ITC considers improvements in transport through behavioural sciences

How can we use knowledge from the behavioural sciences to improve transport policy?

The Occasion

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.


Using knowledge from the Behavioural Sciences – key issues raised by the speakers:

  • 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.
ACC Mark Newton addresses audience

ACC Mark Newton addresses audience

  • 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 ( 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.
John Dawson opens discussion

John Dawson opens discussion

Key themes raised in the discussion:

  • Behavioural insights are already being used to improve policy. Attendees explained how such knowledge was already shaping transport initiatives. Arriva, for instance, had used incentives such as free gifts and complimentary travel to encourage users onto its premium Sapphire bus service, while the design of the vehicles reflected research into seating preferences. Delegates also heard how Network Rail were using insights into behaviour to reduce suicides by using blue lights on tracks. Other initiatives included the use of mini-roundabouts to reduce accidents at junctions, since these force drivers to pay greater attention.
  • Information technology and social messaging have a role in changing travel behaviour. There was much discussion on the way in which new media could be used to change behaviour, particularly for younger people, for whom the screen had replaced the car as the principal object of fashion. It was noted that the Highways Agency was already looking at providing better information to users through social media, and on the railway it was now possible for operators to signal to passengers which carriages were overcrowded and which had spare seats. Others highlighted the way in which online apps, such as City Mapper and Tube Exits, were now essential tools for making public transport choices around London. However, in terms of data collection on travel behaviour there were some worries about privacy issues, although it was noted that this appeared to be less of a concern for younger people.
  • Travel behaviour is often habitual and requires disruption to change. Several guests observed that habit plays a crucial role in shaping travel behaviour, and yet it is often a challenge to change such habits without disruption. The Olympics, it was noted, provided a good example of such a shock where 30% of travellers in London changed their behaviour accordingly, although many reverted to their former habits after the Games. Travel choices were formed at early stage when making a new journey, delegates noted, and the timing of interventions was therefore important. There were calls for greater research into this issue and the use of longitudinal data to determine the points at which habits were formed and embedded.
  • A range of techniques will be required to make sustained behavioural change. Experts pointed out that a range of techniques could help to make behavioural change more widespread and permanent. John Dawson noted that successful behavioural change was the result of ‘working with people rather than against them’. Drawing from psychological insights, it was explained how providing individual feedback on the benefits of behavioural change could help in sustaining new habits, as could people making a public commitment to such 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.
  • We need more effectively to link our Universities with policy makers. 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. More effective links were called for between Universities, the transport industry, and policy makers in the Government. Others pointed to the need for more University courses in this area and for the importance of such knowledge to be recognised in professional qualifications.