Don’t tell people how to adapt. Nudge them.

Incremental change to avoid public aversion for a product or system, following the example of the city of Stockholm.

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After a long day of hard work, you step in your car to drive home. However, after a few minutes you already are stuck in a traffic jam. What compelled you to hop in your car during rush-hour, very well knowing you would end up in a traffic jam, just like yesterday, and the day before, and the day before, and….

Road congestion is a very complex societal issue. And even though none of us like to be stuck in traffic, a lot of us still choose our cars over public transport or bike knowing very well what the consequences are. Would there be a way to move people away from their cars, especially during rush hours, and towards public transport? The city of Stockholm might have the answer to this question.

On January 3rd 2006, Stockholm introduced rush-hour tolls for the main bridges in the city centre. This, overnight, reduced the amount of cars on the road by 20%. Although this may not sound like much, this 20% already proved to be enough to dissolve road congestion. However, public opinion was not on their side.

Before the toll was introduced, about 60% opposed this idea. And when it was introduced this increased to about 70%. However, this makes sense since people suddenly had to pay for something that used to be free. But after a year or so, something interesting happened. Public opinion started to shift from 30% in favour of this toll in beginning of 2007 to 70% at the beginning of 2011. Even more so, people who used to oppose the toll argued that they have always been in favour of it. This is very nicely indicated by Jonas Eliasson in his 2012 TED Talk “How to solve traffic jams”. But what would like to know now is the reason why these people suddenly started to support the initiative.

One major reason that crosses my mind would be that after some years more and more people started to see the benefits of this toll. They could still use their car, the toll prices were very low, and in addition, road congestion disappeared. And since there already was a (fairly) decent public transport system, it seemed to cause more positive than negative effects.

To me, this is a very nice example of designing a system based on intrinsic values in society, like the aversion to road congestion. However, since people tend to be egocentric and place their own interests before those of society, products or systems like this one might seem wrongly designed at first. However, the general public opposing an idea at first does not necessarily have to mean abandoning the idea. If it appears to work, implementing a product or system step by step might nudge the public towards acceptance. This of course should all be done within the frame of responsibility.

In short, if the public opposes a product or system, implementation in increments is required. And as Jonas put it: “Don’t tell people how to adapt. Nudge them. If you do it correctly, they’ll embrace the change.”