What Does Behavioral Science Have to Do With Transportation?

Ben Foster

Ben Foster speaks to transportation experts at Mobility Lab.

Arlingtonian Ben Foster dropped by Mobility Lab this week and shared his perspective with a few dozen transportation experts on how behavioral science can help us better understand how we make decisions and how different types of information can affect the ways in which we might change our routines.

And as part of my company Conveyal’s work on the Arlington Transit Tech Initiative, it was a timely visit. We’ve been thinking a lot about how to help people better understand and incorporate different transportation options into daily routines.

But changing our routines can be challenging for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons.

Foster spent the last several years in leadership roles at Opower, an Arlington-based company that helps individuals and businesses lower their energy consumption.

Arlington Transit-Tech Initiative

Similar to the choices people make with transportation, changing energy-consumption habits can be challenging even if the many benefits are clear. Through its work with utility companies, Opower has demonstrated how combining behavioral science and information design can motivate us to make and stick with new habits.

In the context of Arlington County’s work on transportation demand management, one of the more interesting concepts Foster discussed was BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model, which explores the effectiveness of “triggers” to motivate change.

Ultimately, it is a combination of personal motivation and circumstance that determine whether information, education, and outreach help people consider, say, taking the Metro instead of driving a car. But under the right conditions, triggers help us cross the threshold from intention to action. These triggers could include information tools (like apps, maps, or posters) or reminders about possible transit options (from friends, the media, or government agencies).

Chris Hamilton, bureau chief of Arlington County Commuter Services, attended Foster’s presentation and reacted: “It was so cool for our team to hear what Ben Foster learned at Opower and applied to using less energy. And discuss with him how that relates to trying to get people to drive less and bike, walk, and use transit more. Our B2B team at Arlington Transportation Partners and our outreach teams at Car-Free Diet, BikeArlington, WalkArlington, and The Commuter Stores were fascinated about figuring out what data could provide insight for people to take action and make a change.”

These behavioral-science concepts have been utilized in other fields like finance and Opower’s own work on energy conservation. However, they remain under-explored in the world of transportation. Much of Transit Tech Initiative Phase 2 (read about Phase 1 here) will look for ways to connect these concepts to Arlington’s transportation programs.

We’re lucky to have a leader in the field like Ben Foster right here in Arlington. Hamilton noted, “We look forward to working with Ben and the Conveyal team on incorporating these principals into [Arlington County’s] education and outreach work.”

You can find out more about Opower’s application of these ideas in Foster’s TEDx talk on energy conservation:

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Jeremy Holmes

I’ve long thought that transportation “decisions” are much more driven by habit that conscious choice among alternatives. A challenge of TDM is not just communicating the benefits, but overcoming inertia. I believe peer pressure also has a role in this – even if the benefits are clear and someone is ready to make a change, that change can be delayed or even forestalled if the person doesn’t see people like them doing what you’re asking them to do – especially if that thing comes with its own weight of preconceptions. Transit in small metros, for example, can suffer from this – it’s hard to get people to switch to riding the bus, all rational issues aside, if they perceive that people like them don’t ride – whether that perception is accurate or inaccurate. It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg problem, but in some regions I believe it’s a significant one.

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