Nudge science being used to encourage transit use

By Robbie Webber

In England, the Nudge Unit—officially called the Behavioural Insights Team—encourages positive social behaviors via behavioral economics and psychology. Now cities in North America are using the lessons of the Nudge Unit to encourage people to use transit and reduce vehicle miles traveled.

Nudge Theory uses practices like social norming and positive reinforcement to get people to change their behavior or repeat actions that governments want to encourage, in this case using transit instead of driving. Classic transportation demand management relies on providing information to employees or local residents to get them to drive less. Although some employers also use incentives such as parking cash-outs, monthly prize drawings, or coupons to get people to leave the car at home, the core of most programs is giving people information and hoping they will make a rational choice to not drive.

But there are psychological tricks to get individuals to try something new or maintain behaviors, and that’s what Nudge Theory is all about. One trick is social norming—getting people to think a behavior is something everyone—or at least their peers—are doing. Asking people to make a plan for a new behavior makes it more concrete; so people who intend to do the right thing, but might be held back by habit, will follow through. Both of these techniques are used by Get Out The Vote campaigns when they tell you that all of your neighbors are voting and then ask you when you will go to the polls, how you will get there, if you are going with someone or alone, etc.

The city of Durham, NC, worked with employers to provide personalized maps of transit, walking, and biking routes from home to work for participants who opted in. The maps were accompanied by a list of the advantages of not driving, such as potential weight loss, savings on gas, and reclaimed time from not sitting in traffic. These mailings were accompanied by the slogan, “Driving downtown is so 2017.” A second technique involved entering people who rode transit in a drawing each month for a cash prize.

Although they were only hoping for a five percent drop in single-person trips into the downtown, the mailing campaign succeeded far beyond that.

The share of commuters who reported driving to work alone was 12 percent lower among those who received the alternate commute maps than those who didn’t, according to post-mortem participant surveys. And the solo-driving share dropped by 16 percent among those who received the maps and took transit for prizes. Overall, the incentives cut back single-driver vehicle trips among the participants by more than five percent.

Across the continent, Translink—the Metro Vancouver, BC, transportation agency—used even more tricks from Nudge Theory. Alta Planning + Design prepared a report for the agency and then tested the techniques to encourage more transit use. They used different strategies depending on how often people used transit before the intervention. The shorthand for the interventions were:

  • Try it Again, if they are low-frequency users.
  • Make it a Habit, if they are mid-frequency users.
  • Use it Well, if they are high-frequency users.

Each of these interventions used a variety of behavioral insight tricks, including getting people to have a different perception of transit, feeling like part of a group, and reducing the barriers to changing habits. The report is a fascinating look into why we behave the way we do, and the lessons are applicable to more areas of our life than just our transportation decisions. You can also watch the lively Oct 12 lecture that principal author Jessica Roberts gave at Portland State University.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.