By Eric Jaffe, 26, 2014
Last fall, the World Wildlife Fund moved its U.K. headquarters from Godalming to Woking. One of the main reasons given for the move was the desire for a more sustainable work environment. To that end, the company encouraged employees to trade their car commute for the train; Woking had much better rail connection anyway, and for six months after the move WWF-UK paid the fare difference for workers whose rail costs rose or who switched from driving.
Getting people to change their commute mode is extremely difficult for companies and cities alike. Decades of transit improvements have made only a tiny dent in car commuting (at least in the United States). Charging drivers higher road and gas prices would increase the dent, but that's politically tricky. Beneath it all is the fact that over time a commute choice becomes so habitual that it's not a choice at all, but rather the response to daily cues that occur more or less without any thought.
Behavioral scientists who study habits in general, and commute habits in particular, know this routine is vulnerable to change after major life events. Moving homes, having a child, starting a new job—these are sort of commute mode Kryptonite. At these moments, the normal cues that automate commute habits get disrupted, transit options and price incentives come back into play, and people can establish new behavioral patterns.
Which brings us back to WWF-UK and its office relocation. A group of psychologists at the University of Bath led by Ian Walker recognized this move as a major life event and saw the chance at a great real-world experiment on commuter habits. Walker and colleagues surveyed company employees on their commute behavior about a year before the move to Woking, then twice more afterward—a week later, and a month down the line.
In a word, the decline in car commuting, and related rise in train use, was remarkable. The share of employees driving to work fell from 55 percent, when the office had been in Godalming, to roughly 23 percent a week after the move to Woking (and 29 percent a month later). The share using the train, meanwhile, did just the reverse: rising from 18.5 percent before to 56 percent after the move. The use of other modes, including cycling, walking, car-share, and bus, remained pretty steady, all under 10 percent.
The chart fails to reveal perhaps the most striking finding of all: only a single employee in the study switched from taking the train to driving a car. The office relocation had disrupted commute habits, and the new transit options and incentives had been attractive enough for commute choices to change.
Walker and company also found that old commute habits had not been broken after the move, per se, but merely weakened. Before the move, workers rated the strength of their commute habit at around a 5 on a 7-point scale. A week after the move that rating was half as strong, and a month later it was even weaker. Still, it hadn't disappeared entirely. The new habits, meanwhile, gained strength after the move, reaching a 4 on the scale after a month at the new office—strong, yes, but not yet as strong as the old habit had once been.
In simple terms, that finding merely echoes what we all know: old habits die hard. But in terms of encouraging new commute behavior, it's a critical insight, because it establishes a timeline for intervention. If a commuter mode-shift program isn't sustained for long enough, there's a real possibility of relapse, since the old habits tend to linger even after the new one starts to form, and since the new one doesn't reach the power of the old even after a month.
Walker and his collaborators say it better in a recent issue of Environment and Behavior:
The implication is that as well as a "window of opportunity for change," a discontinuity also introduces a "window of vulnerability to relapse"—a certain amount of time during which the new habit is not fully established and the old habit is not fully extinguished, meaning people might easily revert to their old behavior in the presence of appropriate contextual cues.Some might consider WWF-UK a best-case commute-shift scenario. These are environmentally conscious workers, after all, and the new transit option was much more appealing (the train station at Woking was a 7-minute walk from the office, compared with 25 minutes at Godalming). Then again, driving wasn't exactly a huge hassle here: the new office sits right on top of a parking lot, and WWF-UK subsidized employee parking for six months after the move.
But even if this scenario prompted more change than others would have, it still teaches companies and cities a universal lesson about how to change commuter habits. You can't just provide the right options and incentives. You need to hit people at the right time, and even after the first sign of a shift, you can't let up.