Developing a better understanding of human behaviour is crucial if we are to improve our transport systems and achieve policy goals. The potential for applying knowledge from the behavioural sciences to the transport world is great, and often such insights result in cost-effective ways of changing demand and user behaviour, and point to enhancements in the design and function of our transport systems.
To debate this important issue and raise awareness, the ITC hosted a Discussion Evening on 21st October 2014 chaired by John Dawson and Kris Beuret OBE, both Commissioners of the ITC. More than 70 guests attended and the subject was introduced through presentations from a distinguished panel of experts comprising: ACC Mark Newton, Assistant Chief Constable at the British Transport Police; Crawford Hollingworth, Founder of the Behavioural Architects; Dr Adrian Davis, consultant at Bristol City Council; and Ross Broad, a senior advisor at the Behavioural Insights Team.
The Guest speakers focused on a number of key issues:
- ACC Mark Newton explained how a better understanding of behaviour could help to reduce crime and suicides on the railway. He pointed to evidence that showed how the presence of a figure of authority could deter criminality. Using this insight, officers were placed at crime hot spots on the London Underground, and this had helped to reduce offences at these locations and increase passenger confidence. The unfortunate problem of suicides on the rail network was being tackled through individual interventions and training in order to spot those in danger of taking their own lives. This, he explained, was helping to limit fatalities and could be more effective than the installation of high fences and extra security cameras.
- Dr Adrian Davis observed that behavioural insights needed to reach the right people in order to influence policy. He explained that there was a communication problem because much academic research was not readily intelligible or accessible for policy makers. As a result, he had developed a series of evidence summaries helping to distil and communicate knowledge so that this could then be applied (travelwest.info/evidence). He pointed out insights that were already helping to change travel behaviour. For example, our enjoyment of self-monitoring was reflected in the way that pedometers encouraged certain people to walk more, and the association between physical activity and lower stress levels showed the benefits of incorporating walking and cycling into commuting journeys. The importance of understanding cognitive load was also leading to new road design, whereby removal of the central line appears to result in a fall in driving speeds.
- Crawford Hollingworth illustrated the way in which behavioural insights could lead to better travel products. He showed how innovations were already using knowledge from the behavioural sciences to make urban cycling safer. Using the case study of the ‘brainy bike light’, he explained how this originated in the need to reduce accidents by increasing the visual saliency of cyclists to motorists. His team therefore investigated how the brains of motorists could be alerted to the presence of cyclists at night in spite of urban light clutter. Using research that showed the power of symbols in subconsciously priming instant responses, his team designed a light in the shape of a bike with a person on it, since this provided a greater signal of vulnerability to the brain. He noted that independent lab results were impressive and were showing that drivers see and react much more quickly to cyclists using the ‘brainy’ lights.
- Ross Broad explained the frameworks that were being used by the Behavioural Insights Team to help public sector organisations design more efficient and effective policies, drawing on the behavioural sciences. He outlined the EAST framework which provides a tool for policymakers to think about effective behavioural approaches. EAST is an acronym for initiatives that are: Easy for individuals to implement, such as default settings on cars to reduce idling; Attractive in the sense of capturing attention, such as the use of novelty or personalised messages; Social in terms of changing social norms, such as creating shame around drink driving; and Timely, by targeting behaviour change at points when we are most likely to form new habits and make choices.
A number of themes were raised in the subsequent discussion. It was clear that behavioural insights are already being used to improve policy, helping to shape transport initiatives. There was much discussion on the way in which new media could be used to change behaviour, and it was noted that information technology and social messaging have a role in changing travel behaviour. Certainly, travel behaviour is often habitual and requires disruption to change, and several guests observed that habit plays a crucial role in shaping travel behaviour, yet it is often a challenge to change such habits without disruption. A range of techniques will be required to make sustained behavioural change. Clear and timely communication was seen as critical, particularly in encouraging a shift from car use to public transport, which appeared to involve a degree of loss of control over one’s travel. Finally, concerns were expressed about the need for academic research in the behavioural sciences to be much more widely available, and there were also worries that much research was taking place within silos.