions to losses you might either focus on the gains (“this street has been made safer for children to walk, cycle and play out”) or even better, frame losses in a positive way (“by not doing this, you are missing out on the opportunity to live on a quiet, clean and safe street”). 
  4. Short-term impacts are more important to people than long-term benefits. Humans are not as rational as you might think. Research shows that we would prefer £10 today than £12 tomorrow. In transport planning we seem somewhat blindsided by the long-term benefits of schemes, which is all well and good for writing a business case but not so effective when communicating with local stakeholders. Your scheme may lead to positive outcomes in the longer term, but people will mostly focus on the impacts today, tomorrow and the rest of this week. Do not overlook and acknowledge the short-term impacts when planning a scheme or engaging with local people.
  5. Negative impacts and dramatic ‘peak’ moments are those that stick in the memory. Have you ever wondered why the news is primarily focused on negative and dramatic incidents? It is because these events sell newspapers and keep people tuning in for more. When I have spoken to local people about the Walthamstow Village ‘Mini-Holland’ scheme, the incident that has come up time and again is the start of the modal filter trial period, which sparked strong emotions at the time. Even though the scheme has successfully proven itself and resulted in significant local benefits, this moment appears to have stuck in the memory. When delivering a walking and cycling scheme, try to avoid creating peak negative incidents, as these are what people are likely to remember the most.  

Matt Higgins is a senior consultant at Steer. His transport MSc dissertation examined opposition to the Walthamstow Village Mini-Holland scheme through the lens of behavioural economics. The findings appear in a chapter of A companion to transport, space and equity by Robin?Hickman et al (2019). 

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