Nudges, winks and silver bullets – is this all that cycling needs?

This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 96.

 Phillip Darnton was the Chairman of Cycling England from 2005 until it ceased to exist on 1 April 2011. Cycling England was the independent expert body that advised on the promotion of cycling. He has written this article specifically for Cambridge Cycling Campaign.

A couple of months ago, the House of Lords Science and Technology Sub Committee decided to look into ‘Behaviour Change’. A dozen assorted Peers invited learned academics and consultants on social marketing, sustainable transport researchers and experts in the field of ‘modal shift’ to present their views on ‘Travel Mode Choice Interventions for Travel Behaviour Change’.

This sounds like pretty technical stuff, but it will not have escaped you that ‘Behaviour Change’ is all the rage these days in political circles, so it’s not surprising that our noble Lords wanted to learn more about ‘smarter choices’, ‘nudges’ – including ‘soft nudges’ – and all sorts of behavioural ‘interventions’. So fashionable has this become that even the Department for Transport has just published a ‘Behaviour Change Toolkit’ – ‘just a couple of tweaks with this monkey-wrench, and you’ll be a new man; we’ll have fixed your travel mode choice in a jiffy’.

Behaviour Change Toolkit or …
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What on earth, you may well ask, is going on here? If we put a flame-thrower to all the jargon and redundant pseudo-academic verbiage, what are they on about? The truth is that the Science and Technology Sub Committee want to know whether, and how, we can encourage more people to leave their car at home and hop on a bike for a short trip to the local ‘chippy’. But, perhaps inevitably, they have had to wade through some worthy theorising by the academic community (‘What counts as evidence?’), trying to codify what real people are actually doing to ‘sell the idea of buying into cycling’. Behind the abstract concepts of ‘mode switch’, ‘travel behaviour determinants’, and ‘asymmetric chrism’ there is a serious real-world issue trying to emerge: it’s called Marketing Cycling.

Selling things (and ideas) is as old as Adam and Eve, and the serpent who ‘beguiled’ them. In marketing speak, his was a well-targeted winning proposition – and has helped sell a lot of apples ever since. Learned committees and research studies have their place, but they don’t help much with what to do. Marketing – that is, defining your target user, and providing some irresistible reasons to buy something or do something different – doesn’t just help in this process: it’s absolutely essential. And it isn’t the stuff of government reviewsand toolkits.

For example, the Sub Committee wanted to know if ‘nudges’ work and – given Cycling England’s experience over the last six years – what was the ‘single most effective thing to do’ to encourage more cycling. As if the boundless subtleties of human behaviour and choices could be sorted out with one well-aimed silver bullet, or the inexpensive provision of a few ‘killer facts’. It’s no wonder that, over the years, government has wasted millions of pounds in un-directed advertising campaigns urging us ‘to think’ before we cross the road, and change ‘for life’. Who do they think they’re talking to?

And that’s where the trouble starts for cycling. Most people are still not interested (at best), or even quite hostile (most likely) to the idea of getting out of their safe, comfortable, status-laden car in favour of just a short ride in urban traffic on a vulnerable bicycle. Persuading people to cycle is nothing like campaigns for seatbelts, drink-driving, or smoking. These were things which affected everyone – and government led society, all of us, to adapt and change our behaviour.

The target audience, to use a marketing phrase, was ‘all consumers’. Now cycling is not like that. Marketing skill can help us find the perhaps 5% of people who might – with the right inducements – be persuaded into commuter cycling; and marketing can also help sort out what those inducements might relevantly include.

… an integrated transport strategy
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Furthermore, if there were just one magic bullet of conviction, someone would have found it by now – and got very rich in the process. But people don’t work like that; you never quite know what the clinching argument or ‘intervention’ will be to tip the balance in favour of cycling for any individual. And that’s what the 18 Cycling Cities and Towns have shown us.

There is now a substantial body of things which we know do work. They are summarised in ‘Making a Cycling Town’ – and they range from better facilities and secure parking, to motivating signs and symbols (‘minutes’, not ‘miles’); lots of Advance Stop Lines and cycle symbols on the roads, to professional cycle training, events and activities. Whatever else, cycling needs to be seen as convenient, safe and enjoyable.

Instead of plodding around in the intellectual niceties of behaviour change theories, government would do better to do what it’s there for – to define a real strategy for transport, and within that, to set a long-term commitment to cycling as a (small, but important) part of an integrated transport policy; to pursue it consistently and continuously over the next 30 years; to demonstrate the leadership and political will to push it through, and to recognise that getting people to adopt changes to their lifestyle – especially when they are quite happy with the status quo – is not a ‘quick fix’. It cannot be achieved with constant political posturing, or a small ‘local people know best’ pot of money lasting three years.

That sounds like a worthwhile challenge, and deserving of some intellectual rigour and clear-sighted strategic leadership.

‘Nudges’ and winks are not much encouragement even to a blind horse – and they certainly won’t make a ha’porth of difference to cycling. The Lords’ Sub Committee wanted to know why cycling levels were so different in Europe, and whether the UK could ever be remotely like the continent: ‘Is it just all different over there?’ Well, perhaps we do still see ourselves as little Englanders; but we would be surprised at what would happen if we, like Denmark or the Netherlands, adopted a long-term integrated transport strategy, and backed it with continuity of investment. As the man from Odense said: ‘All you have to do is start a long time ago, and keep going’.

Phillip Darnton