Making Passenger

Ep 9 - Ask Yourself "What Feels Weird"?

July 03, 2020 Passenger Season 1 Episode 9
Making Passenger
Ep 9 - Ask Yourself "What Feels Weird"?
Chapters
Making Passenger
Ep 9 - Ask Yourself "What Feels Weird"?
Jul 03, 2020 Season 1 Episode 9
Passenger

This week, Matt and Tom speak to Dr. Ian Walker. Ian teaches Statistics and Traffic Psychology at the University of Bath and has undertaken research on road safety, travel habits and the impact of environmental messaging.

As councils up and down the UK start to implement changes to road and cycleways; Matt, Tom and Ian talked about conflicts engineered by the way we build our streets, how to get transport modes to function amicably together and the impact of private cars on our roads.

Thought experiments abounded as they learned more about how people psychologically adapt and react to change, and what it could take to encourage the UK to put down their car keys for good. 

Show Notes Transcript

This week, Matt and Tom speak to Dr. Ian Walker. Ian teaches Statistics and Traffic Psychology at the University of Bath and has undertaken research on road safety, travel habits and the impact of environmental messaging.

As councils up and down the UK start to implement changes to road and cycleways; Matt, Tom and Ian talked about conflicts engineered by the way we build our streets, how to get transport modes to function amicably together and the impact of private cars on our roads.

Thought experiments abounded as they learned more about how people psychologically adapt and react to change, and what it could take to encourage the UK to put down their car keys for good. 

Matt :

Hello and welcome to this week's Making Passenger podcast. I'm Matt...

Tom :

And I'm Tom.

Matt :

This week we're talking to Dr. Ian Walker. Ian teaches Statistics and Traffic Psychology at the University of Bath and has undertaken research on road safety, travel choices and habits and the impact of environmental messaging.

Tom :

He's also the 2018 winner of the North Cape Trans-european 4000k bike race, and Guinness World Record holder for the fastest bicycle crossing of Europe (north to south). And while we didn't get to cover that in this episode, we'll be speaking to him to find out what - if anything - can be done to break people's car habits.

Matt :

I hope you enjoy! Ian, thank you very much for joining us today. Really appreciate you taking the time.

Ian :

Yeah, thank you so much for inviting me.

Tom :

So when Grant Shapps announced the £2 billion funding for walking and cycling back around the ninth of May, we were quite shocked to see quite an angry anti- bus response on social media, particularly Twitter, there are a lot of emotional responses to the proposal. And we were kind of wondering whether you had any insight on on why that might be? You know, is it because like cycling becomes part of someone's identity? Where do these emotional reactions come from?

Ian :

Yeah, there's probably a few things going on if I'm honest. First thing to note is interestingly, I didn't really see much of that angry reaction that you saw. So perhaps we're in slightly different social media bubbles, even though I follow quite a lot of transport and cycling people. I think identity is part of it. For some people, not everybody by a long way. But for some people, that identity as a cyclist is a really important thing. That means a lot and influences their behaviour, but probably one of the bigger drives. Yeah, one of the biggest sources of conflict between both users and cyclists, especially in urban areas, which is where most of the conflicts are is a kind of structural problem that conflicts tend to be engineered in, by the way we build and run our streets. We expect very different classes of road user to mix with one another in a way that just doesn't really make a huge amount of sense. And I think that people's upset or people's basically fear reactions, comes down to being expected to share space and mix with much much much bigger vehicles that feel dangerous.

Tom :

Speaking as someone who rides on a road in a bus lane with a with a double decker going past me, I absolutely hear you saying. It's coming back to the idea of, you know, a sustainable transport network needing to include kind of active travel and shared transport modes, what do you think can be done to to foster a sense of camaraderie between the different groups that are going to ultimately aiming at the same thing, and that's, you know, less cars on the road and a better use of space?

Ian :

Well, I mean, I think you've just hit the nail on the head. That, in reality, for getting around towns and cities, active travel modes and public transport modes have a lot in common. They're both a massive part of the picture for shifting people. And in principle, they should be united against the common enemy, for want of a better word, of the people driving into city centres. It's that very, very inefficient use of limited space that the private car entails. That is at the root of a lot of the conflict. You know, as a thought experiment, if you imagine just taking all the cars out of a city centre, and thinking what the streets would look like, it would be such a different setting, there would be the occasional burst, there'd be the walkers, there'd be the cyclists, that'd be so much less conflict without the cars in the in those settings.

Matt :

I think you're absolutely right. And I think we could all imagine that. I don't necessarily think anyone on this call particularly can solve that problem. But it's easy to imagine, but how do we make it happen?

Ian :

Yeah, I think a huge part of it is there needs to be some political will. There needs to be and this is very rarely happened but there needs to be a message from above saying it is not harmless for you to drive your car into a city centre. You know that even if you leave aside the congestion issues, there is the pollution there is the danger. It always carries some price that the public pick up. So I'd really like to see some leaders with the nerve to just point out - even the most gentle version of pointing out - that it is not harmless to drive into a city centre and then potentially do we go further? Do we point out that the vast bulk of car journeys in this country are very short with a single person in the car, you know the majority of journeys are under five miles. They can be done by modes other than car in a lot of cases. There the low hanging fruit, we can just start there. You start with these journeys of one person driving by themselves for a mile. And already you've got a quarter of the cars off the road.

Matt :

Yes, an interesting point. And I think just to sort of go in a bit more detail there about about the health concerns, I think knowing the environmental impact of cars and we know that poor air quality causes illness and death, why is there a reluctance to be changing the way we travel? I mean, you tweeted recently, something related to changing roads only to be made after deaths occur. So why are we waiting for deaths to occur? I mean, this seems senseless. So why can't the sort of thinking you're talking about be applied and promoted?

Ian :

Yeah, I think there's a lot of factors there. Yeah, that's a huge question, but one that I think is really interesting to think about. And this is hardly a novel observation. Lots of people have said this before, but if the car didn't exist, and we invented it today, we would all be horrified and we would never allow it in our cities. We'd say "what? Hang on how many people die each year? If you drive these? I don't think so". The problem is that every single person alive today has only ever known a world where cars are present. We are all inured to the danger and the problems and the inconveniences and the bad urban planning and all of these things that go with cars, because it's the only world we've ever known. And it becomes incredibly hard for anybody, no matter how good their intentions are, it becomes incredibly hard to picture a world that is fundamentally different, though, the only one you've ever known. And so, I think for a lot of people because this very car first driver first way of living is all they've ever known since childhood. They don't make the leap. They don't necessarily see the problem in the way that you would if you were coming at it with fresh eyes.

Matt :

So you're saying we're institutionalised?

Ian :

Yeah. Or you have Stockholm Syndrome, if you like. We're so used to just having this this massive problem in our midst that we don't even notice it anymore.

Matt :

So, we found some we found some examples of bus companies working to train their drivers around cyclists, which we think is fantastic. And this sort of goes back to 2013. This is where we found the earliest mentions of it. And this is where the bus companies are getting bus drivers to sit on bikes, either on rolling roads, so they're stationary, but they're, you know, the action of riding or actually physically riding and then having buses drive past them at different distances so that bus drivers can understand the effects they have on people on active transport, and perhaps sort of promote that empathy. Have you seen anything about that? or do any research around that? Or, do you think there could be any more research done in that area in future because we think it's really interesting that that somebody is trying to work with the other one?

Ian :

I think it's absolutely fascinating. I mean, the reason that gets me so excited is this goes back to one of the very first bits of transport research I ever did, which was interviewing a bunch of bus drivers about conflicts with cyclists. And one of the things that came out of those interviews is a line that has forever stuck with me. So I was doing a focus group in Oxfordshire, I think. And the bus drivers have basically spent about 45 minutes complaining about cyclists. And at the end, one of the bus drivers said this amazing line, which goes straight to the heart of this empathy question. And she said, "pedestrians, I can completely understand it, because the number of times I've been in the city centre, and I've just stepped into the road without thinking about it. So you know, when pedestrians do these things, it's completely fine because I've been there, but cyclist I can never forgive them". And, you know, I've carried that line around in my head for the last 15 years or so, because it's exactly what you just talked about. If you've never been there, you can't have the empathy with this other group. Now, one of the other things that came out from those interviews was that the issue was even further compounded because often what was happening is the bus drivers didn't understand why the cyclists were on their bikes in the first place. So I remember an issue that was raised a few times was drivers saying things like, you know, "you're putting yourself in risk just to save yourself a few quid on bus fare". And the themes with this perception that the reason people were riding bikes in Oxford was just to save money. And in some ways that almost seemed to lead into a kind of a resentment of the cyclist of you know, "you're getting in my way you're putting yourself in danger, cause you're a cheapskate". And I'm not saying that that's a bad thing to say. It's more that it illustrates a complete misunderstanding about why somebody else is on the road when you're sharing the road with them. And so again, it's another example of a failure of empathy. Because if you can't even understand why on earth a person is on the road with you, how you ever going to treat them as nicely as you can. So all of this I would say completely supports what you're talking about - that the things that build empathy between different types of road user, especially the ones who've got the ability to harm each other is absolutely vital.

Matt :

And so let's reverse that then, you know, looping back, you're talking about putting yourselves in that shoe and the empathy around that. What can cyclists do to be more understanding of bus users?

Ian :

I mean, one answer to this is there have been quite a few schemes where they've put cyclists into the cabs of lorries to show them how little visibility lorry cabs have. And when I've seen this happen, what what I've always seen is the cyclists come out and go "by gum, you know, it's true. lorry drivers can't see anything". I mean, that itself is a really controversial thing. And some people claim it's because they don't look But fundamentally, I've always thought if I took part in one of those trials, and I came up with the lorry and said, "You know wow you can't see people in the street". The correct response is surely to say, Why on earth is this thing allowed in the streets if the driver cannot see? And I think when we're talking about a vulnerable road user, looking at the needs of a less vulnerable road user, some empathy might be useful but if there is a systemic structural issue, that means this vehicle is fundamentally dangerous to this road user, then asking the more vulnerable person to be sympathetic about it might not be the best approach. Maybe the best approach is just to deal with the source of danger. But in reality, for urban settings, that takes us back to what we talked about earlier, the real source of danger is people being asked to mix inappropriately. If we had plenty of space. If we got rid of the the cars that are in cities, for example, we would no longer be saying silly things like "let's put the buses and the bikes in the same lane", which is obviously not going to work in any sustainably safe way. So we should be looking at those more structural solutions of keeping, you know, I weigh like 70 kilos, and a bus weighs considerably more than that. And the idea we can mix comfortably and safely as a partnership of equals in a narrow bus lane is just incredible. So, it needs to be structural solutions if we're going to make something that is just fundamentally safe by design. And that means using space in a smart way, rather than what we're currently doing.

Matt :

Okay, well, let's move away from bikes and buses for just a moment. My colleague Beth is fascinated by a quote that she's attributed to you. And you first of all, can confirm that you said it, and she didn't make it up or dream it. But then if you could also maybe just explain it in a little bit more detail and it's where she suggests that you say, "We forget our morals when we look at motoring".

Ian :

Yeah, this goes right back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago about how we've only ever known this world, and how normal it is to just see danger and noise and pollution and inconvenience and motoring to the extent that none of us have ever known anything different. So we did a study a couple of years ago, which we're we're still sitting on the results, actually. And we did a national opinion poll of two and a half thousand people. And we gave everybody at random, either set A or set B of the questions. And the two sets of questions were exactly the same except one was about driving. And the other set of questions just had the odd word changed, so that it was the same question, but on a different topic. And what we found was that as you shift, like one or two words in the question, so that it goes from being about driving to being about something more general, people's moral standards just completely change. So like the best question that way you could most easily see this was we had a question that said "Is it okay to drive in public spaces where other people have to breathe the car fumes?" And everyone goes, "Yeah, yep, that's fine". Change the word drive to smoke and change the word car to cigarette and then the same population goes, "Oh, no, that's terrible". And you saw this in other questions as well. So basically, what we tolerate with motoring is against our moral standards. In general, the people of Britain do not like the idea of vulnerable people being put in danger against their will. In general, the people of Britain do not like the idea of forcing other people to breathe toxic smoke against their will. But the problem is the instance you mentioned cars, they forget it because of this complete normalisation of the risks that motoring brings.

Tom :

So, it really is amazing, isn't it? When you think about it, it really does pose the question how do we how do we make that less normal? I mean, there is obviously lots and lots of work going on in different pockets of institutions and organisations around the UK. But yeah, how do we tackle that?

Ian :

Well, I mean, a huge part. Well, not a huge, so one answer to that is the COVID situation which is found ourselves in. I think almost everyone in the country, at least everybody who lives in an urban or suburban area, has in the last three months has said to us turned to somebody else and said, Isn't it lovely when it's peaceful and quiet and the air is clean, and there's no cars whizzing through town? We've all had this glimpse of what it could be like with low traffic. In where I live, we've got families with small children cycling up and down the road. We've got people playing in the street, we've got neighbours able to stand two metres apart and have conversations. And as the cars are whizzing back in all of that's evaporating again. Yeah, so in a sense, COVID has given us a rare snapshot of what it could be like if we reallocate space and started using it in a smarter way for people rather than for driving. Otherwise, again, it's going to need to come down to leadership, it's going to need leaders to start challenging the public to realise that what they're doing on a daily basis does not fit with their general values and morals. You know, nobody well, very few people in Britain want to kill other members of the public with air pollution. Very few people in Britain want to put children's lives in danger, but they are doing it. And people need to be made more aware of this disparity between what they want and what they do, and how the easy seduction of motoring is allowing them to live in a way that's not compatible with what they really want.

Tom :

There's a wonderful poster that I think people are putting up on billboards that say "you are not sitting in the traffic you are the traffic" and I think that really communicates what you're what you're kind of suggesting and what you're saying here.

Ian :

Absolutely.

Matt :

You've done a lot of research into habit forming and unconscious habits. Okay, so we've just spent, I don't know how long we've spent locked down now, days are blurring into one. But we spend a lot of time building habits and and and that's a bit of a concern potentially, some of those habits that have been learned in this time. But also some of those are really good. You know, people are learning that they can walk, they can ride and all of that kind of stuff. Some of the bad ones might be that people are now scared to go outside. What can we do over the next few months to keep people out of their cars, the people that are scared to perhaps now get onto public transport? How do we convince them that it doesn't, you know, they've just learned to fall back in love with their bike or walking, running, whatever that is? How do we stop people with the first line of rain getting back in the car?

Ian :

Well, I think one thing we can do, I should say, speaking as a psychologist, I should say what a habit is and a habit as we'd understand it is a behaviour that's triggered pretty much without you thinking about it by the situation you find yourself in. So, as you say, in normal run of things before COVID, for great many people, the situation would be right. It's eight o'clock, I need to get to work. And there's no conscious thought process, you just automatically reach for the car keys and get in the car, because that's what you do at that time of day. So that's what habits are normally like, there's lots of answers to your question. But probably the most interesting would be that there are also ways you can start to take control of that process. And there's an interesting thing called Implementation Intentions, which is a kind of artificial habit, where you decide to create one of those associations. So whereas typically your eight o'clock equals car keys, association is just something that's grown up over time. You can start to take control of it and you can say things like, oh, When this happens, I'm going to do this. So for example, when I go to work, I'm going to get the bike out. And as long as you set it up in a smart way, it's a little bit like, you know, smart targets at work, where they gotta be specific, measurable, and so on and so on. As long as you set and set your trigger up in a way that you can recognise it. And as long as you set your responsive your behaviour in a concrete way, then it should work. And you can set you can build these habits within yourself by specifically explicitly deciding what they're going to be and saying when you will do what, and it becomes even more powerful, potentially, if you tell other people because we know that public pledges can be quite a powerful way of keeping yourself on track, especially over those early stages of a new behaviour before it's become automatic. And telling your friends telling you Telling your colleagues that from Monday, every day, I am going to walk to work, it puts an extra pressure on you, that will keep you honest, in those early stages while the behaviour becomes embedded.

Matt :

That sounds a lot like our virtual challenge we're doing Tom, don't you think?

Tom :

It really does, doesn't it?

Matt :

We've got a couple of members of the team all working to write a virtual distance, sort of run or walk however it is. And so everybody's pledged to do a certain amount of miles. And so we track it to see who is in front or behind their personal pacemakers. And I won't embarrass anyone by mentioning who's almost always behind their personal pacemaker...

Tom :

I really appreciate that Matt!

Matt :

... or may have overreached, perhaps but everyone's working really hard. And I think you know, exactly as you say, there, it's about being public. If I was doing this on my own, I probably would have fallen by the wayside by now I'd still be riding because I always get riding but I probably wouldn't be hitting the targets. But you know, every morning I'm logging in and seeing - oooh I don't want to be in the red. I've got to move forwards.

Tom :

It's almost being accountable to people that you know, and you respect.

Ian :

That's absolutely right. And like I say, it doesn't need to be forever. If you can repeat a behaviour regularly for several weeks, it will start to become natural, it will start to become automatic. I mean, I think a really good question to ask yourself always is, "would it feel weird if I didn't do this?" You know, would the opposite feel weird? So back in the old days, when I used to cycle to work nearly every day, it kind of felt hard work. If I didn't, you know, if I didn't cycle to work, then I had to start thinking about it and it became difficult and felt strange. Now, after 14 weeks of not commuting. The idea of commuting to work feels really weird. So asking yourself 'what feels weird' is a great little self test to work out how embedded a behaviour is.

Matt :

I think I'm going to use that. Thank you very much. Well, I spotted a cartoon that you tweeted a few weeks ago, and it had the quote, 'we won't build a bridge until we see people swim across the river'. And I think that echoes the frustration of a lot of people have when it comes to transport planning. So what are some of the bigger leaps and changes you would most like to see? And what's most important and why?

Ian :

I think, I mean, if you gave me ultimate power to redesign urban spaces to my heart's content, then yeah, I'd be spoilt for choice. I mean, fundamentally, what we do is we build urban spaces for the fast efficient movements of motor vehicles. And that will be the thing I'd change and the problem is, it's not one grand thing. I mean, I live in Bristol, where we do have a few grand things like we have a motorway that disgorges into the city centre, which then has a dual carriageway running through the city centre. I mean, that's that is a grand thing which is preposterous and antithetical to nice, clean, active healthy transport. But I'd probably start with the 100 Small Things. I'd start with T junctions and the way that they flare dramatically, so that motorists do not need to slow at all as they go in and out of side roads. I start with the wait times on pedestrian crossings, where the pedestrian presses the buttons to beg motorists to briefly pause in their journey to allow the pedestrian to go ahead. I'd start with the planning regulations again to take Bristol massive roadworks near the station over the last year, the motorists route was reopened as quickly as humanly possible. As far as I can see the cycling and walking routes are still not finished eight months later. Now, all of these things send an incredibly powerful message to the people of Britain which is don't walk don't cycle. get in your car. Because we're making walking hard. We're making cycling hard. We're making driving easy And as long as we're sending people those messages in 1000 subtle ways every single day, of course, people are going to get in their cars. So I'd start with all of those little subtle messages and just start chipping away at the ease and convenience and making active travel and public transport way harder than it needs to be.

Tom :

It certainly wasn't that subtle when when Grant Shappes, put the don't use public transport, use your car, then walk or cycle in that order. And I fully appreciate that it's not easy to give a speech to the nation. But certainly the order of those are the priority of those things quite clear I think despite the the intent of the announcement.

Ian :

I noticed Johnson said exactly the same order.

Tom :

It starts at the top, doesnt it?

Matt :

Tom, I'm out of the questions that we prepared. We've got a bit of time left. So do you want to lead in with one of your other questions and we'll catch you on the hook and see we can do

Tom :

I don't have anything particularly pre prepared, but um, you know, I was thinking, a lot of the work that we do with with App design and tech design, we're acutely aware that some of the interfaces, some of the interactions that we put into place have a really significant impact on the service. And, you know, the real life service and, and whether people adopt them as sort of a normal mode of transport, you know, sort of reinforce the behavioural change that then have been talking about, I wonder if, if you've got any sort of experience of research where really subtle things can have an impact on people's decisions to stick with something or change or those kinds of things?

Ian :

There is an absolutely brilliant example that I came across just a few months ago. So if you look at the sort of modern economy in app design software as a service, or actually, interestingly, in all the things that get advertised on podcasts, like beer subscriptions, and razor subscriptions, everybody's trying to lock you in with subscriptions to things and the phrase that I imagine you use as a cool app designer is frictionless. You get people locked in and it becomes frictionless.

Tom :

I will be now!

Matt :

Yeah, i dont know if we do. But we're definitely going to that's what the cool kids are saying!

Ian :

Well, yeah, take you from a 46 year old guy. I'm obviously the experts what the cool kids are saying, but I believe the term is frictionless. You just take away the barriers to a person giving you money, you make it easy and effortless for them. And therefore they're more likely to do it. Now. One of the things that I've become really aware of is this is what we do with parking charges at workplaces. And so I came across a Norwegian study where they went hang on this, you know, we're basically doing a beer of the month subscription for parking, were taken out of people's salaries before they even see their salary. So they don't even have to do any step at all to pay for the parking. Once they've paid for it monthly there then you know, it's a sunk cost. So they're locked in so of course, they're going to drive to work. So what they did was say, Well, okay, let's make it daily. Let's charge people exactly the same but we divided by 31 and charge daily. And that little bit of friction of having to pay the same amount, but actually pay it every day made a huge difference to how often people drove in. And then they went, well, let's go a step further, let's do it hourly. And you had start paying by the hour of your parking, little bit more friction, less cars coming in, and it became a win win. So for the people who weren't coming in as often, they were saving money, because they've now been given the gift of flexibility by a more flexible payment system, for the facilities out and for the employer. Their land is now used more optimally, because they're getting more employees in the same amount of space. So it's a real win-win situation. It's a great example of one of those little insights from app design and modern commerce that can be applied to this very old problem.

Tom :

It's a really interesting idea of introducing friction to change someone's behaviour pattern. I think as a as a team, you focussed on, as you say, making something really easy. But this idea of making something harder, does potentially the opposite in terms of changing that course of travel.

Ian :

And it's what we've done for so long as you know, because driving is normative, it's just what you do as a grown up. And we instinctively take away all the friction from driving. You know, it's just people do it without even really thinking or without realising that's what they're doing. At every step. They just make it easy, because it just feels like common sense. But one of the definitions of a dominant ideology is that it feels like common sense. And if you ask yourself, what are all the various things that have been common sense at some point in human history? we now look back at them and go, Ooh, yeah, no, that wasn't such a great thing to believe. And this will one day go the same way. But at the moment, we're still in it.

Matt :

Well, that seems like just as odd place to leave it as any other I think Thank you so much for joining us. I we could honestly sit here and chat for hours. But unfortunately, we have a strict limit on the amount of time we're allowed to talk to you today. So thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it. And hopefully thanks so much. Hopefully we'll tap you up again in future if you are allow it.

Ian :

It's been great to chat. Thank you.

Tom :

Thank you very much.

Matt :

Next week in the last episode of this series, we'll be speaking to Giuseppe Solazzo, Head of Data at the DfT. Two years ago Passenger embarked on a r&d project with the NaPTAN data set and through the need to improve the data our paths first crossed. The NaPTAN data set is currently undergoing review and potential redesign by Giuseppe and his team and we wanted to find out what that really means. As always, any questions or comments get in touch on Twitter via @makingpassenger Until next time!