Can behavioural economics principles help make better, safer and greener commuters? Let's explore.

Let's start by assessing the power of social influence in mobility. It is a well-regarded fact that more often than none, people's preferences aren't exactly their own preferences but they are more likely to conform to a group's behaviour and agree with views of those they look up to. As you can already imagine, this impacts the way we perceive our choices of transport to a great extent.

Caged and bullied

In behavioural economics, we call this conformity bias. This necessity to conform to please others in our circle has a lot to do with the herd mentality of human beings. What ends up happening, as a result, is that we fall prey to collective conservatism even when there is a strong rationale for choosing or making a decision outside the confines of the group.

So the question is how can we use behavioural economics principles to help commuters accept newer and more efficient forms of transport? Allow me to quote the works of Thaler and Sunstein (Circa 2008) where they introduced the concept of "Libertarian Paternalism". Sounds intense, I know, but in reality, it is a fairly simple concept to understand. Let me break it down.

Libertarian Paternalism Explained

The first-word being Libertarian. Loosely translated, it is a political philosophy that upholds liberty as the core principle. It seeks to maximise or maintain freedom of choice. The second word - Paternalism, as the name suggests, has a lot to do with our paternal instincts to guide people to make better decisions, as judged by ourselves. You know like how our fathers reckon they know and believe what is best for us. Same concept.

You see the underlying behavioural principle here is choice architecture as rightly deduced by Laurent Francxx from MSKC. If we wanted people to make better decisions, then we need to design a system of nudges to propose or promote alternative courses of action, like taking the bus or riding the subway.

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Human beings are habitual creatures. Once we get accustomed to a certain route for our daily commute we seldom change it. However, in a study conducted in London during the 2014 Tube strikes, 5% of the commuters who changed their daily routes on account of the strikes continued to use the new routes when normal service resumed. According to the researchers, the following study was instrumental in understanding what makes people change their decisions and how people make suboptimal decisions when information is imperfect or fragmented.

However, 5% is a very small percentage. This is because when we are forced to make a change we seldom stick with it. We are trying hard to reject this break from routine and eventually we will revert to our old ways. Hugely thanks to humans being irrational habitual creatures with rigid habit loops.

That does present the question of what if the information regarding routes were simplified and constantly provided as reminders to these commuters? What if we designed a system that would make these commuters check routes prior to their journey every morning? What if we simplified the underground maps? Would these changes create long-lasting changes?

I reckon the answers to these questions lies in behavioural economics. Using behavioural concepts like framing, decision staging and bandwagon effect we can create a system of nudges that can drive a more socially conscious and long-lasting change in human behaviour.

So, here are my few suggestions:

  • Imagine if offices started acknowledging the efforts of those employees who choose to travel at off-peak hours or carpool or use public transport to work by creating a platform and lauding them for their socially responsible behaviour. These employees can be given a shout out during office meetings or office-wide emails or they can be given a badge highlighting their conscious efforts. Soon enough, other employees will start to take notice and will try to follow suit. The behavioural concept used here is the bandwagon effect

  • Apps like Google Maps and Apple Maps can have a counter that calculates time spent in traffic, approximate fuel expenditure per commute to give drivers an idea of the true cost of their commute. They can also suggest a quicker route by using community cycles based on the weather, humidity etc. The behavioural concept used is decision staging

  • Public transport maps are confusing. Numerous researches have already been done on the readability of these maps. Therefore, we need this information to be worded in a simplistic and easy to understand manner. More importantly, this information needs to framed and displayed to commuters as remainders at contextually relevant places. This will help commuters course correct and make informed decisions. The behavioural concept used is called framing

Therefore, by applying simpler nudges like these proves better and cheaper in the long run than anti-congestion policies and anti-pollution fines, which are largely intrusive in nature and will not lead to lasting changes.


Dubai Metro
The city of Dubai's fully automated unmanned metro system

Discussed above are just a few short ways I reckon could make our future greener and cleaner. As a fellow petrolhead, it pains me to say this, but if modelled properly, public transport has the ability to move masses at an unprecedented efficiency. Only a handful of countries have figured this out.

For example, the city of Dubai has an interconnected public transport system. As temperatures in the summer can reach around 48 degrees Celsius, there is a special Dubai Metro shuttle bus to take commuters from one metro station to another. In addition to that, the bus stops are also air-conditioned. Taking things further, in highly congested and densely populated areas like Dubai Marina, ground travel is maximised using Dubai trams. Finally, all forms of public transport can be paid using a single Nol Card much like Oyster Card used in London. But the real masterstroke was the Wohjati app. This app was designed by the Dubai government to make commuting easier as it integrated all the information regarding public transport in one place. The app will map out your journey using all available means of public transport available and send you constant reminders about the ETA of your train or bus and options for a faster route when it's time for you to travel.

All of this meant that just in first half of 2019, nearly 18.9 million commuters used the Dubai Metro. And daily ridership is somewhere around approximately 350,000.

Let this serve as an example for the rest of the world to follow.

Written by Arjun Manohar