How Positive Incentives Encourage People to Make Sustainable Transport Choices

For many years, pricing measures have been the main tactic used to reduce the demand for travel. So called ‘positive incentives’ involving ‘carrots’ rather than ‘sticks’ are now high on the transport policy agenda, the question is whether they can offer a practical and effective alternative approach.

The one area that city planners, transport policy makers and environmentalists are increasingly agreed on is that there will not be a single solution to making future transport more sustainable. Technology has an important role to play, as do improved public transport options, but for many years, pricing measures such as parking pricing, fuel tax or congestion charging have been the main tactics used. These are often seen by the travelling public as punitive measures and have had a number of unintended consequences, such as impacts on high-street business.

Positive incentives offer an alternative means to deliver a behaviourally-orientated transport demand policy, with incentives being offered for sustainable transport choices such as switching mode, changing departure time and, sharing or avoiding travelling. Incentives schemes include a range of attractors such as discounts, points, loyalty schemes, games or challenges, information sources, sharing or community based schemes and rewards.

Whilst still a relative new phenomenon, incentive schemes can be designed and offered by those responsible for transport provision, for example transport authorities or city planners. In principle, incentives can be tailored to the individual traveler and can be offered through new smart technologies such as mobile phones or tablets.

Tailoring can be enabled by the reciprocal flow of dynamic data back to the transport authorities on individual movement patterns that can be constructed by the phone acting as a location sensor and travel choices. Third parties (such as stores, restaurants, and the leisure industry) may also be involved in the provision of positive incentives or they may take the form of specific transport related discounts.

Design of positive incentives schemes

Further research is needed to develop practical positive incentives schemes that are both effective in encouraging the traveling public to reconsider their transport choices and sustainable (in cost and longevity). Designs may include high short term rewards to encourage people to leave their routine choices and habits to try an alternative for even a short period, or they may be designed to reward and reinforce sustainable choices such as use of public transport, walking or riding a bike.

To increase sustainability, the impact needed is not just temporary (for example, trying a different mode for a week or so). Travel choices need to shift more permanently towards either the use of non-conventionally fuelled travel options, active travel, sharing or more home based activity.

People have different transport needs and respond differently to alternative types of incentives. Particular designs for incentives schemes might be more successful depending on where individuals’ current decision making is positioned within recognised behavioural theories around choice.

Leave a comment: what types and levels of positive incentives would be most likely to influence your transport choices?

Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.