An Evening of Behavioural Science with the ITC

On Thursday night, I had the pleasure of attending a small event in a delightful Art Gallery, hosted by the Independent Transport Commission. Now, as regular readers will know (if I have any), I’m a big fan of transport, being labelled in some recent study as ‘an extreme commuter’, and having a weirdly obsessive infatuation with the wonderful Chiltern Railways. However, it was not just the subject matter that caught my interest, but more the theme of the evening – how can we use Behavioural Science to inform transport policy?

Sat directly above Platform 2 of the new Crossrail station, we couldn’t have been in a more apt location to discuss the future of transport. Once again I’d hopelessly misjudged the dress code, but luckily that didn’t seem to stop people wanting to chat to me. Even worse, my phone battery had completed the usual 6 hour discharge, meaning that instead of tweeting throughout the event, I had to listen and analogue tweet into my notebook. Which actually provided a refreshing change…


The event itself was split into two parts: 40 minutes of speakers, followed by a lively discussion with the eighty-or-so people in the audience. John Dawson kicked things off introducing the event, and highlighting some key Behavioural interventions that already exist in Transport: Speed signs with smiley faces, planting trees to change the perception of a corner, and, of course, the humble roundabout, which our American cousins still resist with vigour. Fundamentally, John said, this is about ‘working with people, not against them’.

The first speaker was Mark Newton from the British Transport Police, with a focus on international innovation and a belief in evidence-based policing. He talked about the success of recent trails at Cambridge and Bristol Universities, both with a significant reduction in issues faced. At Cambridge, they looked at placing a police officer in known crime hotspots, leading to a 30% reduction over 6 months. And at Bristol, working alongside the Health service had led to a significant reduction in the number of suicides seen on the rail network.

Next up was Dr Adrian Davis, an independent consultant on Health and Transport. Adrian started by making the excellent point about there being a gulf between what we know and what we practice and how, actually, the major task in itself is to improve the transfer of knowledge to the right people. He gave the example of encouraging walking to have a positive effect on both health and transport, highlighting how self-monitoring (pedometers) and the quality of the walking environment are both factors in promoting this – as well as showing that if more people use the bus, more people will walk, as there will be a walk to the bus stop… Adrian also looked at driving, and specifically the unknown origins of the white centre line which appeared some time in the 1930s. A recent TfL experiment which removed the White line saw a reduction in driver speed in all six testing areas.

Founder of the Behavioural Architects, Crawford Hollingworth then spoke on a subject close to my heart – making cyclists more visible, sharing evidence that suggested 93% of motorists say that it’s difficult to see cyclists. This can largely be put down to ‘urban light clutter’, Crawford suggested, leading to cognitive overload for drivers. The solution? The Brainy Bike Light, playing on our Kahneman-inspired System One recognition of symbols to give drivers a better chance of spotting cyclists, and give cyclists a better chance of surviving their daily death-defying commute. (Crawford also highlighted the excellent experiment in India to reduce car honking, which can be found here.)


The final speaker of the evening was Ross Broad from the Behavioural Insights Team, who talked through the brilliant EAST framework. Through each step – Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely – Ross gave examples of successful Behavioural interventions. Linking people directly to the form instead of a webpage first achieved a 5% increase in completion. Adding personalised messages to the envelope, another 5%. Promoting Social norms (9 out of 10 people pay their tax on time) led to a similar result, with the Australian ‘Drink & Drive and you’re a bloody idiot’ message still working thirty years later. Finally, they tripled the number of people leaving money to a charity in their Will, just by asking a couple of questions about the person’s passion for the cause.

Speakers over, and the group discussion began covering a range of topics. How important is habit? Well, 30% of Londoners changed their commuter routes during the 2012 games… Only to go straight back to them afterwards. How much does a free gift, such as bus travel for week, encourage people to try something that they wouldn’t otherwise? A lot, it seems. Does a feeling of control impact behaviour, and do mobile apps such as City Mapper and Tube Exits play to that? Have the Dutch got the right idea with pro-rail, showing people the empty carriages on the upcoming train? And finally, is there anything that can be done to affect people’s present-focus bias when it comes to reducing pollution?

All in all, it was a superbly insightful event, with a clearly engaged group of people keen to use this plethora of ideas and insight for the greater good. There was also further evidence of the need for academia, government, and business to work more closely together, helping to transfer this steady flow of Behavioural knowledge to the people who can deliver real change. And if nothing else, I know that next time I attend an ITC event I’ll succumb to the Social Norm effect and make sure I leave the jumper and jeans at home…


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3 Thoughts

  1. Your comment about the white lines interested me. I was discussing with a colleague how a junction recently ran much better when the traffic lights were out. We agreed that in the short term it is safe (people see the lights out as a sign to proceed with caution) and works better but long term we questioned whether people would switch off this need for caution and whether one road would struggle to get out because of the change. Would this apply to the white line scenario?

    1. Yeah, absolutley. People are always more cuatoous when a change occurs as its entering the ‘unknown’, but once we get used to it we get overconfident – much like driving in general!

  2. Yet, some lines fail to do much at all. As a newbie to the country in 1990, I asked q’s like ‘what is the yellow line for?’. ‘No parking/waiting’ is the general reply. Ok then, what about double or triple yellow lines? ‘Ummm…really, really no parking / waiting’. don’t get me started on the red ones.

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