Why Transportation Nudges Are Stupid

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I travel a lot for Strong Towns and frequently wind up in a rental car. I place my bag on the passenger’s seat next to me because then I can easily reach a snack or Kleenex or whatever. It’s probably 25 pounds, yet quite often I get the continual ding telling me that someone in the car doesn’t have their seatbelt on. I’m nudged to reach over and put the bag on the floor, fulfilling the wishes of some data scientist somewhere who found a correlation between that behavior and a 1.264% reduction in automobile crashes. 

I have grown to hate the nudge concept, especially as it’s being applied by people who have likely never taken a course, let alone read a book, on human psychology, behavioral science, or cognition. I especially hate the stupid ways in which the nudging approach is being used by engineers, public safety officials, and others in the transportation professions. 

I read Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein a couple years after it was published. It basically takes the insights of Daniel Kahneman, and his colleague, Amos Tversky, as expressed in Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, and simplifies them to some real-world applications. Its novel insight is that well-intentioned people can use tricks that marketing people have long intuited to nudge people to do things that the well-intentioned want them to do.

For example, we want people to eat healthier, so if we label foods at a buffet with green (healthy), yellow (questionable), and red (unhealthy) dots, we can nudge people to eat healthier. I experienced this at Google—they have applied nudge thinking to their cafeterias—and I also experience it, albeit in a different and more aggressive form, from my wife at the dinner table. I feel a bit of restraint in both situations, especially at the point where success is measured, but admit to sneaking a bit of chocolate later on when nobody’s looking.

That’s not to say that all nudge insights are simplistic and not a genuine measure of human behavior. One example in Nudge was about changes to a tax collection letter. You can imagine such a letter being boring or threatening, but when the letter was reworked to begin with a statement along the lines of, “85% of UK residents pay their taxes on time,” collections went way up. 

The simple phrasing nudged more people to send in their late taxes than otherwise would by playing on natural human feelings of obligation to the community. If you’re a member of Strong Towns, you might see similar language in renewal communications that suggest that 65% of all members continue to support the movement financially after one year. It’s a true statement that also communicates how we’re all in this together (and, as such, it does increase donation rates).

The question with the tax collection letter is: How effective will it be the second time around? And this is where I’d like to transition to transportation because so many of the nudges we get from the transportation profession are more like gimmicks, at best.

At the extreme are the (often unsanctioned) interventions people do to paint large potholes or other optical illusions on the street, or (sanctioned) to put up a new sign or cone in a place where the goal is to get people to drive slower. The 20 mph speed limit, sans any other change, has this same effect. The nudgers go out and measure the world after their intervention and, lo-and-behold, that crosswalk that now looks like a three-dimensional, psychedelic piano prompts drivers to slow down. They rarely come back a month later and measure what happens when everyone adjusts to the change. 

That’s because we all know what happens. The novelty or surprise wears off. The intervention becomes part of the unnoticed background. Things go back to normal.

I’m aligned with the goals of Vision Zero efforts—and who isn’t—but I struggle with the way it is implemented. The part of Vision Zero funding that isn’t supplementing law enforcement budgets or paying to expand highway clear zones, and stroad intersection buffers often goes to nudging the public through information campaigns.

Last year, at my community homecoming football game, law enforcement personnel fired t-shirts into the crowd. The shirts had a Toward Zero Deaths message (Minnesota’s slightly less ambitious version of Vision Zero) and were part of a campaign to improve driver safety. Sure, the announcer simultaneously read a message about texting and driving, but look at the crowd; does anyone legitimately believe this nudge is going to alter the behavior of a driver who gets a text they consider important while driving in an environment they consider safe?

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