For the past couple of years I have been reading more and more about behavioral economics, how it is changing the way we understand human behavior, decisions, and – more recently – the way we design public policies. For those foreign to this field, behavioral economics studies the effects of social, cognitive and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions, and the consequences for market prices, returns and resource allocation (Wiki). In simpler terms, it is a field that moves away from the rational choice theory, which assumes that humans are rational economic agents, accepting that we are full of cognitive bias.
This week started reading “Nudge”, a book by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein which focuses on how to design public policies by adjusting the choice architecture. They argue that it is legitimate for choice architects (or planners if we think of cities) to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better. A Nudge, according to them, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. In addition, to count as a nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. An example of a nudge is putting healthier food at eye sight in a school cafeteria as it is known that people tend to buy what they see first and is within easier reach.
So how we can adapt all these concepts to Urban Planning/Development? A very clear example is the famous piano stair installed in Odenplan, Stockolm (See video above). This intervention nudges people to use stairs without restricting choices and at a very low cost (people can still use the escalator). As a result of this Nudge 66% more people chose the stairs over the escalator. I am sure we can do similar interventions to make people choose bikes as their form of commuting, better use public spaces and maybe even influence their ultimate choice in the city: their location. Can you think of other urban nudges?
Some general info:
More on the Fun Theory which inspired the piano stairs,