Human Behavior and Mobility Management

  • Author: Andrew Carpenter
  • Date: April 10, 2018

Getting people to change their behavior is difficult. Yet it is vital for mobility managers and their colleagues to understand what influences potential customers and how they can use that to encourage decisions that support mobility for all.

At the Shared Use Mobility Center's 2018 Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago, Illinois, a variety of transportation professionals and tech developers discussed human behavior as a significant factor in how they introduce new ideas and types of services to mobility networks.

Behavior change is a somewhat new approach for public transportation to specifically address. Despite potential challenges, the discussion pointed out some industry precedents that can encourage and guide mobility advocates as they develop their programs.



In one breakout session, participants discussed examples of a concept called gamification. This approach provokes a sense of competition among members of the target group with the goal of influencing those individuals to act in a way that benefits a particular program.

Gamification aims to affect behaviors on a wide scale – compared to other incentive forms that are more targeted – such as convincing new customers to try a product. Think of those social media campaigns where brands like Coke encourage users to post a photo of themselves drinking their product, which serves as an entry to win a prize.

Starbucks’ rewards games offer another example, giving out bonus stars that customers can cash in for free drinks, or even opportunities to win 30 years’ worth of credits (Starbucks for “Life”). These strategies manage to rope in more customers and convince them to buy something they may not have in the hopes of winning a later payout.

In the mobility world, some participants at the session had also experimented with gamifying their transportation programs. Some agencies handed out prizes like gift cards and even plane tickets to every person on random rush-hour buses throughout their city, while others entered anybody who carpooled during rush hour into a drawing for similarly exciting prizes.

The opportunity to win something can convince a significant portion of people to try new experiences that align with an agency’s goals. The important part is to leverage aspects of local identity that already exist. Participants from Portland, Oregon explained that the city’s strong sense of community allowed them to leverage partnerships with local businesses because their customers would feel pride in this connection and want to support their neighborhoods.

Though gamified efforts can result in short-term success, it’s harder to spur long-term changes in people’s behavior. Participants agreed that agencies must invest in running a program long enough that it not only encourages people to try something new, but they also do so long enough to form a new habit, which can test a public budget.

In addition, it’s important to ensure that the program’s efforts are actually drawing in new customers rather than just encouraging the people already within a system.

That said, the group saw a lot of potential in using gamification to accomplish those goals of drawing in new customers and shaping their behavior. The positive visibility that happy customers create, and the education through experience that these programs encourage, can lay the foundation for winning over people to a new way of doing things.


Hype is good

Later in the breakout session, Krista Huhtala-Jenks from Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications brought up the need for effective marketing to convince people to reconsider their habits.

“Hype is good,” Huhtala-Jenks pressed the group. “Otherwise people won’t discover your service, and keep doing what they have been. Just make sure you have a good product to hype.”

Because of how engrained behaviors become, few if any people will consider an alternative to their status quo without someone making them pay attention to it. Gamification and marketing can create the visibility that transit agencies need to tell their story and sell why they can be good options for most people.

Unfortunately, the nature of public programs makes them particularly risk-averse, leading them to avoid aggressive marketing, wanting to avoid attention that could lead to bad press –  not to mention the lack of funds to allow for effective promotion.

Huhtala-Jenks reminded the group that improved mobility is an inherently better product than car dependency. Public programs should use that to their advantage and build hype around their services.

“We want mobility to be the hottest field to work in,” Huhtala-Jenks continued. She added that it’s up to agencies to show the world the value of strong mobility networks, attracting great minds to build them up and customers to use them.


Learning through experience

Once people discover the existence of a new travel option, there’s still a lot of effort to put into winning them over. The best way to do so is to find ways for people to experience a service and learn its benefits firsthand. To explore this concept further, we recommend this Talking Headways podcast.

Moving beyond knowledge of a new product or service, people are unlikely to try it unless an outside force makes them consider it. Major life events, such as moving, open a space for new ideas, which companies like TransitScreen hope to take advantage of.

Major disruptions and events also matter. After a section of Interstate 85 in Atlanta, Georgia collapsed, observers predicted a “carmageddon” of traffic being forced into other streets. Instead, the I-85 incident and others like it have shown that carmageddon rarely happens, instead it just forces people to reconsider their choices and adapt behaviors.

Transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft provide a prime example for how to introduce people to a service they initially find suspicious. By providing a number of free or discounted rides at signup, these types of companies send a message that they guarantee a new customer will enjoy the service so much, they’re willing to stake a few rides on it.

Through discounts and rewards for their customers, both TNCs and Starbucks ensure that people try them long enough to grow accustomed to their products and work out how to fit them into their lives. The group at the breakout session agreed that getting people onto transit for a few weeks could result in a similar effect; it’s just a matter of drawing them in. Hopefully, then shared mobility will become people’s new habit that can be difficult to break.


Image Credit: Randy Heinitz, Flickr, CC BY 2.0


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