Using the Power of “Nudging” to Discourage Car Use

Over the past few years, I’ve worked for several transportation organizations (e.g., universities, a city government) that strive to reduce reliance on cars and encourage walking, biking, and transit use. I’ve found through these positions that stimulating a change in behavior is not an easy task. Especially when dealing with something as routine as transportation, people tend to be reluctant to abandon old habits without receiving substantial incentives in return. Because I’ve spent so much time “nudging” people to adopt certain behaviors, I found this week’s readings to be particularly relevant to my work. The readings provided insightful explanations into the way people make decisions and the psychological barriers that prevent behavior changes.

One of the big ideas that stuck with me from the Thaler and Sunstein reading is that people have a proclivity for conforming to societal norms and “following the herd.” According to the reading, human decision making in nearly all realms is highly influenced by popular choices. Therefore, the authors state that “if choice architects want to shift behavior and do so with a nudge, they might simply inform people about what others are doing.” In the context of transportation, this strategy could be applied to encouraging bicycle and transit ridership by highlighting the trends that show the rising use of these modes. In Downtown Seattle, for example, over 50 percent of commuters now travel to work without a car. According to Sunstein and Thaler, this type of marketing is more effective than simply explaining the benefits of bicycling and transit.

To further promote non-automobile transportation options, public entities should work through local employers. Not can employers design effective transportation programs that fit the specific need of their employees, but these programs can also encourage employees to use healthier and less stressful modes that, in turn, stimulate productivity, and thus, create shared value.


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