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Plastic Bags, Behavioural Nudges and The Big Squeeze!

August 4, 2016

Our traditional solution to capacity bottlenecks has been to build greater physical flexibility into the system: faster, longer, more frequent or roomier. It’s a proven approach, and we still [just about] cope on what is largely an anachronistic Transport skeleton. But at some point the combination of cost, constructability and appetite will mean making things bigger or faster returns little long term value – we’ll spend huge quantities not to gain but to maintain a status-quo.

The UK’s 5p plastic bag levy has been in force for almost a year and the impact has been remarkable: an 85% drop in usage, equivalent to about six billion bags!

5p is pretty negligible, and even if you took, say, five bags, that would represent a <0.5% surcharge on the typical weekly shop (which ONS figures suggest is about £60 per week).

It’s a great example of behavioural psychology: a seemingly trivial nudge towards the right choice but delivering substantial change.
I believe that the choices we make and behaviours we exhibit in crowded environments can similarly be nudged and incentivised.   

Last week the London Transport Museum hosted a debate on the “Big Squeeze”: a panel discussion raising ideas on how London’s Transport might cope with projected population growth of 20% by 2030.

Our traditional solution to capacity bottlenecks has been to build greater physical flexibility into the system: faster, longer, more frequent or roomier. It’s a proven approach, and we still [just about] cope on what is largely an anachronistic Transport skeleton. But at some point the combination of cost, constructability and appetite will mean making things bigger or faster returns little long term value – we’ll spend huge quantities not to gain but to maintain a status-quo.

Of course, you can’t ignore that by 2030 a series of major schemes will be/could be up and running: Crossrail, Thameslink, HS2, possibly even Crossrail 2. These should deliver step-change increases in physical capacity (or might they just facilitate an acceleration of the Big Squeeze?).

But a pan-London squeeze isn’t going to be eliminated without holistic or system-wide improvement. One option is arguably a relatively untapped solution…us!  We are the common denominator to trains, buses, underground, trams – and in our millions have the potential to bring about change.

To an extent, many already actively participate on a daily basis through self-regulation and a desire to minimise frustration: the best place to stand, the best service to get, the best route to walk and the best place to interchange. We can be active components in finding a natural equilibrium, but why not empower us – or empower more of us – to do more? My pitch was that we should be seeking all potential benefits - complementing our trust in physical change, by implementing behavioural and cultural change at an individual and collective level.

Small-scale behavioural nudges. Why do we make the choices we do?  What are we commonly seeking in a good user experience? With a better understanding of what motivates people, why can’t we trigger more positive decisions through deliberate signage, colour choice, lighting, markings, layouts and means of engagement? This sounds scary and a little didactic - but it is really the right nudge at the right time and in the right manner to make the best choice the default choice. Small impact at individual level, but potentially huge impact across 10 million people.

Collective behavioural change. London Underground demonstrated last year that encouraging people to stand on Holborn’s escalators increased throughput by 30%. Again, small change, big impact.  

Certainly not a universally applicable model to implement, but it plants a firm seed that these things offer shared benefit. Where else can the Underground introduce comparable interventions? How do we normalise the behavioural changes required? And, if London is going to be so crowded by 2030, then shouldn’t we start deploying elements from [event] crowd planning to complement – the equivalent perhaps of the “first and last mile” approach in which simple messaging and key decision points are reinforced.

The power of data! Whether this is through hand-held or [preferably] public media, our ability to gather, understand and present real-time travel information in greater clarity will only improve.  Provision of qualitative and quantitative information about a unique journey through personal media: "Your journey today will take 45 minutes. If you travel off peak it will take you 30 minutes”. Is there disruption, where is it, what are my alternatives, how long will it take? Which service is congested, what does the next one look like, where should I stand and which carriage should I board? All of these could help us make better informed decisions. At the debate, Lucy Fish from Transport for London spoke about a series of data-informed travel demand management [TDM] options being considered within TfL, including a carriage occupancy indicator for the Victoria Line. These are concepts we strongly support, and could be great congestion relieving nudges

 Working hours. At a cultural level, why do we [office workers] largely still work “9 to 5” hours and will we still need to do so in 2030? Probably not is my guess – surely the speed of connectivity and rise of VR will mean we don’t need to travel in these core squeezed hours. For those that do, why can’t we target and incentivise this to actively manage travel demand (air miles for commuters, if you like)?

Incentivisation and gamification of TDM. The best example I’ve come across is Singapore’s Travel Smart which credits an e-payment system, on a monthly basis, based on points per kms travelled on the MRT and LRT.  Travelling outside of peak hours earns significantly higher rewards, with up to 6x for travel between 6-7am rather than 8-9am for example. Why can’t London do something similar? If we need people to spread in the shoulder-peaks to manage our demand – then this surely would help do it? If we’re typically spending £500m on major capacity upgrades of a single venue, couldn’t we also invest in a much more holistic London-wide incentives package. 

So, my pitch is something that is more bottom up and less top down. I work at Movement Strategies, so you’d expect me to focus on the people as the users of the system. But I believe we can play our part.  It might be incremental, but could ultimately reach the millions of trips made each day, month and year within London.

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