In Manitoba, 43% of our total greenhouse gas emissions — the largest source — come from personal transportation and shipping goods. To reach our municipal, provincial, federal, and international climate targets, it is imperative that we see dramatic mode shift away from single-occupant vehicles toward walking, wheeling, cycling, public transit, and carpooling.
As an old adage in transportation goes, “the strongest predictor of your trip today is the trip you took yesterday”, making the deeply ingrained habit of driving an immense challenge to change under regular circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the routine commute for many Manitobans, and with that has come an opportunity for the formation of new, more sustainable commuting habits.
Before your colleagues return to work (if they’ve been working from home), learn how to nudge their commute in a more sustainable direction.
WHERE WE ARE NOW?
According to a Stats Canada survey conducted on March 22, of the 13.5 million Canadian workforce, half are currently working from home and 70% of those are doing so for the first time. (Another 3.9 million were not working, 2.8 million due to COVID-19.)
With half of Canadians working from home, it has caused many to reflect on their commuting behaviour and what they miss about it. A recent study found the commute to work acts as a psychological threshold between home and the workplace. Many of us working from home are finding our home and work life are meshing together, there is no transitional buffer, there is a lack of routine, and we’re missing the exercise, time to reflect and relax, or simply the time to be alone while commuting.
For the other half of Canadians who are still commuting to their workplace, they are forced to navigate numerous health guidelines to stay safe while walking, cycling, wheeling, taking transit, or carpooling.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The province of Manitoba has begun the process of re-opening, with a multi-phased re-opening strategy beginning on May 4, 2020. As Manitoba continues to re-open and many Manitobans return to work, we are anticipating a number of threats as well as opportunities for the wider adoption of sustainable transportation habits.
Over the next few months, we expect to see:
- Continued interest in working from home, either full-time or part-time
- Many people unable to return to the office in the short term (even if they wanted to) due to childcare limitations
- A gradual return of employees, with potentially alternating schedules
- Concerns around shared ridership (transit and carpooling), and some viewing driving alone as the “safest” option
- A boom in walking and cycling
- A second wave of the pandemic
We hope to mitigate the threats and seize the opportunity for more sustainable mobility in Manitoba.
THE WORK FROM HOME EXPERIMENT
Before the pandemic, telecommuting/teleworking had relatively low uptake.
- Managers were generally concerned about productivity levels of employees working from home and lacked experience with remote supervision
- Employees were concerned about opportunities for advancement if they were not visible and missed the social interaction at the office
- Additional distractions at home
- Does not work for every role or person
When the pandemic came, so did the work-from-home ‘experiment’, which has shown many people that their job is do-able outside of the office/workplace and they have had to become familiar with the technology involved in working remotely.
Many employers were forced to scramble to provide access to equipment and software and set up reporting protocols. We should keep in mind that this is not “normal” telecommuting, this is “digital by default,” with employees having no choice whether to work from home or continue going to the workplace. Plus, the global pandemic poses additional distractions and stressors.
According to a poll by Research Co. out of BC, 65% of workers say that they would like to continue working from home more often post-pandemic, despite 46% of workers reporting that they found it hard due to the many distractions.
With so many workers wanting to continue working from home, it is certainly in the best interest of employers, cities and the planet to help them do so.
Telecommuting helps to:
- Eliminate the commute
- Reduce GHG emissions
- Improve air quality
- Lessen the demand for parking
- Signals that an employer cares about the environment and employee wellness
- Recruit new employees
To prepare for the return to the workplace, employers will need to shift from a temporary emergency response to a formalized work-from-home policy. How many people will continue to work from home when it is ‘opt-in’ rather than involuntary will be interesting to watch.
To support and formalize work-from-home arrangements there are many aspects to be considered, with a few including:
- Improving access to technology, equipment, and broadband
- Creating more virtual opportunities for casual conversations
- Reviewing the suitability of different roles/people for telecommuting
- Training managers on remote supervision and reporting
- Setting guidelines on work hours and productivity expectations
This unanticipated work-from-home experiment presents an incredible opportunity for employers to gather lessons learned from an operational perspective and the experience of both managers and employees.
BIKE (BACK) TO WORK
Now is a great time to focus on cycling, both as leisure and as a form of transportation. If we encourage those working from home to cycle now, we have a good chance of converting them to cycle commuters, because:
- A significant disruption in routine
- Captive audience
- Biking is the new “going out”
- Fewer vehicles
- Bikes have more cultural cachet
Typically, when encouraging people to try cycling, we would use the messaging sequence on the left (try it -> do it again -> make it a habit -> encourage others to do it). In light of COVID-19, that message framing has changed to the sequence on the right (dust off their bikes -> go for a ride -> make biking a habit -> ride to work when the office re-opens).
- Dust off their Bikes (or get it tuned/buy a new one) – This is a great time to encourage people in the “interested, but concerned” camp to try cycling by sharing educational videos, cycling media, providing live demos, classes, Q&As, consultations, route planning, etc.
- Go for a Ride – Once folks have a safe bike to ride, it is a good idea to provide them with the resources and skills to feel confident riding for the first time in a long time. Consider sharing content that covers how to fit a helmet, ABC quick check, rules of the road, etc.
- Make it a Habit – Developing a new habit takes work and dedication, so providing additional support and incentives can go a long way. Encourage your colleagues to participate in events like Commuter Challenge and Bike Week, Solo ride challenges, test riding to work, signing a cycling pledge, etc.
- Bike (back) to Work – As shelter in place orders continue to be lifted, the goal is to encourage people who took up biking during the pandemic to stick with it post-pandemic. To do this, employers can celebrate cyclists (incentives, parties, etc.) and make accommodations to ensure a good experience for new (and returning) cycle commuters (secure bike parking, showers, lockers, flexible hours, relaxed dress code, etc.)
More information and support on this topic can be found at Bikes Make Life Better.
Many people are concerned about taking transit again, especially if service is reduced and physical distancing measures are not properly enforced.
To help alleviate these concerns, there are many interventions and precautions that other jurisdictions are taking to ensure people are comfortable taking transit again. According to this recent NY Times article, some jurisdictions are letting people reserve seats on mass transit, creating more flexible bus routes on the fly, providing all-in-one transit and ticketing systems, and meshing on-demand services with public transit.
For anyone taking transit, ensure that they are aware of the provincial health guidelines so they can take all necessary precautions while riding.
NUDGING THE COMMUTE
As people begin returning to work, it is important to help nudge employees to avoid people reverting back to the old habit of driving alone and avoid people switching from transit or carpooling to driving alone.
To help ‘nudge’ people in the direction of sustainable commuting, there are a number of behavioural science principles that can be applied (the following information draws primarily from a webinar by Dr. Ashley Whillans of Harvard Business School).
It can be incredibly challenging to get drivers to use more sustainable commuting alternatives.
Individuals form a habit when behaviour is repeated frequently in a stable context, leading to rewarding outcomes. This is exemplified by a daily commute taken in a personal vehicle, in which the commuter routinely reaches their destination in a relatively timely, comfortable, and inexpensive manner.
As a result, people’s actions tend to be automatic repetitions of their previously repeated behaviour, such as reaching for the car keys each morning. This is a deeply ingrained habit that will likely not be changed without serious interventions.
While many individuals have good intentions to make more sustainable commuting choices, their ability to follow-through on these intentions is largely dependent on the strength of their habits.
Many of our decisions are emotional, easy, and largely rely on our previously made decisions — like Captain Kirk, from Star Trek. Yet many of our programs and interventions are designed for the rational thinkers, those who research and plan, and are willing to update their choices based on new information – like Spock.
It follows that people’s stated intentions are bad predictors of behaviour when habits are strong. This is what is referred to as the ‘intention – action’ gap, in which people’s actions contradict their stated intentions.
To encourage individuals to commute according to their stated intentions, they need additional support through policies and meaningful interventions.
The key to changing habitual behaviour, such as driving alone, is to make the automatic execution of the habit impossible or at least unattractive. This gives individuals sufficient motivation and the ability to turn their automatic, habitual choice into a deliberate one.
Some effective intervention strategies include:
- Automatic opt-in to programs (e.g. automatic enrollment in Eco-Pass program)
- Change in the environment (e.g. removing free parking spaces close to the workplace)
- Comparing individual consumption or actions to co-workers/peers (e.g. posting Commuter Challenge pledges/results)
While many of these interventions can play a role in changing habitual behaviours, these habits are much more easily influenced when the commuter has recently changed residence, place of work, or have experienced significant disruption in routine.
A 2012 study by John Thøgersen of Aarhus University found that timing is essential when designing interventions to promote alternatives to car-driving.
The study took a large sample of Copenhagen drivers and randomly assigned them to receive a free month travel card for public transportation or to serve as a control group. The free travel card was able to neutralize the negative effect of car driving habits and made the participants’ commute more consistent with their conscious intentions.
Most notable about this study is that the behavioural effects of the free travel card appeared only among individuals who had recently relocated residence or workplace prior to the intervention.
If you get the interventions right, but the timing wrong, your efforts will be significantly less effective.
Without the implementation of new sustainable transportation-oriented infrastructure and policies, it can be challenging to encourage a change in commuting habits, even when the timing is right.
Here are a few communication strategies to motivate behaviour change:
- Frame your message in a way that capitalizes on the motivation the individual already has (i.e. exercise, cost-savings, social benefits, etc. as opposed to just ‘the right thing to do’)
- Be specific in the messaging (i.e. hotel guests responded best to the message that “75% of people in this hotel room re-used their towels”)
- Provide comparisons to peers (co-workers, neighbours, etc.) by showing who has or has not made a commitment to behaviour change (i.e. provide sign-up sheet in lobby or common area)
CARROTS & STICKS
When it comes to changing deeply ingrained behaviours, it helps if the alternative is easy, attractive, social, and timely. To ensure the switch to sustainable commuting is the better option, change agents must implement both carrots and sticks (i.e. a reward and a consequence).
- Create personalized sustainable commute plans for employees before offices reopen (e.g. identify bike route for them to test ride)
- Assist to overcome barriers (e.g. access to a bike, child care, etc.)
- Allow more frequent telecommuting (e.g. 1-3 days/week)
- Make it easy and attractive (e.g. showers, bike storage, move monthly or annual parking to daily parking, etc.)
- Reward those who make a pledge/commitment to commute sustainably and follow through with it
- Charge market rate for parking
- Remove parking spots or reallocate for bike or carpool parking
A study conducted in partnership with a large employer found that no matter how good the timing and ‘carrots’ may be, if parking is cheap and convenient, behaviours will not change.
Ultimately, what will have the biggest impact on commuter behaviours post-COVID-19 is the friction associated with each commuting mode. It is imperative that we create MORE friction for driving and much LESS friction for walking, cycling, taking transit, and carpooling.
With the proper timing, policies, and interventions, we can take advantage of the major disruption that COVID-19 has presented. Implementing these measures now will create happier, healthier, wealthier, more sustainable, and resilient communities for the future.
The time for change is right NOW.
RESOURCES & REFERENCES
- Dr. Ashley Whillans, Harvard Business School (2020). Nudging the Commute Webinar.
- John Thogerson, Aarhus University (2012). The Importance of Timing for Breaking Commuters’ Car Driving Habit.