‘Nudging’ Durham Commuters Toward More Sustainable Modes of Travel

Behavioral science is informing the city’s efforts to change the way people commute.

2 minute read

November 4, 2018, 5:00 AM PST

By Camille Fink

Interstate Research Triangle Park North Carolina

Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) / Wikimedia Commons

Durham, North Carolina, is one of nine cities that was awarded a $1 million grant through Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. The city plans to use the funds to continue developing innovative mobility strategies similar to ones tested earlier this year aimed at getting drivers to use alternative modes of transportation.

The six-month test run provided 1,500 commuters with incentives that acted as behavioral “nudges” to encourage them to travel other ways. In one case, people were sent emails showing biking, transit, and walking routes, reports Laura Bliss:

The emails also included trip time comparisons and listed the potential benefits of alternatives to solo driving, including the weight loss potential, the savings in gas money, and the time commuters could reclaim from the city’s infamous traffic. “Driving downtown is so 2017,” the maps said.

The other program involved a weekly lottery with a cash prize for city employees who used the bus. Both strategies affected behavior by encouraging people to move beyond intention to actual actions—in this case, ones that would benefit society.

The goal of this first round of incentives was to reduce solo driving trips by 5 percent. The outcome was even better than expected: the percentage of drivers commuting alone was 12 to 16 percent lower among participants who received the incentives compared to those who did not. 

The city plans to use the $1 million to take the programs citywide in an effort to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commuting by 5 percent among Durham’s entire population.

“The idea of ‘nudging’ as public policy doesn’t sit well with everybody; critics have pointed out that it creates the potential for governments to manipulate citizens, and deprive them of their capacity to make their own decisions,” says Bliss.

But Durham city leaders argue that the purpose of the programs is not to hinder people’s decision-making abilities. Rather, they seek to offer as many viable options to commuters as possible.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 in CityLab

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