TAPAS.network | 6 February 2024 | Editorial Opinion | Peter Stonham

Travel behaviour change: what’s possible, what works, and what’s needed?

Phil Goodwin

ANYONE CONSIDERING the full range of issues facing our transport system, and how it might best be developed to meet current and future expectations for both what can be realistically supplied, and what patterns and levels of use are possible to cater for sustainably, is likely to at least acknowledge as part of the equation the question of how to encourage and influence travel behaviour.

Essentially, that means acting to modify the levels and patterns of demand, as much as catering for them by simply increasing the supply side provision.

This logical dimension has certainly been on the agenda amongst transport planning professionals and economists for some time, but is not something so easily embraced by either political leaders or the transport industry itself.

As far as most politicians are concerned, the consumer is king, and enhancing the supply is an attractive thing to promise, and sometimes an unchallengeable imperative to act on too, in transport as much as in other public service areas of importance to voters, such as the health service and the provision of housing and education. In regards to the transport supply industry, meanwhile, — be it automotive, rail, aviation or infrastructure construction — few advocates will be found for any proposition that a reduction in their supply of services and manufacturing/building activity is a desirable thing. After all, transport it is a major business sector, a key part of GDP generation, and provider of many jobs. Politicians and industry will generally find common cause on that view.

Even many within the public sector organisations responsible for transport strategy, planning and regulation will share an expectation that we have to work closely to the current supply and demand paradigm, rather than tell people that unfortunately they will not be able to have their full travel desires met. Although a degree of expectation management is now more likely to be accepted than in the past, only zealots, and those convinced that the world is heading for climate disaster in short order, may believe that putting a stop to much of our current transport activity is either necessary or feasible.

If pragmatic action is therefore to be attempted to influence travel behaviour in the context as set out above, it seems quite obviously necessary for it to be persuasive or advisory rather than directing what people should do, or placing restrictions on their activity.

Fortunately there are some ‘soft’ measures that may be suitable and acceptable to still consider. These are probably best split into two groups: those at a general policy level, setting a framework for some desirable alterations to travel behaviour, and those directed more at a personal level by prompting revised travel patterns and adjustments by individuals and their particular circumstances.

As to general policy level potential behavioural influences, under our current Western Society economic and social model, it is already recognised that a range of market signals, regulations, tax and benefit tools, and assertions of shared cultural and community values do and should exist to set a framework for desirable and acceptable behaviour. Hence there are penalty tax charges on certain unwelcome activities (including externalities), regulations to ensure safety and control of unwanted impacts (for example, from the use of vehicles and driving), and promotional messages and calls to actions for more responsible and sustainable behaviour.

Actions at individual level to change behaviour need generally to be more gentle. People may already have personal feelings, attitudes and concerns that can be reflected in support of them achieving more desirable transport and travel behaviours. Indeed, it is well understood that sections of the population may be much more ready to change than others, or more readily persuadable to do so. The science of ‘behaviour change in transport’ has examined these opportunities in some depth in the past few decades. This has generated techniques such as travel blending, personal travel planning, support in modal shift, and other ways of bringing about changed behaviours. This is an area where relatively sophisticated and detailed design and presentation of messages and information is most likely to succeed - though even then perhaps only achieving small changes at the margin.

At a recent Round Table on travel behaviour, one of those most closely involved in these activities beginning 25 or so years ago, Lisa Martin, a Director of consultants Steer, recalled the way this new approach had developed.

The 1990’s saw the first Workplace Travel Plans and School Travel Plans in the UK, site specific plans intended to reduce travel by car either voluntarily or development led. Government support was available for Advice rollout and Best Practice Guidance, and early pilots of community based travel planning. During the early 2000’s these approaches evolved into what became Personal Travel Planning/ Individualised Marketing, of which large scale pilots took place in Australia and the UK- many under the ‘Travelwise’ brand.

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A cost-benefit analysis, undertaken on the Sustainable Travel Towns project produced an impressive BCR of 4.5:1. “The results are startling” was an official response by the transport minister at the time.

A Department of Transport funded Sustainable Travel Towns demonstration project then took place between 2004 and 2009, with the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) subsequently allowing local transport authorities “to build on their plans for sustainable travel measures that support economic growth and reduce carbon” as the Government put it.

The Sustainable Travel Towns demonstration project saw three towns - Darlington, Peterborough and Worcester – jointly receive £10 million to implement large-scale ‘smarter choice’ programmes. These involved a range of initiatives aiming to encourage more use of non-car options and to discourage single-occupancy car use. They included the development of a strong brand identity; travel awareness campaigns; public transport promotion; cycling and walking promotion; school and workplace travel planning; and large-scale personal travel planning work. Detailed evaluation for the DfT subsequently concluded that this approach was successful in reducing travel by car and increasing the use of other modes, from a comparison with trends in other medium-sized urban areas. Overall, in the three towns, there was a reduction in total traffic levels in the order of 2%, together with a reduction of 7-10% in the number of car driver trips per resident. A cost-benefit analysis, undertaken on a relatively conservative basis and considering congestion benefits only, produced an impressive BCR of 4.5:1. “The results are startling” was an official response by the transport minister at the time.

Following these encouraging pilots the Local Sustainable Travel Fund, run by the DfT from 2011 - 2015, was the biggest-ever competitive funding programme for sustainable transport initiatives in England. Over the four years the DfT distributed £540 million in grants to 12 ‘Large Projects’ and 84 ‘Small Projects’. Overall expenditure was approximately £1 billion, including contributions from local authorities and DfT grants for non- local schemes such as Bikeability. The Fund’s core objectives were to support the local economy and to reduce carbon emissions. Local authorities invested the funding in infrastructure schemes to increase bus and rail patronage and active travel, and complementary initiatives such as new bus services, cycle training and travel support for jobseekers. Once again the results were very encouraging. Car use fell in LSTF Large Project areas relative to a ‘comparator group’ l by 2.6%; (in the comparator group it was only by 0.3%). The programme was again also very high value for money, with a ‘outturn’ BCR best estimate of 5.2 - 6.1, similar to the predicted BCR of 5.2.

In her talk Lisa Martin concluded that packages of measures which encourage more sustainable travel behaviour have been proven to be effective in reducing car trips, and Behaviour Change programmes demonstrated to deliver excellent value for money relative to that achieved by very expensive infrastructure projects. Regrettably, she observed, much fewer organisations (local transport authorities and trip generators) are now designing and implementing behaviour change programmes of these kinds than before due to a lack of funding. Whilst local planning conditions and corporate sustainability- led goals mean some behaviour change programmes are still being rolled out, they are not widespread and there is a lack of coordination and support for the organisations involved.

It seems sadly, once again, that projects created to tests concepts, and that successfully do so, are simply not followed through.

A newer element to the behaviour change toolbox is the concept of Societal Readiness Assessment (SoRA). This seeks to offer an interactive framework for developers and stakeholders to improve the way initiatives like low carbon transport projects are received and responded to locally. Speaking at the same roundtable Lara Salinas described SoRA as a reflective, iterative and participative process with many entry points. The SoRA toolbox provided creative methods for ‘deeper dive’ reflection, discussion, visioning, stakeholder mapping, co-design, equality, inclusion, and more. The intended result is transport decarbonisation that is more aligned with the feelings and responses of people to the needs of the planet.

SoRA is intended for use by anyone with a stake in decarbonising mobility, and to be useful from initial project scoping to implementation of projects, technological innovation, policy-making, masterplanning and other elements of change. It has been developed in the UK in the DecarboN8 project at Leeds University and at UCL and the Connected Places Catapult’s Transport Research and Innovation Grants (TRIG) programme, and with consideration of the global context of a mobility transformation in the GREAT project (Gridding Equitable Urban Futures in Areas of Transition).

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New social and behavioural skills can now valuably be added to the collective armoury of the transport sector, says Pete Dyson. It will just take time, effort and openness to filter this through the practising population.

Reflections on all these issues were recently published in LTT by behavioural specialist Pete Dyson. In particular he raised an interesting challenge to the thinking that often seems to be presented in transport professional circles as it all coming down to choices of influencing behaviour by the use of either ‘Carrots’ or ‘Sticks’, which he believes is an unhelpful transport policy metaphor.

The imperative to decarbonise (and generally improve public and active transport), has led to ‘carrot and stick’ language being used to describe the key levers of behaviour influence, believes Dyson, co-author of the book ‘Transport for Humans’, doctoral researcher at University of Bath and former behavioural scientist at Department for Transport. He points to its unwanted messaging implications in presenting the case for change to both decision-makers and transport users, and proposes there are better ways to discuss travel behaviour change.

The carrot and stick analogy narrows the transport sector’s thinking, and may even have contributed to recent anti-motorist polarisation, Dyson says. “Deploying the language of ‘sticks’ opened the door to creating dividing lines, for which an identity politics of ‘motorists’ and ‘non-motorist’ in conflict was easy to manufacture”, he observes. “I therefore contend we must now accept a 19th century donkey race is a discourteous and insufficient metaphor to use when referring to the societal transition facing our 21st century transport system.” He instead prefers an alternative language drawn from frameworks used by contemporary behavioural and social sciences. “The overall message is simple - rather than seeing people as the problem, these find ways to solve people’s problems (singular and plural). Carrots and sticks lead us unwittingly towards ‘transport for donkeys’ type thinking, when what we need is ‘transport for humans’, and ‘transport fit for societies of the future’ embracing the fundamental theory and evidence from behavioural science.” These social and behavioural skills can now valuably be added to the collective armoury of the transport sector, he says. It will just take time, effort and openness to filter this through the practising population.

In addition to professional skills, there are two more excellent ways forward, Dyson believes. First, investing in commissioning social research to better understand people’s underlying travel attitudes, values and behaviours. “This will do wonders for providing evidence and course-correction, and add much needed colour and empathy that ensure policies are well designed, implemented and communicated.” Rising to the challenge of societal level interventions is certainly going to need a bigger evidence base, so this should start with the sector benefitting from interviews, surveys, diary studies, deeper consultations and citizen’s assemblies.

The second way forward, Dyson argues, is to invest more in the evaluation of schemes and incentives. “Typically schemes are narrowly defined and assessed, which leaves out the second-order impacts and unseen benefits that can really make or break a project. For example, only through a multi-year longitudinal study could it be discovered that introducing free bus passes for the elderly in 2005 would result in better physical health, cognitive abilities, volunteering and a wider network of friends “ he points out.

Communicating ‘what works’ within the sector and to the public is the next challenge and opportunity, says Dyson. “I believe it is only by advancing our commitment (and ingenuity) to evaluating transport schemes that we will maintain a seat at the table of major societal level changes. These are the new ideas that will stop seeing people as the problem, and start solving people’s problems.”

Dyson’s insights are timely and valuable. Though that is perhaps not to overlook the fact that sometimes more direct interventions may be needed in addressing those people who have the worst types of behaviour, and need to change it most. This might be in terms of them imposing unwelcome consequences on others (e.g. causing injury), causing the greatest impact to the planet (e.g. gross polluters), or disrupting the system for others by inconsiderate individual actions (e.g. by thoughtless parking). Here there is surely a case for focusing the effort for behaviour change on those whose revised actions will yield the greatest overall benefit to the rest of us.

There are also fortunately some individuals and situations where, in contrast, a willingness to change behaviour may be much more easy and beneficial. People who are ready to be in the vanguard of beneficial change. Some key approaches in this context might be the value of concentrating on identifiable ‘ready to change’ situations, amongst them lifestyle junctures like change of home, family structure, or employment or workplace, and at times of crisis with immediate urgency to address, such as that presented by the Covid Pandemic. At a more general and institutional level, similar opportunities occur within the transport world itself by the arrival of transformational new system developments (for example opening of the Elizabeth Line) or smaller service upgrades or reorganisations at the local level being of equal significance to those whose travel patterns are more fine-grained. A new service offer is clearly an opportunity to change behaviour. Other opportunities arise through changes brought by technological or customer experience innovations like better ticketing and payment options, and enhanced information delivery and presentation, and greater system-wide and multi-modal integration.

Linking up with other initiatives, like those in the healthy lifestyle and active travel fields, provides another opportunity to influence the way people travel. Perhaps a good way for transport policy and planning professionals to be sure to pick up on such windows for positive action would be for us all to bear in mind the maxim ‘is this a behavioural change opportunity?’ when any system changes or other innovative platforms are being introduced.

Finally, two other areas of behaviour change might be worth greater thought. One is to more closely understand the underlying intentions, aspiration and values of people in their daily lives so that the message from the transport perspective can chime with and sit comfortably alongside these core personal drivers - be they addressing climate change, achieving a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle, or even living less extravagantly and saving on household travel expenditures.

Then of course there is sometimes, perhaps, an opportunity to change the thinking and priorities of those who themselves influence the wider social and cultural agenda — political and business leaders and decision-makers, celebrities and the media: Those sometimes known as ‘Opinion Formers’. For some people, the message that change is necessary and desirable may be generated internally, or by better travel experiences or information about the options available to them. But for others, it can need an external prompt or call to action by someone that they trust, respect or simply like to follow. Though the objective may be transport change, the most persuasive messenger might best not always be “a transport expert.”

Peter Stonham is the Editorial Director of TAPAS Network

 This article was first published in LTT magazine, LTT885, 6 February 2024.

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