13 August 2012

Turn Off Your Engine…

Last week-end my beloved wife and I went to visit the North of The Netherlands (mainly the city of Groningen). On the way we encountered at least twice “open bridges” which in simple language means that the road was closed and traffic was stopped for several minutes (between 5 and 10) so that one ship could pass from one side of the bridge to the other. As you may know in The Netherlands there is a lot of water and there are many bridges and situations of traffic stopping are encountered quite often.

On the second stop waiting for the bridge to come back down I’ve noticed a road sign that said in pictures “turn off your engine while waiting for the bridge”… Suddenly it made a lot of sense to turn off the engine; after all one will wait for at least 5 minutes and will go nowhere, so there is no need to keep the engine on and waste fuel. However, I’ve noticed that sign only after I’ve passed it, namely only after the bridge was back down and we were on our way and of course after keeping the engine running for about 5 minutes without moving.

Here’s how decision design can lead to the desired behavior – turning off the engine while waiting for the bridge (or in parking areas where people keep the engines running even if they don’t move).

First, we can agree that turning the engine off while standing for more than 1 minute makes sense and public authorities have all the reasons to encourage such a behavior, particularly that it helps reduce pollution and keep air quality and noise standards.

Second, we can agree that this type of behavior is not actually the “social norm”.

Third, here’s how this behavior can be promoted (encouraged):

a. Make the sign that encourages drivers to turn off their engines BIGGER… People don’t look around for small sings that tell them what to do. They have in mind their destination and are annoyed because of the delay. Moreover, usually at opened bridges long lines of cars are formed and for the drivers in the back it is very hard to see a small sing.

b. Use loss aversion to encourage people to turn off the engine by saying that “If you turn off the engine you will stop losing money”.  Telling people how much money they lose is not a good idea because it depends on the car (a SUV burns more fuel than a small city car) and because the actual sum of money lost is not that big… the car probably burns less than 100 ml of fuel in 5 minutes standing which translates into about 14-18 euro cents.

c. Say that by a simple gesture (turning the ignition key) one can help protect / save the environment. In general people want to be environmentally friendly, but very often they don’t realize that they can “save the planet” just by making a very simple thing.

This is how with very small costs and with some intelligent measures air pollution can be decreased…

And as a bonus, in the city of Groningen I saw a very nice way of reducing annoyance (at least for some) when people have to wait for the bridge to come back down. In Groningen a pedestrian bridge has the bottom side painted with some art-like things. This way, the people that wait on one side of the bridge look at the painting and don’t think (at least not that much) about the fact that they have to wait several minutes. 

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