Carrots Are Good for You, and So Are Sticks

A very interesting post today on the Streetsblog Network from getDowntown,
in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The getDowntown program, which aims to get more
people using alternative modes of transportation through a variety of
incentives and support systems, is a partnership between the Ann Arbor
Area Chamber of Commerce, the Ann Arbor Transportation
Authority, the City of Ann Arbor and the Downtown Development
Authority. It’s been around since 1999.

In
this post, getDowntown’s Nancy Shore steps back and asks a
philosophical question about the mixture of incentives and
disincentives — carrots and sticks — that are necessary to get people
to kick the car-commuting habit:

I’ve
been conducting a commuting audit for a local organization. Currently,
this organization offers free parking passes for all of their
employees. As a result, all of these employees park downtown.

Given the economic times, this organization is looking at ways
to cut costs, and providing $130/month for each employee for a parking
space is starting to look like a lot of money.

So that’s
where I come in. I’ve been chatting with each staff member and asking
them what other options might work for them. Pretty much every staff
member knows what his/her options are, from using the Park & Ride
Lots to biking to work to carpooling to telecommuting. And it’s clear
to me that if this organization stopped paying for parking, many of the
staff would use one of those other options rather than pay for parking
themselves.

Here is a case where a stick would work to
change behavior. We saw the same thing with gas prices. No one likes to
lose something, especially when it feels like a pay cut. And for some
staff it is just easier to park at a park and ride everyday and take
the bus to work than others. If that’s the case, should everyone get
the same stick, or only some people?

At the same time, the
getDowntown Program offers lots of carrots to try to get people to
change their commuting behavior. We have a huge carrot known as the
go!pass, that gives employees unlimited rides on the buses, including
to park and ride lots in addition to other incentives.  But those
carrots only work if there isn’t also a chocolate cupcake (such as
employer paid parking) on the plate.  In addition, our carrots are only
as effective as the bus service, or the bike lanes. If the buses don’t
run frequently enough or the bike lanes are poorly maintained, our
carrot becomes less and less appealing.

The reason I am
troubled by all of this is that people see sticks as bad. Our society
sees restrictions as bad. We are all about freedom of choice. I think
that’s why carrots are so appealing. But my carrot will only work if
there isn’t a better incentive out there.

We’d
like to hear about how other communities are handling the mixture of
incentives and disincentives. Any other creative solutions out there?

More from around the network: The Dirt looks at the economic value of parks. The Infrastructurist examines Portland’s McMansion-style bridge proposal. And The Political Environment rips into Milwaukee’s massive Zoo Interchange highway expansion project.

  • San Francisco General Hospital is beginning its major rebuild, and its internal transportation services department conducted a survey of staff travel patterns, including what incentives would get people to leave their cars at home and what barriers keep them from cycling, using transit, etc. One surprising finding was the low percentage of workers who knew about commuter check and emergency ride home programs. It’s filled with great info, and the hospital is using it to guide efforts to reduce traffic during this most disruptive period:

    http://www.sfphes.org/transportation/SFGH_Travel_Survey.pdf

  • From the field of behavioral economics, there is evidence that potential losses are more motivating than potential gains. In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz has a discussion of this “loss aversion” phenomenon. Schwartz cites research by Kahneman and Tversky demonstrating that, “Losing $100 produces a feeling of negativity that is more intense than the feelings of elation produced by a gain of $100.”

    In the book Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, the author provides a discussion of positive (gain) and negative (loss) framing: Behavior change “messages which emphasize losses which occur as a result of inaction are consistently more persuasive than messages that emphasize savings as a result of taking action.”

    The Irritant Theory of Driving Behavior Change

    There is an intuitive psychological theory as to why cashout is not very effective. High-paid office workers ignore small-benefit programs such as $4 per day cashout (being paid not to park at a suburban workplace). This “carrot” is not a sufficiently large motivator to cause commuting behavior to change. Employees will not think about the cashout on a regular basis. I believe that parking charges will “irritate” SOV commuters. These SOV commuters will think about the parking charges every day they commute. Eventually this irritant gnaws at them long enough to cause many to change behavior. Changing commuting mode choice is a significant decision because of relatively high barriers to changing away from the convenience of driving alone. This difficult decision is not a “snap decision” and may require pondering over many weeks. The same $ value of irritant/stick has a much higher impact than the same $ value of cashout/carrot. The intuitive theory is well substantiated from field results:

    A 1989 study found that commute carrots are less effective than sticks: “A program of transit and vanpool subsidies as well as preferential parking for carpoolers had little effect until Twentieth Century Corporation in Los Angeles raised the price of employee parking from no charge to $30 per month for solo drivers. Solo driving decreased from 90 to 65 percent after pricing.”

    A 1990 paper found that charges changed behavior where incentives had not: “CH2M Hill in Bellevue, Washington began charging solo drivers $40 per month for parking, the amount the company pays the building owner for parking. All employees receive a $40 per month travel allowance in their paychecks. Carpoolers park for free. Walkers, cyclists and drop offs keep the travel allowance. Solo driving declined from 89 percent to 64 percent after the parking policies were put into place.”

    Excerpts from: http://www.cities21.org/TRB_Paid_Parking2.pdf

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