TechBite: How Behavioural Science Could Transform The Transport Sector

Average Rating:
Changes ahead in transport
In May 2017 the IET Automotive and Road Transport Systems Network held an interesting event - Behavioural Psychology In Transport. As part of the IET TechBite series (bitesize technical insights from the engineering community) we have put together a blogpost that summarises some of the ideas that were discussed. Please have a read and feel free to comment...

It is now being recognised that human psychology and behavioural insights, also known as ‘nudge’, have the ability to improve the design and delivery of transport initiatives.

“The transition to a more sustainable transport system can only be achieved by a combination of technological shifts and behavioural shifts,” highlights Jillian Anable, Professor of Transport and Energy at the University of Leeds’ Institute for Transport Studies.

People, not payloads
One point to consider is that many of today’s modern transport systems, such as air travel, motorways and railways, weren’t originally designed to transport people, but rather cargo.
“This is still psychologically true: pilots often describe passengers as ‘SLF’ – self-loading freight,” notes Rory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director at OgilvyOne.
With this in mind the sector is looking at a more people-centric approach to design and development, taking into consideration the psychology behind why people travel and moving away from traditional metrics such as speed and capacity towards passenger productivity and quality of experience.
“At some point we’re going to have to ask, is it worth the effort of making a journey five times faster? Might it not be better to make the journey five times more enjoyable, or five times more productive?” Sutherland asks.

Behavioural trials are already being implemented to create change. For example, London Midland Trains opened an innovations lab this spring, which is already looking at ways to make station platforms more appealing to customers, introducing ideas such as ‘work pods’ and improving ease of travel for disabled customers.
Understanding passengers’ needs and reasoning
Pete Dyson, Senior Behavioural Strategist at Ogilvy Change, highlights a recent example of behavioural science and technology working together to provide results.   
“The University of Newcastle’s Instrumented Traveller project used cutting edge technology to assess people’s journeys,” he notes. “They equipped passengers with eye tracking software and heart rate monitors to assess how they experienced the journey at a more physical level.”
The university hopes the information gathered will help transport firms better understand passengers’ needs and respond accordingly.

You may also be interested in...Connected and Automated Vehicle Engineering 2017: Engineering for adoption of autonomy on the road

As part of this Instrumented Traveller project, Dr Joan Harvey, Chartered Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle’s School of Mechanical and Systems Engineering, recently undertook a survey that tracked the behaviour of commuters on South Eastern Trains. Highlighting a variety of problems, her team put forward a variety of solutions that included changing how information is communicated and how the organisation responds to passenger needs.
Communication is key
A lot revolves around meeting customer expectations, and to do so you need to understand what these are. Sutherland, for example, notes that people will happily wait for a train that’s running nine minutes late if they’re aware of the situation. However, issues arise in a much shorter time if they don’t know what’s happening. Improving communication within the transport sector is therefore a key area to focus on.
In addition, many people get frustrated when a train sits stationary on the line, but if it’s moving, albeit slowly, then this isn’t considered so much of an issue. Therefore Sutherland believes the solution should be to follow similar concepts to that of smart motorways.
“Encourage signallers or drivers to change their behaviour so they run slow and minimise the time spent stationary,” he highlights. Again to be a success, people must understand why they’re being asked to do this. Sutherland believes this is where we’re currently going wrong with smart motorways.
“I don’t think the government has explained smart motorways to the public adequately – they currently see it as annoying speed restrictions,” he explains. “I believe transport networks should definitely be spending more on marketing and education.”
Supporting policy change
Aside from passenger contentment, there are also a number of transport policies that behavioural science can help address, including air quality, congestion and obesity.
“Most of these rely on a reduction in car use combined with a transition to cleaner vehicles for journeys undertaken by car,” notes Professor Anable. “Behavioural psychology can help address these policy objectives through two main routes; 1 – understanding the psychological barriers to uptake where people appear to have (affordable) options to use the car less, but do not use them and 2 - inform the design of policy and interventions that may be more acceptable and more likely to influence behaviour in desirable directions.”
The challenges ahead
The challenge in embracing the benefits of behavioural science in the transport sector is that, as Sutherland puts it, “everyone in public policy and in engineering feels much more comfortable tinkering with reality rather than ‘perception’. People problems are much messier than engineering problems,” he laughs.

You may also be interested in...HEVC 2018: The 7th International Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Conference

 It’s also about getting the sector comfortable with these different sets of metrics and goals.
“We can certainly show how behaviour has changed, but if organisations are looking for high RoIs then that might not be as easy to quantify,” says Dr Harvey. “Somehow we need to look beyond just economics and engineering for solutions,” she notes.
Professor Anable goes on to add that it’s important that the sector understands that behavioural psychology is a part of the solution and not here to stifle engineering innovation.
“Behavioural psychology is not the whole answer. For it to be effective, it has to be combined with efforts to transition the whole transport system through innovation, new business models, land use changes, technological development, changes in the labour and housing markets which lock people into car dependence etc,” she concludes.

You can view the talks from the event here.


The IET Technical Networks hold events examining topics emerging out of the engineering community. Go to our events calendar to find events taking place within your technical area.
Posted by Steve Benveniste on Jul 31, 2017 3:42 PM Europe/London

Log in

Want to read the comments and add your own? Please Log in 


  • You must enable blog
    in the settings to
    receive email notifications.
The IET provides the latest information, guidance and insights for the engineering and technology community as well as services to help you in your professional life. This blog will bring you the latest updates on what we are up to, what to watch out for and how you can get involved.