Behaviour Change: Stepping up a Gear in 2020

Published: 02 January 2020

Five key themes and lessons for transport behaviour change in 2020

One of the key calls throughout the conference was for permanent funding for active travel initiatives, not just grants which can encourage a piecemeal approach.

Olympic Gold Medallist Chris Boardman was just one of the familiar faces speaking at the ‘Innovations 2019: Cycling and Walking Conference’ in early December.

The pressing need for transport culture change at scale was a key element of Boardman’s presentation (helping to boost physical activity, reduce congestion and improve air quality). And behaviour change featured heavily in talks from academics, charities and officials.

But what were some of the key themes and what lessons might active travel practitioners apply in 2020?

1. Awareness is critical. In all the chatter about nudging, defaults and multiple behaviour change models (from the transtheoretical to COM-B), the need for promotion and profile can occasionally get lost. The evidence shows that information alone is often insufficient to drive change, but broad awareness is critical for building familiarity and engagement at regular intervals during campaigns and movements. PR and promotion via traditional and social media raises awareness among target audiences, but also helps to foster belief among the programme delivery team. One of the key architects of the award winning ‘This Girl Can’, Sport England’s Tanya Joseph, has said that raising awareness was a primary objective throughout the behaviour change campaign.

2. Messaging matters. The types of words and phrases used can significantly affect the impact of different interventions. Audience research can help to ensure the language is attuned to different groups, using simple terms that are readily understood. Similarly, the results from successful campaigns show the importance of specific language highlighting the benefits of change, rather than broad calls to action e.g. less ‘you need to do more walking and cycling’ and more ‘save parking money by cycling to work’.

3. Vision and narrative help to bind. One of the key calls throughout the conference was for permanent funding for active travel initiatives, not just grants which can encourage a piecemeal approach. That may not happen, but a clear and comprehensive ‘regional active travel vision’ can act as a North star, guiding decisions around what to fund and support. Likewise, it’s important to package any vision or initiative in a compelling narrative or story. Showing a head teacher that her school is a key part of the region’s transport transformation is likely to be more persuasive than just telling her that parking is banned outside the school gates.

4. Evidence remains informative and persuasive. Despite claims to the contrary, data and research are vital to successful change programmes. Self-reporting via standard questionnaires has its limitations – it’s helpful to monitor intent and claimed actions, but people often lie or exaggerate perceived good behaviours. But the growing trend for real world observation and testing can dramatically improve the effectiveness of initiatives and interventions. And, armed with real evidence of change, it is easier to secure additional budget. Likewise it’s important to consider what is and what isn’t being looked at. For example, many organisations measure the number of cars on the road, but far fewer regularly measure the number of people walking on the pavement, which may provide a better indicator of impact.

5. Informed delivery teams are vital. The potential impact of new findings from psychology, sociology and anthropology – loosely grouped under behavioural insights – has captured the attention of central and local government alike. But an understanding of the theory and application must not be limited to senior teams and programme coordinators. It is vital that delivery teams – be they directly employed by government, charities / voluntary bodies or private partners, also understand how the new insights can be applied. There is also growing evidence of the value of co-creating and collaboration when it comes to successful behaviour change initiatives. We’ve worked closely with the delivery teams at Forward Motion, a collaboration between Councils in south Essex, to show how behavioural techniques like priming and reciprocity can be used to on the ground at roadshows, presentations and meetings.

Chris Boardman may have swapped his lycra for a suit, but his determination to establish Greater Manchester at the vanguard of active travel matches his resolve to secure individual pursuit success in Barcelona in 1992. With growing evidence of what works when it comes to initiating positive behaviours, there is an opportunity for transformational cultural change in councils across the country.

Please contact us to find out how we can help with behaviour change planning, promotion and delivery, including workshops explaining the latest behavioural insights to senior level and delivery teams.

Simon Maule


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