Nudging People to Active Modes of Transport

Explore how Nudge Theory can drive better societal outcomes through active transport modes. Learn strategies to make walking and cycling the 'path of least resistance.'

Nudging People to Active Modes of Transport


I urge you to consider, how can we in our day-to-day help encourage ourselves and others to make choices which are best for themselves, to build a city, to build a society with the decision architecture that connects people, and helps people live lives with higher levels of satisfaction and flourishing. It’s time to consider and measure:

  • What is best for people?
  • How might we set the default option?
  • How might we make the path of least resistance one we can be proud of?

What is Nudge Theory?

It’s not just elbowing people out of the way, perhaps it’s elbowing people in a direction that is better for themselves. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be elbowing; physical touch is not required. It’s about how we can create initiatives that nudge people in society to make better decisions for themselves, while still giving people choices. Nudge theory is a concept in behavioral economics, political theory, and behavioral sciences that was first popularized in 2008 by the book "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness" by Richard Thaler. I am intrigued as to how we can connect nudge theory with active modes of Public transport.

People notoriously don’t do things that are good for them. We all know exercise is good for us and has all these great health benefits, but how often do you delay it to the “next day?” How many of you don’t get enough sleep but continue to watch one more episode, or scroll on your phone.

People often know what is good and bad for them but we struggle to get the continuous motivation to succeed in these efforts, we hit resistance and road bumps (sometimes literally) along the way.

An example of something that is notoriously good for people, is walking and cycling as a way to get around. There are numerous benefits of using active modes of transportation.

The benefits of active modes of transport

There are so many benefits of active modes of transportation, I will just point out a few key thoughts I have on this, but the list is endless!

On a societal level

  • Better health outcomes
  1. For commuters who cycle to work there is a 46% reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a 52% lower risk of dying from the condition.
  2. A University of Auckland study from 2010 estimated that shifting 5% of vehicle kilometers to cycling would avoid 116 premature deaths annually as a result of increased physical activity, which is the equivalent of $200 million in economic savings.
  • Decreased pollution with fewer cars on the road
  1. Levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide gas emissions halved in London during covid lockdowns due to fewer cars on the road.

On an individual/company level

  1. A high degree of commuting control and ‘arrival-time reliability’
  2. Enjoyable levels of sensory stimulation
  3. The ‘feel better’ effects of moderate-intensity exercise
  4. Greater opportunities for social interaction

Active modes of transport are a prime example of something which provides infinite good for society. The more people cycle and walk as their form of transportation, the more physical activity people are doing in society, and the more social interactions, connections, and increased mental well-being in society. The reduced cost of medical bills reduced costs of road infrastructure and the reduced cost of environmental degradation.

How many of you think biking to work would be a good idea? Well, 65% of Aucklanders believe cycle lanes are good for the community, yet in 2018 only 1% of Aucklanders cycled to work. Why is there such a discrepancy?

There are too many roadblocks, to people joining active transport modes. To change this we need to make walking and cycling the “path of least resistance” or the “default option”.

The Path of Least Resistance

path of least resistance

Nudge theory is already applied in many technology companies although with often the wrong motives, I think it’s time we consider applying this in governmental organisations. An example of the path of least resistance in the tech industry is when purchasing goods or services online. Amazon or online retailers often have an option for “one-click payments”, allowing you to purchase a good or service, with the least amount of effort required. That means, fewer opportunities to consider, do I really need this, could I buy this cheaper somewhere else? It’s so fast it doesn’t even let you consider your other options.

Like water and electricity, humans too take the past of least resistance.

How instead can we apply “the path of least resistance” to active modes of transport?

Here are some of my ideas and thoughts on how we could make active modes of transportation the path of least resistance.

  • E-bikes have been a massive win, as suddenly the thought of cycling doesn’t seem so hard when you have something to assist you up Auckland’s mountains.
  • Removing barriers of people not feeling safe, by building walking and cycling lanes, increasing street lighting (as AT is doing)
  • My personal favorite: traffic light signals that prioritise walkers, then cyclists in the CBD, then buses, then cars (quite literally intentionally creating active modes to be the path of least resistance)
  • Having safe and sufficient bike parking, especially at transport hubs
  • Having sufficient space and places to carry bikes/scooters on public transport, such as on trains, buses, and ferries.
  • Paying people for every km they cycle.

The Default Option

Default options are pre-set courses of action that take effect if nothing is specified by the decision-maker (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Setting defaults is an effective nudge when there is inertia or uncertainty in decision-making (Samson, 2014). There are many examples of this with very successful technology companies, and a large reason as to why they have succeeded, but I think it’s about time we started using that effective nudging to encourage people to do what is actually good for them.

An example of the default option applied to technology companies and something you interact with in everyday life is when you subscribe to a “free trial” but you still have to enter your card details, and if you don’t cancel in 7 days you will be charged by default. (I personally have been caught out numerous times on this).

For many people in Tāmaki Makaurau, the default option is to drive. How might we shift this default to active modes of transport?

How can we “set the default option” for active modes of transport?

  • having miro-mobility integrated within public transport apps so that it doesn’t require customers to have to use two apps, instead, it’s all in one place. This is something that is currently in beta testing for Auckland transports AT Mobile.
  • “hireable bikes within the CBD that you can pay for with your transport card, so you don’t need another payment option” by default you are eligible to use it.
  • as an individual, making walking or cycling your default commute method, meaning you don’t have to change how you get to work every day, you are just on autopilot.
  • sending a notification on AT mobile in the morning for the weather for the day, to help you prepare for walking or cycling trips.

These are all examples of walking and cycling, but we can apply this thinking across any organisation we work in and any life that we live. How can we build a better society by being intentional about the social architecture we are creating?