Can we ‘nudge’ people into the showers?

This article was published in 2011, in Newsletter 99.

On a day such as the one when I’m writing this, it may be that showers at work are useful for some, but I’m not really talking about those very few days when the rain tips down in the morning just when you need to cycle to work.

I’m actually interested in seeing if ‘nudging’ works, and if so how it can help get more people cycling. Did you know that David Cameron has a whole unit working on ‘nudge’? If my first few words are all a total mystery, I should explain that a book, which I’ve yet to read, has brought this word, and ‘behavioural economics’, into common parlance. It is really an obvious concept. Whilst we can’t expect Jeremy Clarkson types to give up their car even for short trips, there are many at the margins for whom small changes in attitudes or environment might make the difference between, say, driving or cycling.

I have heard of someone saying they drive into Cambridge because although they can easily find a place to park their car, they have difficulty finding a place to park their bike. So one obvious solution would be to remove car parking spaces … or add extra cycle parking! Another clear change would be to ensure that residential parking standards for new developments are enforced, so that cycle parking is more convenient that car parking. Why not put parked cars in a locked shed at the bottom of the garden?

It can be difficult to nudge people who are set in their ways, but sometimes in life we have big changes forced upon us, when nudging might be more effective. It is at those times that just extra information or small changes in provision might lead to changes in lifestyle or behaviour. The City Council scheme that offers a loan of a child cycle trailer for those who have infants about to start nursery school is one good example. For a couple owning a car, but who have regularly cycled, this is one time when car use might escalate. Those moving to a new house and/or a new job are very good candidates for nudging. Giving a cycle map to all those looking at a new house or applying for a new job would be a small cost, but could save building an extra car parking space at £4,000 plus. If they don’t get such information, including bus timetables, the default will be to drive. I’d guess that many people would be open to make changes at such times, but we are missing many opportunities to influence them. For those in the same job and same house for ten years changes are less likely.

So what should be done?

I’ve quoted some examples, and others are really more of the same. I wonder how we nudge the nudgers? We need to pester developers, employers, councillors and others until they see the benefits to the economy, the environment, and the individuals (health and pocket) of nudging to bring about such changes.

Finally, I don’t see that providing showers at work is something that encourages people at the margins to cycle. In surveys, one of the boxes that people tick is one saying they would cycle if showers were provided, but if there were showers they would find a different excuse. Those who cycle hard to work as training for athletic sports clearly need showers, but for many of us a better investment by employers might be the provision of good waterproofs. After all, one view is that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing’!

Jim Chisholm