How behavioral science can help with ‘normal’ after coronavirus

Passenger communication will be vital for public transport as we recover from the crisis, but how do we get it right?

Life has changed beyond recognition in such a short period of time. What has now become normal for many of us, was incomprehensible as recently as February. The scale and speed of it all is dizzying, turning the world’s busiest cities into ghost towns.

But local transport is a vital part of our society and continues to operate so that other frontline staff can get to work during this critical period. While social distancing has resulted in a dramatic fall in public transport use, it will play a vital role when we recover from the crisis. And we need to be ready.


What will normal look like?

We previously looked at how modern transit technology can help agencies to provide safer services during these challenging times. Here we explore the role that passenger communication and behavioral science can play as we restore an element of normality.

About normality. You don’t have to look far to stumble across articles that explain why ‘back to normal’ and ‘business as usual’ will be different to life before coronavirus. Until we have an effective vaccine or treatment, prevention will continue to be the main strategy. This means that intermittent social distancing is very likely to be part of the foreseeable future, at least for a while.


How do we motivate behavior change?

We recently came across a talk by Tali Sharot from TEDxCambridge on ‘How to motivate yourself to change your behavior’.

She shares some very relevant communication strategies that public transport agencies can use as we continue with social distancing, and then to attract more people back to public transport. Here are some of the key themes…


Warnings, risks and threats do not work

But it doesn’t matter what age you are, everyone takes in information they want to learn more than information they don’t.


Positive strategies that focus on progress do work

Instead of using warnings about bad things that can happen, we need to use positive strategies to capitalize on the human tendency to seek progress. Consider this experiment applied to handwashing in a US hospital, very relevant in the current circumstances.

We know handwashing is the number one way to prevent disease. This study observed 1 in 10 medical staff washing their hands before and after treating a patient, despite warning signs in the washing areas. After installing a live leaderboard showing growth in smiley faces every handwash, compliance increased by 90%. They replicated the strategy in another hospital with the same results.

The strategy uses three behavioral science principals to drive change:

1. Social incentives: Highlighting what other people are doing in a positive way is a massive incentive. We care what others are doing, we want to do the same and do it better. The British government used this method with a single statement on tax request letters: ‘9 out of 10 people in Britain pay their taxes on time’. This enhanced compliance by 15% resulting in £5.6bn revenue increase for the government.

2. Immediate rewards: In the hospital experiment, every time they washed their hands it went up on the leaderboard. It made them feel good and motivated them to do something they otherwise may not have done. It worked because we value immediate rewards. The ‘here and now you’ would rather have a tangible reward now, rather than an uncertain reward in the future. It’s an instant boost! If an action becomes associated with a reward, it becomes a habit and permanent change.

3. Progress monitoring: Focus on the improvements in performance and highlight progress made, not the decline. As humans, we strive for praise, rewards and positivity. This means we are programmed to focus more on the positive progression of our efforts, rather than the negative decline of our efforts.

The US utilities firm Opower included electricity usage data on energy bills and employed behavioral science to change customer consumption patterns. Opower claims almost 2.5 billion pounds of CO2 emissions abated, in addition to a total of $180 million saved on electricity bills.

Source: Gavin Lau UX Designer


What does this mean for public transport?

The examples above are mixing data with behavioral science to answer a key question: How can we get people to care? Tali is not saying that you shouldn’t communicate risk, but if we want to motivate change, we need to rethink how we do it. Fear induces inaction while the thrill of a gain induces action.

This highlights the important role that passenger communication plays during the COVID-19 pandemic and as we emerge from it in the future. As we covered in our previous blog, engaging passengers is vital to ensure that services are safe and maintaining public confidence in transport services. Operators can keep their users fully informed, simultaneously and consistently across a wide range of channels with a passenger information system.

The passenger information screen below provides an example of how the three principles can be applied to COVID-19 communication as the situation improves and restrictions are lifted.

NOTE: The data used in this example is for conceptual purposes only.
It is not intended to be an accurate representation from official sources.


The concept of social incentives has been applied to the statement at the top. If we provide evidence that the wider society is following the social distances rules, others will be more motivated to do the same.


We are sharing progress monitoring by stating the number of cases as they decline and the impact of the restrictions take effect. The smiley face reinforces this progress as a positive gesture and to offer immediate rewards.


Smiley faces have also been used with the restriction reminders. This makes a positive association between the action and the resulting improved situation denoted in the progress monitoring above.


In order to keep passengers safe, occupancy or capacity limits are in place to maintain the social distancing requirement for 2m separation. It is important that this is monitored with real-time passenger counting systems and communicated using passenger information displays and relevant applications, so the traveler knows whether there is capacity on the next service.


There may also be a requirement to reassign fleet, prioritizing the largest capacity buses to make more space for passengers.

Final thoughts

As we plan for recovery and to attract people back to public transport, consider putting an influential figure behind your communication, such as a celebrity or local official. Take the opportunity to inform the public that transport is clean and safe, but also remind them that it is good for the environment and the most sustainable option for their journey.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, this situation is unprecedented for all of us. But there is an opportunity to apply what we do know to build a better future. Passenger information and communication will play a vital role in attracting transit riders to use services within requirements set-out by the authorities. The right technology will play a critical role in making this possible.

For further information on how a passenger information system can help you to quickly and easily deliver consistent communications to your customers please contact us.

Posted 21st April 2020 By