Nudging Sustainable Mobility

Professors Thaler and Sunstein (2008) criticised institutional theories based on the assumption that human beings have only rational behaviour. According to them, there are many situations where people end up acting against their own interest: by taking both unnecessary risks and too many precautions, letting their decisions be influenced by irrelevant information. The authors applied theories on the ‘predictivity’ of human behaviour to the regulatory action of institutions proposing a flexible model of interaction. Their approach defines the concepts of ‘choice architecture’ (the organisation of the context in which people make decisions) and ‘nudges’[1] (small features designed in the environment of choice making).

Advances in behavioural science provide a new toolkit of theories, models, and empirical methods for designing transportation programs and evaluating policies. The main purpose of nudging interventions in the transport system is to promote sustainable travel behaviour. New methods allow transport planners to better understand user heterogeneity, segment users based on their patterns, and predict individual travel sequences.

Despite the importance of these techniques when dealing with behavioural problems that planners encounter when consulting with the public, crafting policy and regulations, and promoting sustainable patterns of behaviour, they have received only limited attention in the planning and transportation literature. On the other hand, the almost universal adoption and coverage of smartphones is a priceless framework for generating, implementing, and testing the results of different interventions designed to affect users’ travel behaviour by delivering behavioural feedback via activity-tracking applications (Zhao and Baird, 2014).

Pilot projects are being promoted and evaluated around the world while future directions for research on behavioural interventions are being vividly discussed. Some of the current topics include clustering analysis to identify riders who may be susceptible to changing their long-term travel patterns, developing new types of integrated fare products, evaluating public-transit network gap bridging via e-sharing or identifying incentives for carpooling.

Some nudge interventions capitalise on the inclination to suffer social influence through the mechanisms of imitation, conformism, social confrontation and contagion. Thus, several nudging campaigns promoting the use of public transport rely on positive social models to inspire citizens (SaMBA, 2020).

[1] A nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates.

Still picture from the first video of the “The fun theory” initiative. Volkswagen. 2009 (Source: YouTube)