Category Archives: Social Science

Enter the Paralympics …

Is there room for a “living legacy” (in transport after the Olympics) ?

We knew that the final Sunday of the Olympics was a quiet morning for sport, when politics returned to Sunday morning TV and the Prime Minister was interviewed by Mishal Hussein. The key question was all about legacy. What will the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics be ? We all felt the euphoria and pride in our country. There was a sense of togetherness and a common experience to unite us all. There were certainly some heroes.

GATOG_horse_on_escalatorIt’s been a long time since I worked on the transport planning for the London Olympics on their Travel Demand Management project. Yes, THAT project that was made famous by Boris’ annoying messages at tube stations that encouraged us all to think about our Games travel plan.

GATOG_weighlifters_on_tubeThose announcements might be the most newsworthy, but I think it was the series of posters that went around the London tube stations  and were put into Metro that to me summed up the whole campaign and used sporting characters to encourage us to think about how we travel at Games time and what we could do to play our small part in helping to put on the greatest show on Earth.

So, as the nation’s attention turns to legacy, what legacy might there be from the Travel Demand Management project ? One of the terms that I was really keen on when helping design the project was the creation of a “living legacy” i.e. not only a legacy in hard transport infrastructure (such as those extra carriages on the DLR) but also a legacy in when and how we think about using that transport system.

These numbers are probably a little old now, but when we were planning the project:

– nationally only 1% of people had heard of Transport Direct (a national multi-modal journey planner),

– When there are problems on the line, 87% of people still arrive at National Rail stations not knowing about disruptions on the rail network (and start to form the queue waiting for the disrupted rail network.) [See Passenger Focus study.]

– The numbers were a little better in London, where 1 in 5 commonly used TfL’s travel tools, rising to 2 in 5 when they’d heard that there was known disruption. (This provides some comfort for the vision that I’ll outline below, where people check before they travel and exacerbate any disruptions on the line.)

These figures confirm what we all know, that transport is an habitual behaviour. We generally just do it. We don’t really want to waste time thinking about it, or planning our travel. Why would we want to plan a commuting journey that many of us do every day of our lives ? Why would we want to waste important “brain space”, that could be thinking about more noble, more salacious or more addictive stuff [delete as applicable, depending on how you think your brain works.]

How could we make an intelligent dynamic transport system, where the human elements which the transport planners call the “demand” for the transport system can be influenced to match the available “capacity” on the network and perhaps could those elements be switched dynamically in real-time, to account for unexpected peaks in demand or break-downs in performance ?

For an event like the Olympics, we can put support staff & services on high alert (perhaps even give them “blue light” status), we can temporarily increase our readiness to be able to respond to the inevitable incidents. We can employ thousands of friendly volunteers on a temporary basis, to help show the way, to provide directions, to keep crowded platforms safe or to even to help with loading disabled travellers. But, we can’t make that “business as usual”. At some point, we need to relax back to a steady operational state. Hence, don’t forget how many additional measures were put in place for the Games; which we won’t be able to keep up for Londoners. Hence, the effective available capacity of the transport system and the good-will of its users is naturally reduced in the ‘steady-state’ situation.

In a sense, the Olympics is actually the easy part. But, the Paralympics concern me … …

The TDM project coined 4 R’s: Reduce, Retime, Re-mode, Re-route, in order to build up the available network capacity when and where it was needed for the Games. The Civil Service then took these on-board in Operation Step Change in the run-up to the Games, encouraging people to think about the options available to them when they travel. People do/did work from home more and this generally builds up a buffer in the transport system. In these circumstances, the biggest R within the equation is the R for Reduce. Hence, a lot of the success of the system comes down to the work done in advance, on reducing the “background demand”. Many people took the decision to get out of town and leave London to its Olympics and they’d have their summer holiday. They might even have rented out their driveway as well.

But, when TeamGB does so well at the Games, the weather is pretty good; then actually what happens (although employers wouldn’t like to admit it, in advance) is that we naturally get a conversion of the “base load” on the transport system to what is really Games-traffic. People do watch the Olympics at work. Commuters do become “spectating spectators”. They do go and line the streets at lunch-time or after work. And, their own travel patterns are naturally altered.

In week 1 of the Paralympics, following the Bank Holiday weekend, we might also expect a natural reduction in background demand. But, in week 2, we are certainly back to the daily grind; having extracted every ounce of flexibility of our bosses. Hence, for the Paralympics and actually for the “living legacy” that I crave, we need to rely much more on the other R’s in the equation: the Re-mode, the Re-time and the Re-route and the step before each of those which is “stop and think about it”. For that living legacy, it doesn’t make sense to encourage a long-term Reduction in demand, when we are trying to bolster the economy of London. (This isn’t to say that virtual tele-working aren’t vitally important; but as the long-term trend for these increases, we hope that the economic drive will increase the need for transport even more.)

Hence, over the Paralympics, we actually get to test what we really need to test for the long-term “living legacy” in transport behaviour. Hence, the spot-light really is on.

So what do I mean by that “living legacy”. I’d like to use the Paralympics as an opportunity to kick-start a new or additional habitual travel behaviour, where commuters as part of their routine, check for disruption before they set out and on route, each and every time; and are prepared to influence their travel patterns in light of the travel information that they receive, because they trust it. Then, at that point, we can think about Re-timing, Re-routing, Re-moding i.e. commuters can think about their alternatives whilst they’ve still got time to influence their travel pattern. Perhaps, this involves calling the family and saying “sorry, transport is messed up. I’m going to take the opportunity to finish this project off; so that I can take a long week-end later this week”. Perhaps, it involves walking in the opposite direction out of the office in order to travel via a different route or even on a different mode of transport.

London is doing well with their 40% of people who know where to turn once they’ve heard that there is disruption with the transport system. However, what we want to increase now is the percentage of people, who convert it into a habit to look at travel tools, before or as they set out and turn planning into an habitual behaviour. Then, we’ve “closed the loop” and it is the first step towards that intelligent dynamic transport system that I talked about.

So, now really is the time to check out your Games plan for the Paralympics (and encourage your friends to). The Olympics were a one-off special and they are unlikely to return to London in my life-time. However, the Paralympics are more like “life as normal in London”. However, they are still a huge sporting event. They are the SECOND LARGEST EVENT in the world and they follow on immediately after the euphoria of the world’s largest event hosted in the same city. So, there is NO ROOM for complacency, no room at all and we shrug the Paralympics off at our peril. They are in September and life will go on in September. September isn’t a natural extension to our summer holidays.

Operation “Step Change” was an opportunity to prepare for something as large as the Olympics. The Paralympics are an opportunity to prepare for our lives.

So, here is my plea … … Please plan for the Paralympics. Please prepare your travel plan. Please use it as an opportunity to explore alternative routes to your place of work / your school / your trip from a night out. But don’t just plan for the Paras, plan for your life after the Paras too. Please use the Games as an opportunity embed some traveller information into your daily life. Set up some travel alerts from email or SMS, set up a widget on your desktop, set up a Live Tile on your mobile phone, … not just for the Paralympics, set up these measures for your life.

Do get it touch, if you need any recommendations on good travel tools to embed into your travel patterns.


House of Lords attacks nudging ???

Baroness Neuberger, chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee,  was on the Radio 4 today programme. yesterday.  Her thesis seemed to be that nudging techniques alone are not sufficient to tackle some of the huge challenges that our country faces, such as climate change or obesity. 

Well that was the headline anyway … Firstly, the report didn’t actually attack nudging, only that it shouldn’t be applied in isolation and secondly the media reports seem to miss the fact that the select committee’s report was based on two case studies. One of those case studies was all about encouraging a significant reduction in car use, if we are to have any chance of meeting agreed carbon reduction targets. However, I’ve not seen any significant press coverage on this point.

The Baroness’ select committee report, apparently, at least attacks civil servants for their interpretation of the steer that they are getting from their political masters, or possibly the policies themselves.  On one hand, the Government are stating a preference for the consideration of behaviour science techniques (which the scrutiny committee applauded);  but at the same time, they are also taking away the financial freedoms for Government Departments to be able to do anything else anyway. The select committee argues that the nudge alone is not enough.

On the Today programme, the Times columnist, Philip Collins, argued that there is an ideology behind nudging: “There’s a feeling that it’s better if things are done in a voluntary way, rather than through regulation and the state.”  But, both agreed that nudging was only part of the solution. Philip trotted out defaults the classic examples of auto-enrolment on pensions, organ donation and “save more tomorrow schemes”. 

The truth behind the headlines, as ever, is more balanced. For instance, one of the key recommendations from the select committee report  is that the Government should appoint an independent Chief Social Scientist to provide them with robust and independent scientific advice and to advise and shape the development of such policies. If the Sub-Committee really felt that these policies had no part to play then what would be the point of such an advisor. The BBC was just trying to make a headline, along with previous ones such as “Nudge or Fudge ?”.

That isn’t to say that nudges are the ultimate panacea. Of course, many times we will need to consider the environment (such as regulation) within which  nudges will sit. If you’ve read Thaler’s book, you’ll know that the first “[i]N” in Nudge stands for incentives – he never saw “pure social science” standing alone. However, what is important with the behaviour science approach is to design the overall package of measures together so that they can be mutually re-enforcing. We all know what if we hear nine pieces of advice that we don’t like, but just one that we do like; then we’re much more likely to take comfort in the tenth piece of information as it sits nicely with our current world view and gives us an excuse not to have to change.

Baroness Neuberger also challenged whether there was any catalogued evidence that nudging works, at a societal level.  She felt the case had only been proven at an individual level.  She argued that you may get a marginal difference in individual behaviour; but the Government are not doing the evaluations correctly when applied to a population.  With organ donation, she argued that actually the thing that would make the difference was training of the staff.  (It is that classic problem that in the real world, you can never set up an “experiment” such that you can only change one thing at a time – not at a realistic level, for a topic that matters quite so much – and hence you can never be quite sure which of the interventions that you made that be be credited with causing the difference.)

Of course, there is a massive “Catch 22” situation in this argument. Unless we undertake the interventions then we’ve got no chance of being able to gather the appropriate evidence. Also, it is a brave project manager, who cancels something essential for his own project in favour funding the evidential framework in order to assess whether the intervention worked in practice and support future projects. (The solution, by the way, is for the programme manager to set the context and mandate the use of the appropriate evidential frameworks and to give the project manager freedom to set financial priorities within his project.  It also takes the right culture for the project manager and the programme manager to be prepared to willingly cut entire projects – even their own – because there aren’t sufficient funds to do “everything necessary” and it is better to do everything necessary on a smaller number of projects than it is to do a large number of parts of projects.  Unfortunately, such cuts don’t necessarily make the best PR when communicating this approach.)

Completely missing from the headlines was the fact that one of the two case studies that the Select Committee looked at was: reducing the reliance of the British public on the car.

One of their specific recommendations from the Select Committee was that the Government should:

    (a)  establish and publish targets for a reduction in carbon emissions as a result of a reduction in car use;

    (b) publish an estimate of the percentage reduction in emissions which will be achieved through  reducing car use and  the timescale for its achievement; and

    (c) set out details of the steps they will take if this percentage reduction is not achieved by this time.

You can listen again to Tuesday’s Radio 4 Today Programme (at 07:50) at: bbc.

You can see a slightly longer video report by the Baroness on the site.

You can also download the reports there at:

  • Report: Behavour Change
  • Report: Behaviour Change (PDF)
  • Inquiry: Behaviour Change
  • Science and Technology Sub-Committee I

  • Mind the Gap – Between the harsh world of economics and the social world that I’d like to live in

    Professors Uri Gneezy (from the University of California in San Diego) and Aldo Rustichini (from the University of Minnesota) got the opportunity to establish a series of experiments to explore the transition from social norms to market norms and back again. They wrote their results up in a paper called “A Fine is a Price” in the Jounal of Legal Studies in 2000.

    They had been invited in to study a day care centre in Israel to discover whether the introduction of a fine for parents arriving late to pick up little Jonny would act as a useful deterrent. They concluded that the fine wasn’t a very effective deterrent and worse than that it has long-term negative effects. Before the introduction of the fine; there was a social contract in place and hence there were effective social norms about it being unacceptable to keep the carers waiting and in standing out so far from the other crowd of timekeeping parents. In this case (in Israel), the guilt from keeping people waiting, made parents think twice before doing it again. Persistent offenders found the peer pressure from the other Mums (and Fathers) unacceptable. However, after the introduction of the fining system, the nursery inadvertently replaced the social norms and the social contract with market norms and a market contract. Now that the parents were paying for their tardiness, they could now make a judgement as to whether the impact of them having to leave on time outweighed the fines that they knew would be imposed. The number of cases of parents arriving late increased, not decreased, after the introduction of the fine. (Perhaps, they set the value wrong; but I’ve got no information on that.)

    However, the story then took an interesting turn for the worse. Recognising the error of their ways, the nursery then decided to remove the fine. They figured that they would then be back to the social contract. Right ? – Wrong ! Once the fine was removed, the behaviour of the parents did not reverse. In fact, when the fine was removed there was a further slight increase in the number of late pick-ups by parents. After all, both of the social restorative effect and the market force had been removed.

    The moral of the story is that once a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time. In other words, social relationships are not easy to re-establish.

    My next post applies this behavioural economics to the implementation of road pricing in the UK and cautions transport policy makers to “mind the gap”.

    Will London grind to a halt on the 4th January 2011 ?

    On the 4th Jan 2011, London will turn off the Western Extension Zone (WEZ) of the London Congestion Charging Zone. Will London grind to a halt ?

    It was mostly a political decision and an electoral campaign pledge but Boris has consulted widely and the result was that the central congestion charging zone should stay, but the western extension zone should go. London joins an elite band of cities who have actually implemented road pricing and then decided to turn it off. In the rest of the country, many cities have struggled to even get on the band wagon: Manchester, Edinburgh and Cambridge all had negative referenda and voted against road pricing (or, in Manchester’s case, against a £1.6bn investment in the transport infrastructure of the City). However, London is now prepared to jump off the band wagon, or at least within one foot anyway. So what happens when you jump off the wagon ?

    On hearing a talk from TfL about the forthcoming changes to the zone, I was reminded of some great behavioural science about a nursery in Israel which decided to fine parents who turned up late to pick up their children. What’s interesting in that case is what happened when they decided to take the fine away.

    Professor Dan Ariely describes it really eloquently in his book: “Predictably Irrational”. We live in one of two worlds. One world is characterised by social exchanges, the other is characterised by monetary transactions. Unfortunately, these two worlds cannot co-exist. Imagine that you’ve been invited around to your first Christmas meal with your new girlfriend and her family. Her mum cooks up a sumptuous feast and there is everything there that makes the meal special: sausages in blankets, your favourite stuffing, both turkey and ham interlaced together … You get the idea. But, imagine the sound of the “scratching of the record”, as you get up and stretch and proclaim what an amazing dinner that was. However, instead of offering to wash the dishes, instead you break open your wallet and offer to pay for your share of the meal. This approach just doesn’t sit well within the social world. It jars and it grates and it destroys any social relationships. The world of social exchanges, where people amicably take it in turns, return favours and think of each other; and the world of monetary exchanges where we expect hard-nosed contractual arrangements just cannot co-exist. And, the policy-maker who tries to combines these two worlds in his policies does so at his peril.

    Unwittingly, the nursery in Israel broke the social norms by introducing the fining system in the first place, and then when it didn’t work for them, they ended up with the perception of a fine that just happened to be set at zero. Social relationships are not that easy to re-establish. As Professor Ariely puts it “once the bloom is off the rose, or once the social norm is trumped by a market norm, it will rarely return.” The owners of the Israeli nursery found that they then had a double whammy working against them and the parents became even more tardy at picking up their children. After all, there was now no social contract and the economic contract had also been taken away.

    So the question is: Will London’s road system grind to a halt on 4th January 2011 ?

    How to pull ? – According to a behavioural scientist …

    I’ve previously blogged on how it is a bad assumption to assume that everyone is rationale. In fact Professor Dan Ariely argues in his book “Predictably Irrational” that it is a far better assumption to ‘veer off’ for certain known biases in the way we approach things as human beings. We might like to think we are very rationale or Spock-like; but actually we are much more like Homer Simpson when it comes to taking decisions.

    I recently did a radio show on Radio Hartley Wintney on this topic. I tempted the listeners that I might cover “how to pull, according to a behavioural scientist“. However, unfortunately I ran out of time. (Time seems to flow at a different speed inside that radio studio). So I decided to blog about it instead. If you felt like you missed out, it’s well with watching Dan Ariely on TED, a regular contributor to Wired magazine, cover this topic.

    A few of the key points that we can learn:

    1) Firstly, you should share your night out with a few mates, but not too many of them.

    Three is an ideal number to give the prospective partner a choice but not too big a choice to confuse. There’s evidence from scientific studies of the optimum number of jams to display in the supermarket that too much choice can actually confuse the decision-maker to such a degree that it becomes “all-too-complicated” to buy jam at all and instead sales are actually reduced when there is too much choice. So much for the Western dogma, that consumerism is all about providing choices. (And, yes, isn’t it incredible that there are ‘scientific studies’ on the selection of jam !).

    2) Providing a third decoy choice to tip the balance in your favour

    There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that a carefully selected set of three people could be an ideal number, if you’re hoping to get lucky with the opposite sex. However, you do have to pick the other two very carefully. Let’s assume that you want to “load the dice” to improve your chances of getting lucky. One set of scientific studies show that you want to set things up so that there is a difficult choice between two out of the three people out that night – let’s call them A and B. Perhaps, A is fun to be with, whereas B is more classically good-looking. We’ll set this up such that there are two attributes that are typically difficult to choose between and tend to be more a case of personal choice. You might think that it is just a matter of luck, as to whether you find the right girl who is more predisposed to one of these two qualities. Wrong !

    In this case study, let’s assume that you are person A and you want to be be selected. According to the study, the best way to subtlely engineer things is to add a third choice, who I call the “decoy choice”: choice C. Weirdly, the absence or inclusion of this third choice makes a significant difference to the percentage of people who select either A or B, even if no-one actually selects C. How strange is that ?

    Let’s imagine that things are set up “fairly” and an even proportion of the female population select A or B, when there are just two choices i.e. when you go on the pull with just one other mate. The way to engineer the situation is that the decoy choice, option C, should be engineered to be very similar to yourself; but have a clearly obvious “defect”. Hence, option C might be better described as “Option A minus”. I know, at first sight, it appears irrational; but the existence of the third option can significantly effect the proportion of people who select option A over and above Option B.

    So the question in this hypothetic example is: Do you have a slightly uglier brother? Taking him along on your expedition could seriously increase your chances of pulling. It is, as if, the brain shies away from the relatively difficult choice of A or B, which might tax the brain and force it to do some difficult kind of analysis. Instead, the brain focuses on the easier part of the challenge and identifies that “A” is better than “A minus” and does less thinking about the harder question of whether B is prefererable to A (or A minus). It appears as if the mind has already been made up that A must be better, because it is better than A minus.

    If you like: the evidence suggests that our brains work much more like Homer Simpson than Spock.

    Tests show that the percentage of people favouring A over B (which we previously set at 50-50%) now swing over in favour of A. Perhaps sub-consciously and instinctively we are first voting for “A minus” but then realise that we can “upgrade” from an “A-minus” to an “A”. There is no strong evidence for this particular explanation, but the numbers do eerily seem to suggest it might be true.

    Perhaps, even wierder than the fact that social scientists do experiments on our selection of jam in the supermarket shelves is the fact that they also do experiments on our selection of partners in a night-club ! Perhaps, I picked the wrong discipline to study ?