Behavioral science is a growing influence on the planning of cities and transport. Conventional economic thinking views the customer as a rational actor who cares only about travel time and cost, but behavioral science adds two insights: First, time and cost aren’t the only things travelers care about. Second, even when optimizing time and cost, human brains aren’t ideal computers for this purpose, so they take various mental shortcuts that good planning can anticipate and guide.
This new British book is a lively read on how to apply behavioral science to transport planning — a process that’s well under way at many leading agencies such as Transport for London. The authors touch on everything from signage to pricing to the joys of public art. At one point they praise a stairway painted like piano keys that sound a note when you step on them.
Is there anything wrong with putting behavioral science in the lead in transport planning? It depends on how you use it. One danger lies in how planners choose to think about perceived vs actual time:
Cars go fast, so transport engineers put a lot of effort into making alternatives faster. But a 32 minute train ride does not feel all that different from a 36 minute one, and the changes needed to shave off more time can get very expensive.
Can we just make the train feel faster instead?
The only bad word here is instead.
It may be that 36 minutes is the optimal travel time at a reasonable level of investment . And certainly, there’s nothing wrong with doing things that make that time more pleasant and seem to pass more quickly. But if you are making the train feel fast so that it doesn’t have to be fast, you may be making an elite projection mistake with major consequences for equity and social justice. The authors cite the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy but not its most obvious point: Values such as pleasure and “self-actualization” are only motivating when more basic needs are met. Basic needs include the food and shelter that you will only have if you have a job, which in turn may require you to get to work on time. When you get to your low-wage job four minutes late, the timeclock you punch doesn’t care that your trip felt so fast that you feel like you’re on time.
It’s also important to question the polarization that drives the book’s rhetoric. The authors’ opponent is a conventional model-driven transport planning that thinks about passengers the way it thinks about cargo.
When we move things, rather than people, around efficiently, no feelings need to be taken into account. Planning can be mathematically optimized without any consideration for psychology.
There really is a transport planning orthodoxy that is this silly, but there are also a lot of interesting positions in the middle. For example, transport planners like me, who insist that we respect people’s need to get places by actual-time deadlines, aren’t denying the foundational role of great information design. Bad information is a cause of delay as well as stress, both of which are fundamental human needs in Maslow’s hierarchy: stress is bad for health, and delay threatens our access to food and shelter if those require getting to work on time. Obviously public transport authorities are not providing much value if their services aren’t used because they can’t be found, understood, and navigated, or if the experience is so stressful as to be harmful for the customer’s health.
The book offers little evidence to challenge the foundational importance of travel time. People aren’t cargo, but like cargo they have deadlines. A pleasant-but-unreliable public transport service may satisfy both tourists and the relatively fortunate people whose jobs aren’t in danger if they’re late. But such a service is not part of a comprehensive public transport network addressing the full diversity of the society and potential ridership.
I recommend this book for a fun overview of behavioral science insights. It has made me smarter about how to discuss these issues. Fortunately, though, the transport planning world isn’t as black-and-white as their rhetoric might suggest. There are many ways to use these insights while still respecting our need to get where we’re going, at the time we’re expected there.
 I’m not saying it should be 32, since a responsible travel time analysis is door-to-door and therefore includes frequency as well as walking or other kinds of access-t0-transit time.