+44 (0) 20 3879 7879

Active travel: Three barriers to mass engagement – and how to break them

Active travel: Three barriers to mass engagement – and how to break them

‘Without changes to people’s behaviours now, the target of net zero by 2050 is not achievable’, wrote the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee in a report last month.

But while one-to-one behaviour change – such as in rehabilitation – has proved relatively successful, mass behaviour change is a whole different story.

So, what are the barriers and how do we breach them?

Let’s start with a comparison:

The Bella Mossa incentives programme in Bologna, Italy, attracted 22,000 active participants who changed their travel behaviour for small rewards.

I do not know of one single active travel programme in the UK that has attracted 22,000 participants, regardless of the incentives.

Mass active travel behaviour change in the UK – despite some amazing work – is very slow. I have come across programmes with no more than a few hundred participants, which does little except waste time, effort and money.

‘As I see it, there are three main barriers to reaching people: silos, communication and excluding businesses.’

Why did Bologna do so well?

Bologna’s public transport authority, SRM, approached key, large businesses to pledge money and support to the Bella Mossa programme.

They employed an agency to recruit retailers for small rewards such as coffee, ice cream and cinema tickets.

They used the BetterPoints behaviour change platform and app to deliver the programme.

They employed a communications agency to drive external promotion.

They dedicated two SRM staff to drive the programme throughout its lifetime.

And they paid for it partly through EU funding streams, but also with the financial pledges they generated by forging strong partnerships with the city’s key businesses.

Where are we going wrong in the UK?

In short: fragmentation. We often operate in silos and don’t join up resources. As a result, too many active travel programmes in the UK are piecemeal, disjointed and poorly communicated.

Three barriers of fragmentation

As I see it, there are three main barriers to reaching people:

  1. fragmentation by silo management of resources and funding;
  2. fragmentation by excluding the business community;
  3. fragmentation of communications.

Barrier 1: fragmentation through silos

Government funds cascade between siloed departments. For example:

  • Active travel programmes receive funds from the Department for Transport / Active Travel England;
  • Health programmes receive funds from the Department of Health and Social Care;
  • Air quality programmes receive funds from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

These funds go from silos in central government to corresponding silos in local authorities.

Then, separate programmes (active travel, health, air quality etc) go out from the silos to citizens – and either miss the mark or totally confuse them.

Citizens receive disjointed communications with differing agendas.

Instead, it would make much better sense – locally, at least – to look at the broader, council-wide picture and combine programmes: active travel with air quality and health, for example.

Although some of the big-ticket funding allocations may be smaller than expected (or even non-existent), councils have access to other pots that, when seen in the round, can work together for complementary aims.

Seeing the bigger picture and joining up budgets in this way can only make for stronger programmes and better communications – and reach more people, more effectively.

Join up agendas to reach citizens more effectively.

Combining programmes across different councils is a further important step, and an even more challenging one – particularly if political colours don’t match.

But while bureaucracy and politics may be tricky waters, it’s surely important to find a way of navigating them – for the sake of people and the planet.

Barrier 2: fragmentation through the exclusion of businesses

Traditionally, attempts at engagement are from councils to citizens. This is hard work with slow results.

And yet, approximately 75 percent of adults in the UK are employed.

As employees, they are bound by contracts and loyalties that are often much more tangible and respected than any they have with the public authorities. This means businesses can engage with them – these employees, these citizens – instantly and with high levels of success.

Local authorities, therefore, need to bring businesses to the table. They need to engage their cabinet members and councillors with senior, C-suite business people.

They need to persuade these business leaders to pledge money and support to community-wide active travel programmes. Just as SRM did in Bologna.

Join up with businesses to reach more people.

Barrier 3: fragmentation of communications

When designing a behaviour change programme, communications are often bolted on as an afterthought, or even disregarded as an unnecessary extra expense.

Which is odd: how else are people going to hear about the programme, let alone be inspired to take part in it?

It’s a little baffling to me, but there seems to be a tendency to see the communications element of a programme as a ‘nice-to-have’, the icing on the cake, rather than as the all-important tool that it is for reaching people.

Likely related to that is the problem that dedicated communications are often not budgeted for, aside from efforts from an already over-stretched, time-poor and under-funded council communications team.

Unfortunately, ‘build it and they will come’ will not work here; if you want them to come, you have to communicate with them, and you have to do it well. That means reaching out to people everywhere they are, through whoever and whatever influences them.

I break it into three areas:

  • Digital
    Websites, email, social media, news feeds etc;
  • Physical
    Transport, public spaces, venues, events, street furniture, newspapers etc;
  • Emotional
    Brands, clubs, employers, communities, culture, celebrities etc.

The unavoidable truth is that well planned and funded communication is critical; without it, a behaviour change programme will barely reach anyone, let alone the thousands of citizens that it needs to. Communication is not the icing on the cake, it’s the oven that bakes it.

Break the barriers for mass reach and engagement

Breaking even just one of those barriers will help reach more people, be it silos, businesses or communications. The fact is, we are all in a hurry and must collectively take action to achieve the target of net zero by 2050.