Kicking the car habit

Claire Haigh
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Travel behaviour is habitual: people rarely make a conscious choice on how to get from A to B they simply do what they did last time.

So what do you do if you’re trying to change those habits?

This week we are launching the Behaviour Change Lab which uses insights from behavioural economics to come up with some new tactics to shake car drivers out of their well-worn routines.

Changing approaches to changing behaviour

Orthodox approaches to understanding travel behaviour have tended to focus on monetary time and cost, and factors like, convenience, reliability, comfort and status.  The assumption has been that people make rational decisions about which mode of travel to use.

However, all the evidence suggests that in reality people take short cuts in making decisions, which often result from heuristics (rules of thumb), pre-conceived views and irrational habits.

The Cabinet Office MINDSPACE report suggests that there are broadly two ways of thinking about changing behaviour: the rational model and the context model.  The first is the standard model in economics and assumes that people are rational and will act in ways that reflects their best interests.  The second recognises that people are sometimes seemingly irrational and inconsistent in their choices and heavily influenced by surrounding factors.

It was the latter model which we drew on in developing the Behaviour Change Lab pilot schemes.

Targeting drivers at point of pain

When are car drivers likely to be most receptive to considering alternatives to driving?  How about when stuck in traffic, parking or paying for petrol?

A brainstorm session with the government’s Behavioural Insight Team led to our first hypothesis: that drivers would be most susceptible to switching modes when the irritations of taking the car are top of mind.

Force of habit leads people automatically to drive, but they may be more open to the benefits of taking the bus when feeling the “pain” of a frustrating moment in a car.  So in our Sheffield pilot scheme we are using guerrilla tactics to make direct contact with drivers in and around negative experiences associated with driving.

People “just like me”

The behavioural insight we are applying in Leicester is that people are far more likely to alter ingrained behaviours if they see people like them doing so too.  Here we are creating a network of community ambassadors to promote bus services to their friends and neighbours.

We know that one way to make bus travel seem far more relevant and normal is to hear about it in a one to one conversation where the personal benefits can be explained.  We also know that bus travel often seems complicated to car users, so any information given should be as personal and simple as possible.  We hope that this scheme will show that when a personal rationale is provided, people will choose to use the bus more.

Hearing it from a trusted source

In Manchester the behavioural insight we are applying is that people are more likely to engage with a message when it comes from a trusted source.  Supporters of a local community group will invariably trust what they hear through the groups more than from a brand that is marketed to them conventionally due to the closer personal relationship.

So in Manchester we are sponsoring three not-for-profit community groups – Gaydio, Pure Innovations and Saheli – to develop and execute locally based initiatives to promote bus travel to their members and supporters.

Removing the barriers

What we do know is that car use is extremely habitual.  One of the key things to do is to remove barriers, so that making the right choice becomes a no-brainer.  As David Halpern, Director of the Behavioural Insights Team (“Nudge Unit”) commented recently in an interview with the Telegraph: “If there is a ‘friction cost’ in the way of doing something it will never happen”.

If we are serious about persuading car drivers to switch to more sustainable transport modes we will need whole range of interventions.   Newer tactics resulting from behavioural economics must not replace traditional ways of changing behaviour – rather they need to enhance and extend them.

Armed with these new tools we may also reflect on a more realistic understanding of ourselves.  Perhaps we’re not as rational as we like to think.  And perhaps it is our nature to procrastinate and choose the path of least resistance.  But maybe that is no bad thing.   On asked whether the rationale for the “Nudge Unit” was that people were lazy David Halpern’s reply to the interviewer was “You said that.  I prefer to say: people like shortcuts”.





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