It is the commuter’s classic pet peeve: you are in a rush to make it to that all important meeting on the other side of town, and you speed into the underground station only to find that the platform to your train is a picture of chaos — a crush of people everywhere. Deflated, you reluctantly decide to wait it out and try to fight your way onto a train even though you know that this journey is shaping up to be a disaster, and there is little chance you are going to make your meeting on time. As you jostle for some space, you cannot help thinking: there must be a better way.
And there is. In Singapore, they’ve been tackling this exact scenario by installing a traffic light system at their Mass Rapid Transit stations informing commuters of crowding levels on train platforms and recommending whether or not to wait for the next train or find an alternative mode of transport. A traffic light system tells commuters that they can board the next train with a green light, that a probable wait of two trains will be necessary with an orange light, and that the platform is very crowded and a prolonged wait is expected with a red light. Disruption or delays to train services at the station are signalled with a flashing red light (Source). After a trial of these lights at Ang Mo Kio station, a survey found that 80% of commuters were aware of the system and thought it should be introduced in stations experiencing higher passenger volumes, which it duly was.
This ingenious traffic light system is just
one example of how densely populated Singapore has thrived over the past 50 years in part thanks to its policymakers enthusiastically embracing nudge theory(Source). The notion that you could nudge individuals into modifying their behaviour is of course highly appealing to public policymakers at a time when our urban public spaces and transport systems are becoming increasingly saturated.
But what exactly is a nudge? In their ground-breaking 2008 book on the subject, Richard H. Thaler and co-author Cass Sunstein defined it as ‘any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives’ (Source). There is an ever-growing list of nudging techniques including ‘setting default rules, framing, social proof, simplifying procedures, increasing the ease and convenience of desired behaviour, use of alerts, disclosures and reminders, inverting social norms, eliciting implementation intentions or soliciting pre-commitments’ (Source). Nudges are not orders: they subtly make it easier to do the right thing. And these nuggets of information differ from signage in that they do not merely spell out what the right behaviour is, but instead spur you into action to take it.
Signs, however, can be successfully ‘nudgified’, as demonstrated in Nairobi, Kenya. This African capital holds the record for the world’s second worst traffic, with road accident fatalities often involving its matatu buses. To counter this, a charity called Zusha! (‘Speak up!’ in Swahili) has placed small informational stickers on the inside of 12,000 matatus.
These stickers encourage the passengers to speak up and challenge a driver when he is driving recklessly. And they work: they have resulted in 140 fewer road accidents per year and the annual death toll has dropped by 55 (Source).
Though nudges are now saving lives worldwide, their origins go back to the 70s when psychologist Daniel Kahneman — winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Economics — created the premise for behavioural economics by challenging the traditional view that human beings are rational and all decision making is based on rationality. Instead, he posited that our everyday actions were regimented by cognitive biases, biases that were both systematic and predictable. Decades later, economist Richard H. Thaler won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Economics by harnessing Daniel Kahneman’s and other behavioural economists’ research to develop his ‘nudge theory’ which proposes that cognitive biases can be activated and disactivated in order to get individuals to behave responsibly and lessen negative impacts on society at large.
A 2018 study in France illustrates how modifying the decision-making environment via nudges subtly encourages passengers to adopt good behaviours, without overt coercion. Despite awareness-raising campaigns and it being a legal requirement since 2003, getting teenagers to wear their seat belts in the school bus is quite a challenge. Keolis trialled five nudges in its school buses in the Isère and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes French regions to get more seat belts fastened. The nudges included the introduction of the ‘Malassis’ — which translates as the ‘Sitting Awkwardly’ — a foam sheath covering the seat belt which makes sitting on the seat uncomfortable unless the seat belt is attached. All five of the nudges were tested in combinations of two and three at a time and all of the trials proved successful in inciting teenagers to buckle up. What’s more, the nudge effect is sustainable, as was confirmed by the testers who took the same bus a week prior to the introduction of the nudges and in the week that followed. On average, nudges boosted the seat belt wearing rate by 2.4 (Source). Following this positive experiment — underscoring how efficient this innovative, yet easy to set up method can be — Keolis is preparing to roll out a fleet of over 20 ‘nudged’ buses (Source).
Nudges have also proven that they can be cost-effective while having serious pay-offs. In a memorable passage of Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein talk about one of the most notoriously dangerous curves in the United States: the tight turn at Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive and Oak Street. There was, however, a cheap fix: in September 2006 the city painted a series of increasingly narrowing white lines perpendicular to travelling cars, giving drivers the illusion that they were speeding up and should put on the brakes. According to traffic engineers, there were 36% fewer crashes in the six months after the introduction of the lines than in the six months preceding it, a far better result than all the traditional safety measures used by policymakers until then. And this life-saving nudge cost virtually nothing (Source).
The popularity of nudges inevitably means that we are also seeing the rise of dark nudges. And the transport sector has not been spared, with The New York Times famously publishing a 2017 exposé of how Uber used ‘videogame techniques, graphics and non-cash rewards to prod drivers into working longer and harder’, for the company’s gain (Source). Despite this, the art of gentle persuasion has a bright future ahead when it comes to public transport policies. Indeed, the humble nudge is set to play a major role in the upcoming Paris Olympics, with the city adopting eight nudge-inspired initiatives as part of its 2024 Nudge Challenge organised by NudgeFrance (Source). Among them: having coloured footprints on the floor of metro stations guiding people towards the stairs rather cramming into lifts.