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blog: A nudge as good as a wink? The future of UK Smarter Choices

Author: Neil Taylor

The DfT’s evaluation of a recent set of ‘pilot interventions’, delivered to staff at Heathrow Airport, provides useful and valuable insight into the state of the smarter choices industry; hinting at how it could re-position itself within the transport planning sector.  Whilst on the face of it the findings show limited success in terms of changing behaviour, the report openly acknowledges that this was likely to be expected given Heathrow has already largely saturated employees with sustainable transport interventions over many years, and that the context and location of Heathrow makes it very difficult to shift people away from single occupancy car use. 

It should also be noted that all of the previous research in this field would have pointed to a similar set of conclusions.  For example, DfT’s own research in 2004 pointed to limited effectiveness of personal travel planning (PTP) in the workplace, when compared to similar PTP community programmes.  Hence, applying very subtle ‘nudge’ style interventions in the Heathrow context was always unlikely to have any sizeable impact.  However, the problem runs much deeper than simply the wrong interventions in the wrong location.  And here’s why….

  • Firstly, research has consistently stated very clearly that for smarter choices interventions to work in the long term there is a need to ‘lock-in’ the benefits through some form of demand management.  Even as far back as 2002, when the first travel plan research was published by DfT, the introduction stated ‘Evidence shows that higher levels of uptake – reductions in car driving of 17% or more – are likely to depend on two key factors: the financial incentives or disincentives related to travel, and the availability of parking…..Parking restraint is a hallmark of high achieving travel plans….In our study the travel plans with the lowest car use, used either parking restrictions, parking charges or a combination of the two’.
  • Secondly, for smarter choices to work there needs to be a sound and credible alternative offer.  This could be dedicated cycle lanes, high quality bus services, or simply well located and compact service provision to make it easier to join people and places. If we are to expect more people to walk, cycle, use public transport or car share then it’s no good simply encouraging them to do it, but to provide the quality infrastructure necessary to enable this shift to take place.

Maybe the Heathrow report is a useful prompt in this respect to re-ignite the industry into better understanding the important relationship between infrastructure and behaviour change, thereby enabling a new approach to rise from the ashes – one focused on a balanced approach of infrastructure and behaviour change.

Aligning the recently announced Access Fund with the Local Growth Fund provides a perfect platform for making this happen.  All we need then is for the planning process to better locate and connect people and the places they need to access, and we will be well on the way to having a much more solid platform for promoting sustainable transport through well proven smarter choices channels.  After all it’s not a complicated formula:

Sustainable behaviour change =

better planning + sustainable infrastructure + demand management + smarter choices


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