• Sam Hargreaves

The limit to rationality: The power of information to influence mobility decision making

Updated: Oct 13

Winning the information war

Over two days in 2014, much of the London Underground came to a stop with strikes shutting down 171 of the 270 tube stations across the city. What was a major inconvenience for the majority of commuters turned out to be a stroke of luck for a serendipitous few.

Some commuters had been unwittingly taking a longer route to work, misled by tube maps unrepresentative of geographical space and differing speeds between stations. Forced to exit at an alternative station, five per cent of travellers found their new routes to be in fact quicker. So much so that researchers at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge found that far from the tube strikes being economically damaging, the subsequent productivity gains were in fact beneficial in the long term.

This surprising anecdote highlights the importance of information in transport decision making. If we are to change the mobility habits of individuals, they need the right information to make rational decisions. Forget the war on cars, we need to win the information war first.

Irrational choice

Rational choice theory is based on the assumption that individuals are rational actors making rational choices based on rational calculations based on perfect information. In doing so there is an assumption that individuals then maximise their advantage in any given situation while simultaneously trying to limit their losses.

While values differ, rationality does not. This means if someone has a preference for comfort, they might drive a car to work that offers them the most space and an infotainment system for idle minutes stuck in traffic. For those looking for the cheapest option, the bus might be preferable.

Yet in the real world, constraints on time, thinking capacity and available information limit our rationality. Our rationality is therefore bounded. Those Londoners back in 2014 had been in a state of bounded rationality. With the correct information, however, they were able to correct themselves to fulfill their desire of reaching their destination in the shortest time possible. Nevertheless, making a correction to an existing transport mode is easy, can such information also be used to influence entire modal preferences?

Out of the dark and into the light

Broadly speaking there are two strategies available to affect transport decisions: hard interventions and soft interventions. Hard interventions include measures that alter the physical environment, like closing roads or constructing bike lanes, as well as legal or economic policies such as congestion charges, car-free zones and parking fees. Much attention is given to such interventions in part because people are often more effectively forced than persuaded. But with hard interventions often comes hard compromises.

Soft interventions, as the name suggests, rely on what the authors Alin Semenescu, Alin Gavreliuc and Paul Sârbescu of the Department of Psychology at West University of Timișoara call “persuasion and motivation”. They find that through information and education, it is possible to influence transport decision making.

Because of its less adversarial nature, soft interventions are understandably popular amongst policy makers. However, their lack of tangibility also often makes them an easy solution whether they are effective or not. And as we have seen, even an overwhelming consensus on the impact of fossil fuel driven cars on climate change has not led to a significant impact on the way we travel. Yet, as demonstrated by the London commuters, information that can directly guide people when taking transport decisions, can be effective when presented as a clear trade-off.

Knowing the costs

In a study published in Nature, the authors find that car owners in Germany underestimated the costs of ownership by about 50 per cent. This is a gaping knowledge gap. While they may know how much a tank of petrol is relative to a transport ticket, they often overlook the maintenance costs and vehicle depreciation.

“In Berlin, for example, that would mean around 450,000 less registered vehicles on the roads each year”

Access to this information does have a direct influence on decision making. The study found that it increased respondents’ willingness to pay for a public transport ticket by 22 per cent, with the authors estimating that educating people in Germany about the actual costs of car ownership, could reduce car ownership by as much as 37 per cent. These bold claims, if even close to accurate, would have an enormous impact on cities. In Berlin, for example, that would mean around 450,000 less registered vehicles on the roads each year.

They also offer a couple of concrete suggestions, including labelling cars with total costs at the point of sale and better use of cost-analysis for advertising. One of the main difficulties is that once a person owns a car, they are then likely to use it more often. This sort of messaging therefore needs to be amplified regularly over a long period of time.

Example from MOLO Urban Mobility showing the costs of motorcycle ownership compared to rental.

Where cost is a factor, mobility service providers could limit anxiety over unknown transport costs by implementing automatic price caps on trips like Transport for London does. By capping daily trips to the price of an all-day ticket, users can better gauge trip costs. For services which pay by the minute or by the kilometre, this would be a good way of marketing services. Similarly, micromobility providers and car share operators could provide the total trip cost prior to the commencement of the journey, as is common with ridehailing.

Seeing what’s out there

Understanding the true costs is important but without a knowledge of alternatives, it is difficult to compare transport costs in the first place. This is why communicating different mobility options clearly is so vital.

Someone who does know a fair bit about communicating alternative mobility ideas is Oliver Bruce, the co-host of the industry shaping Micromobility Podcast. As the leading voice of the nascent micromobility industry, the podcast plays a major role in pushing for lightweight transport alternatives.

Bruce singles out Google Maps as extremely influential in getting people to use public transport simply through information discovery. By making public transport and micromobility availability more discoverable at no cost and with low friction, Google Maps has “done far more to improve patronage and the user experience of non-car modes of transport than many of the traditional interventions - many of which are very capital intensive”.

He points to the US-based TransitScreen as another example. The company provides real-time information about nearby public transit arrivals and the availability of bikeshare, carshare, and ridehailing services for better commute management. According to Bruce it is this kind of “predictable and easy to discover information that changes the mental availability of different options”.

Access to alternatives can bring real-life benefits. In a study carried out by the scooter provider Skip in San Francisco, they found scooters to be faster than cars 70 per cent of the time. Underpinning this is the fact that the majority of trips are actually very short. In the United States 80 per cent of all trips are under 12 miles, and in New York City, most don’t exceed two miles. Nimbler vehicles with a maximum speed of around 25 kph are better over such distances.

Let us inform them

It is important to acknowledge that transforming transportation habits does not happen overnight. And however good soft interventions are, people are not going to jump on a bike if they think there is a high risk they might end up in hospital. Like Bruce says, information should not be an excuse for a lack of investment in alternative transport infrastructure, “it’s really a question of ‘both and not either/or”.

However, in appealing to existing transport preferences such as environmental, time or cost-conscious considerations, good information can aid individuals to make more rational decisions.

In a democracy, what we want as a society is always contested. There is rarely consensus on anything. Yet, by communicating the right sort of messages, a different mobility model can be beneficial for everyone. Lower costs, shorter journey times and greater convenience are benefits shared by all. We don’t necessarily need to launch gung ho into a war on cars, a build up of information armoury can be effective, too.

Sam Hargreaves is Marketing Manager at Ubiq, on a mission to change the way we think about mobility. While this article just scratches the surface of a much wider debate on communicating shared mobility, get in touch with him to discuss these ideas further.