How can we encourage commuters to get on their bikes?

Max Kelvin's essay earned a Distinction on the IPA's Advanced Behavioural Economics course in 2020.

With the Government advising people to begin returning to the office, dentsu X's Max Kelvin explores how behavioural economics could be used to increase the numbers of people cycling to work when commuting returns as part of the IPA's Advanced Behavioural Economics course.

The EAST framework was developed by the UK Behavioural Insights Team in 2012 to update and simplify previous frameworks used to understand behavioural approaches across government policy units. Whereas the previous framework (MINDSPACE) being used had 9 elements to consider when designing policy, the EAST framework has 4; make it easy, make it attractive, make it social, and make it timely. These four factors are simple for policy makers to understand, and effective when put in practise properly.

Cycling to work has a wide range of environmental and health benefits, yet it is estimated that only 1.1% of all road journeys in the UK were cycled in 2018. It makes sense for the government to try to encourage this behaviour to help reduce pollution and increase the populations’ health, so we will look at applying the EAST framework when coming up with suggestions to encourage people to cycle to work.

One of the factors the EAST framework identifies as important to take into consideration is that seemingly small tasks or inconveniences can be enough to put off an individual to start or complete a desired behaviour. Finding ways to lower or get rid of these frictional costs can dramatically increase an individual’s likelihood to carry out a desired behaviour. Making it easy (or as easy as can be) for an individual to carry out a desired behaviour is a recommendation of the framework. We will look at two avenues for achieving this- the power of default and reducing the hassle factor.

The power of default is the strong tendency of an individual to keep with any default options they are provided with in any given situation. We could utilise the power of default to encourage cycling to work by getting employers to auto enrol new employees on a bike rental scheme (for example, an annual Santander Cycle membership in London) when they join.

Making cycling to work easier

Reducing the hassle factor is reducing any effort it takes to get an individual to perform an action. We could look at making cycling to work less effort by providing on site bike storage facilities for employees so they don’t have to find somewhere to lock up their bike (if owned) on every journey in. We could also provide quality showering facilities, so employees don’t feel it’s a hassle getting ready and freshening up after their cycle into work. Alternatively, we could look at increasing hassle to deter driving into work by removing car parking facilities.

The EAST framework also identifies that making a proposition attractive is key in order to achieve a desired behaviour. There are many different avenues for making a proposition attractive - we are going to look at attracting attention, the Pratfall effect, and extremeness aversion.

Something that draws our attention is more likely to be able to engage us and get us to perform an action - salient, novel, surprising, and distinctive stimuli have all been found to be effective at this. In addition, placing something distinctly different from its surroundings is also more likely to capture our attention- this is called the isolation effect. In order to use this principle to encourage people to cycle to work we may want to jazz up cycle lanes and infrastructure - using a mix of brightly coloured paint, neon lighting, and unusually shaped signage to make cycling stand out against the often grey city backdrop.

Communicate authentically and honestly

The Pratfall effect describes how individuals are drawn to entities that exhibit a flaw (when shown in the right way). Humans are not perfect beings, and to exhibit a flaw in a brand or product may elicit a feeling of authenticity. Entities being open about their failings may also show these failings to be inconsequential areas compared to their strong points. Additionally, being open about a flaw shows honesty. We could utilise this for cycling to work by highlighting in communications that cyclists may need to get up 30 minutes earlier to get into work on a cycle… but that the extra effort is worth the overwhelmingly more important environmental and health benefits.

Extremeness aversion is the tendency for individuals to find a middle ground proposition more attractive to go for- presenting a product or idea between a less and more extreme version of it increases its attractiveness. One can use this principle in the designing of communications to make cycling seem like the middle ground option in doing your bit for the environment. For example, you could produce a set of posters encouraging people to make a change for the environment- implying the biggest change they could make is going vegan, the smallest change they could make is to recycle, and a change they could make in the middle in terms of environmental impact would be to cycle to work.

The third key factor in seeking a desired behaviour in the EAST framework is making a proposition social. We are a social species, and are evolutionary hardwired to look at other individuals’ behaviour when making a vast variety of decisions. We can use concepts such as descriptive norms and leveraging social networks when trying to influence behaviour.

Using descriptive norms to spread an idea is the process of making an individual aware that others do a desired behaviour - this significantly increases the chance that the individual will do it themselves. We could leverage descriptive norms to increase bike riding behaviour by getting employers to let all their staff know that a significant proportion of employees cycles to work for environmental and health benefits. This in turn should increase the levels of cycle riding as employees who might not have considered cycling realise it is a popular (socially approved) way of commuting to work, and that their peers are taking advantage of the benefits.

Incentivise behavioural change

You can also influence behaviour by tapping into already established social networks. Individuals may have multiple social networks around them consisting of people they interact with on a daily basis - different teams at work, different sets of friends, and family. Encouraging an individual to influence their networks for behavioural change is also an effective way of spreading an idea. We could use this principle to increase cycling to work by rewarding employees who introduce their colleagues to a cycle to work scheme. This gives an incentive for individuals to push behavioural change throughout their networks.

The final factor in influencing behaviour using the EAST framework is making a proposition timely. This is often an overlooked factor as unlike the other three factors its effectiveness is going to be more dependant on individual circumstances rather than applying to a broad audience at the same moment in time (unless in a period of large societal change). Humans are creatures of habit, and habits are usually kept consistent in stable environments. However, key life events (such as a job change, family death, house moving) can cause instability, which in turn can cause us to question our habits and preferences, and can open us up to new things. Communicating to an individual at the point where they are open to new experiences takes advantage of an increased receptiveness to suggestion. We could use this for increasing cycling to work by getting employers to communicate to new employees to join a cycle to work scheme- new employees are going through a key life event (moving job), and therefore will be more receptive to try new ideas.

Short term v long term

Another factor to consider when keeping propositions timely is present bias - the bias individuals experience when comparing short and long term benefits/costs. Short term benefits/costs are given priority over long term, as the short term feels real to individuals and long term planning seems hypothetical. We could take advantage of this for cycling to work by getting employers to offer employees a cycle scheme where the costs of paying for a new bike and equipment could be paid for with instalments in the future, instead of upfront.

Behavioural insights are absolutely essential for policymakers to understand when trying to bring about individual or societal change- and the EAST framework offers a solid foundation for designing communications strategies to bring this about. However, there are other factors to consider outside the framework when designing communications- for example, making the proposition contextual or relative. But from the EAST factors we have discussed we can see that the framework offers a number of communications solutions to increase the likelihood of encouraging people to cycle to work- and keeping propositions easy, attractive, social, and timely will be critical in helping increase the number of cyclists on our roads.

Max Kelvin is an AV Director at dentsu X. This essay earned him a Distinction in the IPA's 2020 Advanced Behavioural Economics course. Add yourself to our interest list for the course’s next intake.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 21 July 2021