“Applying Behavioural Economics in transport” something to discuss

What do you think?

A very interesting article from http://www.steerdaviesgleave.com/news-and-insights/Using-Behavioural-Insights-to-influence-travel-behaviour:

“In practice, Behavioural Economics is not a neat and convenient theory but a collection of principles which have as their common link the fact that they help to explain actual, observed  behaviour. The definitive publication on Behavioural Economics is Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This not only spells out the key principles but also the evidence behind them, often involving practical experiments, and often backed up by evidence from neuroscience (brain scanning).

The interesting point about these principles is that they affect how people make every day decisions, and can be counter-intuitive (partly because we expect people to behave ‘logically’). A selection of these principles is provided in Table 1 below.

In transport, Behavioural Insights can provide guidance on how to influence travel behaviour. It does this by taking an evidence-based approach to applying the principles highlighted in Table1 (as well as others) to a particular situation. For example, using Behavioural Insights can help to:

Maximising the behavioural response to a communications campaign;

Increasing the effectiveness of Personalised Travel Planning or other behaviour change programmes;

Increasing the rate of adoption of a new service;

Improving our ability to forecast the impact of measures designed to influence behaviour.

Table 1: Behavioural Economics principles



Example implication


Most human behaviour, including travel related is based mostly on habits: what was done last time/what is always done.

Behaviour is ‘sticky’ and won’t change unless there is a noticeable ‘nudge’ or ‘trigger’. This means that, for example, simply providing information on alternatives won’t change behaviour, it needs to be accompanied by an interruption to the usual routine, plus a motivation to change.

Herd behaviour

Individuals are influenced by other people: they like to ‘fit in’, and often the easiest thing to do is what ‘everyone else’ seems to be doing.

Successful communications campaigns often work by ‘normalising’ the desired behaviour: doing so is particularly important when launching something new.

Being seen to be good

Humans are social beings and as such seek the approval of others, and feel better about themselves for having done something for society.

Being told about the positive impacts of desired behaviour can reinforce that behaviour. However, the actual amount of sacrifice most people are prepared to accept is quite small.

Internal consistency

People like to be internally consistent.

One consequence of this is that when there is a difference between what someone says and what they do (as is common), they are as likely to change their behaviour to match their stated views as the other way round. In turn, this has led to a central tenet of Behavioural Economics which is that to influence behaviour you need to focus on the behaviour, not the attitudes.


Losses and gains are valued differently, with losses felt more keenly than gains. This effect has been quantified, for example, Tversky and Kahneman estimated a loss coefficient of about 2, so a loss is valued twice as negatively as the equivalent gain is valued positively.

An implication is that ‘sticks’ are far more effective than ‘carrots’ at changing behaviour! The challenge is that they are also far less acceptable.

Mental short-cuts

In order to cope with the vast number of decisions people need to make on a daily basis, we use mental short-cuts (known as heuristics by psychologists). One heuristic can be as simple as doing whatever was done the last time (habit), or what is always done in this situation (default).

The use of very simplified rules does lead to biases and less than optimal decisions. It means, for example, that decisions are often made on uniformed pre-conceptions about a mode. Typically, for example, people who drive a lot have misperceptions about how long the alternatives would take so continue to use car even though there may be quicker alternatives. In London, an example is the classic Tube map which has encouraged people to associate travel in central London with the Tube and to ignore bus and walk options. The simplified and distorted view created by the Tube map is being successfully challenged with bus spider maps and Legible London signs.


People need to feel that they can change in order to make the attempt. If they feel they have ‘no choice’ (whether or not this is true), they simply won’t even try.

Communicating successes and positive experiences of people changing their behaviour can demonstrate that change is possible as well as beneficial, so helping to create momentum: if others can do it and they benefit from it, I should give it a try!


The value of things is perceived in a relative rather than an absolute way. So a footballer on £80k per week can feel under-valued and under-paid because his team-mates are paid £100k per week!

If, for example, the aim is to encourage switching from car to bus it is not how long the bus takes that really matters, it is how it compares (in the person’s own mind) to car in terms of time, cost, and, even more importantly, convenience.


It has been shown that in some circumstances the messenger can have as much influence as the message, with the media used also having an influence.

A common use of this is celebrity endorsements. Worth also bearing in mind though that if the medium used to provide information is difficult to use this will reflect badly on the subject of the information.

Short termism

Short term impacts are viewed as more important than longer term ones.

Car manufacturers have tackled this problem by providing (and advertising) finance based on a monthly cost. Season ticket loans can do the same for rail fares, but ‘Pay as you go’ is the ideal solution (hence the popularity of Oyster).


Join the debate!


About avgivassi

PhD student| MSc Urban Planner| Surveyor Engineer National Technical University of Athens School of Surveying Engineering Sustainable Mobility Unit (SMU)
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