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It’s going to work better – how do we change commuter behaviour?

13 Jul, 2012

Photo by Dimitry B

Standing at London Bridge underground station recently, I was startled by the disembodied voice of the Mayor brusquely advising caution around my travel plans over the Olympic games. This will come as no surprise to most Londoners, at whom the transport authorities have gone to great pains to direct warnings of disruption in the coming weeks. The truth is that millions of people all over the country are faced with decisions regarding their travel to work every day.

The outcome of these choices can have a massive impact on the transport infrastructure, public health and the wellbeing of the commuting public. New research is beginning to shed light on the questions of what actually informs these decisions and how can we go about making them better.

The questions may seem like the trivial and intrusive pondering of the ‘nanny state’. However, since the publication of the popular science book Nudge in 2008 the notion of encouraging small changes in the behaviour of individuals to produce large-scale benefits has become very popular amongst policy makers. The Wellcome Trust’s own aims reflect this focus. Research challenge 5 (Connecting Environment, Nutrition and Health) is particularly relevant, noting that: “Understanding the complexity of risk factors and the elements that influence lifestyle decisions will be key to improving public health.”

It is fairly uncontroversial that encouraging people to walk or cycle to work is a good thing. People who take part in so called ‘active commuting’ instantly drop out of the majority of adult in the UK who do not meet the minimum recommended levels of 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week2. They also show lower mortality and better cardiovascular fitness.

The environmental benefits are also well documented. A change from driving to using public transport has a positive impact in reducing congestion and pollution. Additionally, there is some evidence that using public transport is less stressful and better for general wellbeing. However, the inertial barrier getting people out of their cars is massive. So how do we go about persuading people?

New research

First, we must understand how people think in relation to travel. Research recently published in the Journal of Social Science and Medicine attempts to gain a better understanding of the social context of commuting using qualitative research methods. The research was conducted in Cambridge by a team from the Medical Research Council, interviewing almost 50 people from the area. Although the work was qualitative and featured a rather unrepresentative sample for the general population, some interesting themes emerged.

The authors of the study emphasise the complication and contradiction in interviewees’ justifications of their travelling behaviour. Ambiguities in aspiration and identity were demonstrated with multiple examples of people who use bikes and cars interchangeably. The subjects often had conflicting attitudes to the speed and efficacy of various modes of transport. This implies the less rational fears and associations are playing a part in people’s thought processes.

In a section of the report whimsically entitled ‘Sensual commuting bodies’ the researchers note that some participants reported surprisingly positive expressions of enjoyment. These were “teased out” during photo-elicitation interview in which participants were shown images of rustic scenes on the river Cam next to cycle routes. Cyclists reported “…expressions of wellbeing enjoyment and even happiness stand[ing] in stark contrast to the negative tales of accidents, road rage, hazardous cycle lanes and potholes”.

Somewhat unsurprisingly the article concludes that our choices are informed by a multitude of factors, including emotive and inter-relational ones: subtler factors like the opinion of our partners on the dangers of cycling or the attractiveness of the walk through the park have a big impact. However, policymakers often overlook these dynamics. In other words, simply providing or highlighting the option of active commuting is not necessarily enough.

Photo by Erik Söderström

Changing Behaviour

My personal experience supports this conclusion. I started commuting by bike as a time-and cost-saving measure. What kept me going however was the pure thrill of the physical activity. The only times my behaviour changed was following minor accidents or at moments of physical or emotional fatigue. At times like these, all the bike-racks and cycle paths in the world were not going to stop me taking the tube when there was, what the paper might well have described as, a contradictory emotive imperative.

So how do we make it easier for people to make the choice to use their bike or walk? The cycle-to-work scheme is a good example of an initiative that provides both motive and opportunity for behavioural change. The financial support to hire or purchase bikes from a company and the provision of facilities to enable individuals to take up active commuting is only one part of the equation. Equally important is the sense of community that builds up between cyclists in a workplace, providing less obvious support for what is, ultimately, not the lazy option.

Photo from Wellcome Images

What does this mean for our own approach to everyday decision-making? Sometimes the choices are clear. In areas of the country where distances are large and public transport is limited, the transport of choice will remain the car. However in urban and semi-urban environments the cornucopia of options can seem baffling. Given the enforced nature of commuting, common sense dictates that we make the most of the time we spend doing it. This would normally mean active commuting to keep fit or public transport that allows reading or other productive tasks. However, as the study shows, rationalising is only half the battle.

Perhaps the disruption over the next few weeks can be seen as an opportunity for all of us to think hard about our transport habits or, at the least, try something new.


  • Guell C, Panter J, Jones NR, & Ogilvie D (2012). Towards a differentiated understanding of active travel behaviour: using social theory to explore everyday commuting. Social science & medicine (1982), 75 (1), 233-9 PMID: 22486840

Meredith Thomas

Meredith Thomas is a summer intern at the Wellcome Trust.

Image Credit: Dimitry B and mescon on Flickr

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