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Nudging finds fertile ground in the mobility sector


This behaviour-modifying technique is increasingly used to address mobility issues.

Imagine you’re driving down the road when all of a sudden a pedestrian crossing appears hovering in the distance. Instinctively, you slow down. You don’t know it, but those rectangular white stripes are a 3D trompe l’oeil image. This is an example of a nudge.

A nudge is a gentle, non-coercive push or reminder that encourages people to change their behaviour for their own benefit and/or that of the wider community. Human behaviour is influenced by non-invasive visual and auditory cues in the environment. Although we’re rational beings, we’re also driven by emotions, habits and unconscious reflexes. Even if we don’t pay particular attention to nudges, they’re sufficiently visible for our brain to perceive them, consciously or not. The mobility sector is no stranger to this phenomenon. “The transport industry has a growing interest in nudging and solving mobility problems,” says Etienne Bressoud, director of VBA’s Nudge Unit. “The number of projects we’re working on in this field has risen significantly.”

Nudging to make driving safer

This is particularly true in the area of road safety. To limit the number of accidents on a strip of road hugging the shoreline of Lake Michigan, in 2006 the city of Chicago painted a series of horizontal white stripes along the road that get progressively closer as drivers approach. The lines give drivers the illusion that they’re speeding up and nudge them to slow down. The number of accidents on this section of road have declined by 36% as a result. “It may subsequently become a question of habit,” says Bressoud. “Once the surprise effect has worn off, it might no longer have an impact on drivers who take the road every day. Then again, maybe it will teach them to slow down in that spot. The ideal nudge is one that you’ve tested for one or two months and whose intended behavioural impact remains after you remove it.”

Working with road safety officials, BVA has developed nudges to prevent texting while driving. For example, it has created a car mode feature for smartphones that works just like the aeroplane mode setting. If someone calls you, your phone doesn’t ring but sends the following auto-reply message: “I’m at the wheel, I’ll call you back later.”

Nudging to regulate traffic flows

Transport delays and crowded train platforms are another favourite nudge target. In Singapore, red-yellow-green traffic signals placed at train station entrances let travellers know how crowded a platform is. The lights serve as a useful tool for regulating traffic by coaxing commuters to seek an alternative route. In another example, LED displays representing people in a train provide real-time occupancy data by lighting up progressively as the train fills up.

Different nudge tests have been conducted to try and mitigate public transit delays and disruptions. People don’t necessarily realize it, but when they validate their transit card, they’re helping operators to better predict traffic flows and align transport services to user needs. But many people don’t bother to validate their pass. To get bus riders to do so, BVA has come up with the idea of placing a 3D image of a head above the validation machine to give passengers the impression that they’re being watched. The French railway is decorating the train doors on one of its commuter lines with a set of teeth to warn passengers to stay away from closing doors. All too often, trains are delayed by someone forcing a door to stay open so they can squeeze in.

The perfect complement to mobility policy?

Public authorities are turning more and more to nudging as a tool for addressing transport problems, whether to alleviate rush hour traffic jams or develop sustainable tourism. That’s because nudges are low-cost interventions that rely on existing infrastructure. “What’s completely new,” says Bressoud, “is that the public authorities are starting to test nudges prior to implementing a new public policy. Some people think nudging takes a narrow view of the problem because it focuses on changing individual behaviour. They believe mobility issues should be handled at the national level. On the contrary, I think the two are complementary. Nudging helps make public policy more effective.”

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