The Psychology of Getting People to Take Public Transit

It’s not enough for public transportation to be efficient. It needs to be enjoyable, fun, better than the alternative. Public transportation needs to be sexy.

If people still smoke despite knowing that smoking can kill them, why do we think that people will stop driving their cars just because they know it’s bad for the environment? This simple question was put to transportation planners everywhere by Carlos Felipe Pardo, a transportation policy specialist with a degree in psychology.

The answer, most of the time, is:  They won’t. Why? Because the alternatives suck.

But if Pardo has his way, that will change. He’s on a mission to rethink the way that transportation departments measure the success of their systems.

He wants them to step away from striving for the simple measure of maximum quantitative efficiency, and turn their focus instead to the qualitative—the experience of moving.

“There’s this naïve point of view, even within the sustainable transit trend, which is that if you give them good quality of service in public transit, then people will immediately get on. The interesting thing is that nobody has proven that that is the case. Cities can improve transit, but the most they can hope for is to have the same amount of people riding public transit so that they don’t go into cars,” Pardo says.

“What I’ve tried to argue for is finding out why people really like riding in a car, and based on why they like riding in a car, finding the profiles of people who would change their mode of transit,” he adds.

Pardo’s reasoning is simple. People drive cars because cars are comfortable. So until you can offer them an experience that is more appealing, you may as well not even bother trying to get them out from behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, there he hits a glitch.

In all our studies of transportation systems, our measurements of efficiency, and our perfectly crafted plans, we’ve almost completely forgotten to consider one fundamental factor: how taking transit actually feels.

“There’s a whole journal about transport psychology, but what they focus on is the use of seatbelts, or cell phone use in the car, but not so much the experience itself. Nobody has bothered much to look at transport psychology from the point of view of users,” says Pardo.

Last summer Pardo guided a tour, designed in partnership with the BMW Guggenheim Lab Team member Charles Montgomery, to begin investigating just this—how the experience of riding public transportation feels, and why it feels the way it does. And though the experiment was just a cursory glance at the psychology of the transit experience, the results added fuel to what Pardo has been telling planners for a long time—that it’s not enough for public transportation to be efficient. It needs to be enjoyable. It needs to be fun. It needs to be better than the alternative.

Public transportation needs to be sexy.

“A bicycle is faster and cheaper, public transportation is greener, but people won’t generally change their point of view or their behavior because they’re given interesting facts. If you look at the car ads, they don’t give you tons of information. They just show you a car and someone comfortable driving it. Period. So we should get more persuasive in the strategies that we use to promote sustainable transportation,” says Pardo.

To do that, he says, we don’t need to use psychological tricks. We need to make a persuasive system.

“We’re not moving boxes or cows; we’re moving people. If you have a bakery, you want to know if your customers like your cake. People have to stop thinking about this as moving from A to B, and start thinking about it as providing a service to people who want it,” he says.

“We need to restore dignity to public transport,” adds Pardo.

See highlights from the tour and its fascinating findings in the video here.

This story was originally published on the BMW Guggenheim Lab project’s blog, the Lab blog at © 2012 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Used by permission.

Christine McLaren is a freelance journalist who investigates solutions to urban problems. Her writing and research explores how the shape of our cities impacts the lives and behavior of those living in them and how shifting social, environmental, and economic climates are changing our relationship with the urban fabric. Her work has appeared in over a dozen print, online, and television news outlets including BC Business, Momentum, Zoomer, and Spacing Magazines, as well as This Big City, Next American City, The Georgia Straight, The Tyee, and many more. She was the lead researcher for award-winning Canadian journalist and Lab Team member Charles Montgomery’s upcoming book Happy City, and conducted research for National Geographic Emerging Explorer Alexandra Cousteau. She is currently the resident blogger for the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile urban think tank investigating urban solutions in nine cities around the world.

You can read about it on the blog, and also see a (too long) video that shows some of the results at the end.

Categories: Cities, Transportation