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Auckland’s transport love affair

red bike

Separating Aucklanders from their beloved cars – easy right?

In a nutshell

  1. Auckland's rapidly growing population is placing pressure on the city's infrastructure and transport system. To ease the pressure Auckland Transport have undertaken construction of sustainable infrastructure, supported by a program of behaviour change.
  2. TRA’s role is to help AT get people using this infrastructure. A particularly challenging and specific area of focus for AT revolves around driving the uptake of “active modes” of transport. Getting people out of cars and replacing these point-to-point journeys with walking or cycling.
  3. We first identified the major mental barriers stopping people from walking and cycling, and then helped AT and their agencies create behaviour change campaigns. These campaigns are focused around three guiding principles: the injection of emotion; creating positive memories; and normalising behaviour.

Think again. We all know that traffic in Auckland is an issue. You only have to try and get from Epsom to Britomart at 8am (or pretty much anywhere, at any time) and you will know this to be true. Fist clenching, pulling your hair out, mind numbingly, steering wheel bashing-ly true. Transportation, and the way people move through and about the city is one of several things at the heart of this.

The city that can’t keep up with its growth

Much of the blame for the endless traffic jams that stretch seemingly into eternity, and the continuous compression of mythical ‘off peak’ travel times, is largely down to one thing – population growth.

Auckland’s net population growth over the past 12 months is somewhere in the ballpark of 50,000 people. That’s the capacity of Eden Park now calling Auckland home, placing stresses, strains and demands on the city’s infrastructure. And that is just one year’s worth of growth!

Quality of life, ease of business and an innovative reputation all see New Zealand positioned as popular end destination from a global migration perspective. As new migrants arrive on New Zealand shores, the majority are choosing to make Auckland home. Auckland’s multi-culturalism, ethnic diversity and foothold as New Zealand’s only really sizeable city are just some of the factors that see Auckland win out against the rest of New Zealand.

The second component in Auckland’s population growth can be attributed to an increasing trend in urbanisation; New Zealanders are choosing (or becoming increasingly pressured) to leave the regions and settle in cities largely due to the greater number of employment and business opportunities. With Auckland being our biggest city, it’s capturing more than its fair share of these relocators.

50,000 new arrivals to Auckland a year is hard to comprehend – yes it’s a big number, but what does it actually mean? To give you some perspective, Auckland Council estimate that this kind of population growth represents 961 additional residents arriving and 400 new homes being built on a weekly basis; a new street being created every second day; and around 670 vehicles imported via Ports of Auckland daily. Our office overlooks the car yards at the port and trust me - I can vouch for this number.

Congestion on the roads, slow travel times and stress impacts our personal lives, family time and wellbeing. But it also reduces the productivity of Auckland and ultimately impacts the GDP of New Zealand.

The challenge for Auckland Transport

Auckland Transport (AT) are the organisation tasked with the difficult job of fixing our city’s growing transportation problems, and in doing so are confronted with two alternatives.

On one hand, AT can continue to build private vehicle orientated infrastructure and get caught in a never ending game of chasing-their-tail. While appealing at an individualistic level (“this will make life easier for me in my car”), this option overlooks the collective and greater good for Auckland as a city.

Alternatively, AT can look to implement a program of behaviour change orientated around the development of more efficient and altruistic infrastructure. And in doing so direct people to more desirable, sustainable and beneficial travel options when it comes to navigating Auckland.

This second option will help see Auckland Council achieve its long-term objective of making Auckland the most livable city in the world. A global city that holds its own and stakes a claim in and amongst the likes of Tokyo, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Fortunately, in recognising that admirable yet ambitious objective, AT have settled on the latter – sustainable infrastructure supported by a program of behaviour change.

This is where TRA comes in

While Auckland Transport develops the infrastructure, TRA’s role is to help them get people using it. Unfortunately, in this instance the adage “build it, and they will come” only gets us some of the way there.

A particularly challenging and specific area of focus for AT revolves around driving the uptake of “active modes” of transport. Getting people out of cars and replacing these point-to-point journeys with walking or cycling.

Sounds easy, but we’re up against years of unconscious, habitual, system one behaviour as well as a social and cultural context that sees people reach for their car keys well before their bikes or walking shoes.

When it comes to transportation, the decision-making criteria Aucklanders (and Kiwis on the whole) adhere to differs wildly to that of residents in the cities we so wish to emulate. In the likes of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, when considering a journey, the first question people ask themselves is “Is it possible to cycle or walk?” No? “Well how about public transport? Can I bus or take the train?” The last resort is to take the car. Contrast this with New Zealand, where upon going just about anywhere our natural instinct is to grab the car keys without a second thought to possible alternatives.

The issue that AT face is that while yes, everybody (for the most part) walks, most of this is light recreational walking rather than being used to replace a car journey or point-to-point trip. Cycling, on the other hand, sees only 27% of Aucklanders participating at all, and just 11% doing it with any noticeable frequency. While many of us may be happy to lace up our walking shoes, and occasionally jump on a bike, we only really see these activities as for exercise or recreation – we can’t yet see how they can fit into our daily lives and how they can start replacing motorised transport.

girl on bike on pink cycle path
The Nelson St Cycleway (also known as LightPathAKL)

Understanding Aucklanders’ aversion to walking and cycling

So the challenge was set. AT develop strategic, efficient and contemporary infrastructure and TRA works with them and their agencies to get people using it and help create a vision of what Auckland could look like in the future.

Before we can understand how transportation in Auckland will look in the future we first need to look at how it exists today, in its current state. By looking at the decisions people are choosing to make (or not make) on a daily basis, and what’s driving this, we can start to identify where the opportunities exist. We start to get a sense of the levers and nudges we are going to have to use to get people thinking about, and using, transportation within Auckland in a more desirable way.

In order to understand this current state, we were able to employ a number of data collection tools with the aim of capturing and interrogating as much real world behaviour as possible. The first stage of this involved data analytics with a focus on mapping the existing and potential travel behaviour of Aucklanders.

We received approval from Statistics New Zealand to access ‘individual’ census data, unlocking data points on every individual in Auckland, enabling us to develop a detailed model of movements and propensity to move around the city. Through this analysis we could drill down into street and suburb level data to determine how people are getting around the city and where the opportunity suburbs exist in terms of future likelihood to walk or cycle. This enabled us to gain a robust and granular view of movements around the city and effectively provided us with a foundation of current behaviour, which could then be built upon.

This propensity modeling allowed us to pinpoint areas to focus both infrastructural investment as well as marketing campaign activity. A suburb level view of Auckland allowed us an understanding where growth and uptake of behaviour is most likely to come from.

With this census data serving as our foundation we then undertook a market survey of over 1000 Aucklanders as well as qualitative sessions which included a self-recorded video component. Here participants who would never normally walk to work were instructed to do so and document, via smart phones, key elements of this journey, providing their accompanying thoughts and commentary. This video element served a key, and somewhat unexpected, purpose. Challenging non-walkers to break their daily routines, and their accompanying system one behaviour, on video allowed us to gain a much deeper understanding of the reappraisal and reconsideration process and further explore the interesting disconnect between expectation and reality.

What people were telling us was that walking was nowhere near as bad as they had expected it to be. A lot of people even found it surprisingly pleasant. They quickly realised that all the things they had been most concerned about, such as getting ready on time and having appropriate footwear, were easily overcome with minimal effort, while the actual walk itself was much more enjoyable than anticipated. Had we not challenged people to walk to work and rather only relied on their perceptions alone, this insight may never have come up in a traditional focus group, and opened up a whole new conversation. People needed to actually trial a walk for themselves in order to get over their concerns and truly recognise all the positive things walking to work was able to deliver.

This agnostic approach to data collection revealed a perspective of walking and cycling in Auckland that would not have been otherwise possible had any one dynamic not been present. The market survey and video journeys gave us an awareness of the barriers and challenges people were facing when considering walking and cycling as a means of transportation. These issues centered around concerns over relevance (“this is not something for someone like me”), safety and the high level of perceived functional barriers that were limiting trial and adoption of the desired behaviour. Meanwhile, census data told us who was going to be most receptive to our messages and where to find them.

Emotion, the key to driving change

Now that the major obstacles were apparent, we were able to help AT and their agencies through the development of a marketing and communications strategy which could be used to guide future campaigns and messaging. This was focused around the incorporation of three guiding principles:

  • The injection of emotion
  • Creating positive memories
  • Normalising behaviour

"Despite being a species with a high intellectual capacity, skilled in analytical thought and reasoning, the engine that drives our thinking and our actions is our emotions."

There is overwhelming evidence that emotion is the key driver of human behaviour – it kicks in before we even begin to contemplate an action or a decision, overturning the previous theory that emotions worked in parallel with our rational decision-making – instead they are in the driving seat. So despite being a species with a high intellectual capacity, skilled in analytical thought and reasoning, the engine that drives our thinking and our actions is our emotions. Even before we know that we are going to make a decision, our emotions are firing off messages that guide the process.

For AT, a key tool in encouraging the trial and adoption of walking and cycling was going to be injecting emotion into their communications. Both walking and cycling were seen as highly rational, functional activities at best, and at worst they were so anchored down by the perceived obstacles that people felt went alongside them that they were never seen as realistic. We needed campaigns that left people feeling something, rather than just feeling like they had been told something.

An opportunity for AT was to dial up the journey as opposed to the action. When talking to people who cycle or walk with any real frequency we quickly realised that yes, it’s something that gets them from A to B and that’s great. An even bigger driver of the behaviour was all the other stuff it offered – mental clarity, a greater sense of control, freedom from the car, developing a greater connection to one’s neighbourhood by seeing it through a new lens. These were all strong emotional drivers for walkers.

Arguably the strongest (yet most difficult to attain) emotional driver was the idea of being part of a social movement. As social beings, we take comfort in doing what other people do and being part of the group. Being one of the hundreds of walkers striding down Franklin Road into the CBD, or a cyclist patiently waiting at a set of lights with several others, gave people a sense of comfort. It gave them the sense of being part of a movement that is building in energy and momentum – an undoubtedly powerful and impactful emotion AT need to strive to dial up wherever possible.

What’s interesting is that people who walk and cycle regularly implicitly get this stuff. They naturally understand the benefits without being told. And whether they are aware of it or not, these are the rewards that keep them repeating the behaviour day after day.

Another guiding principle for AT is how they work to create positive memories which people can associate with walking and cycling as a means of transport. Our memories are intrinsically linked to our emotions, to the extent that the way we feel about something will directly impact the way we remember it. We know that when recalling events, it’s largely the emotional peaks and endings that people recall. Everything else largely disappears into oblivion. This may be slightly challenging for some of us to swallow. We like to think of ourselves as intelligent, rational and considered beings that are capable of accurately recalling what we did last weekend. However, the reality is that we will probably remember only one or two key things (the stuff that got an emotional reaction) and upon recollection everything else will be largely made up through some combination of post-rationalisation, experience and assumption.

The more AT can leverage the power of positive memories, the more success they will have in driving the uptake of walking and cycling. Key to the criteria in which people trialing walking or cycling assess and gauge their likelihood to repeat the behaviour is the amount of effort it took – the easier the better. While there is no way of getting around the fact that you will actually need to walk or cycle under your own power, there are lots of thing AT can do to minimise the perceived effort of the experience as a whole. Suggestions ranged from apps and tools to help plan the fastest and most direct route, identifying covered walkways to mitigate the weather as much as possible and even partnering with someone like Urban Sherpa to deliver gym bags and other bulky equipment you might need to carry in. All of these initiatives will help ensure that when people reflect on the overall experience of walking or cycling to work, it’s not seen as difficult as it may well have been. Meanwhile, there are other things AT can do to create emotional peaks throughout the journey such as the beautification of dull urban routes through street art, gamification and identifying interesting and unique routes that offer variety and excitement.

i love my ride posters

The Sheep effect – why normalising behaviour is so important

The final guiding principle we recommended AT employ to help drive uptake of walking and cycling behaviour was one centered on the social normalisation of these behaviours. Whether we care to admit it to ourselves or not, we are a herding species – we want to be part of the group (and almost as importantly, be seen to be part of the group) and we want to move with the masses. When struck with indecision on how to act or behave, herding triggers us to use the actions of others as an indication of how we ourselves should behave. And a sense of momentum, coupled with a fear of missing out, has proven to be one of the most compelling drivers of human behaviour there is.

For AT, normalising behaviour is going to be critical in helping to address two key barriers which were particularly relevant to cycling. Concerns over safety and the fact that many people didn’t see cycling as an activity for ‘people like them’ were massively hindering the trial and uptake of this behaviour.

Insight gained from the market survey conducted was able to illustrate that Aucklanders’ concerns around cycling and safety could be broken into three big buckets:

  • One, concerns over safety existed because of how people drive (50%).
  • Two, there were thought to be not enough cycle lanes separating cyclists from traffic (43%).
  • And finally many people did not feel safe cycling after dark (38%).

The summation of these three issues was that basically, cycling is seen as a dangerous activity – people were scared to cycle.

This somewhat unsurprising perception of cycling in Auckland raises an interesting question. All of those “See the Person, Share the Road” campaigns where we see cyclists standing behind their bikes in brightly coloured lycra heavily labeled with tags such as “son”, “mother”, “aunty” – well, are they really the right kind of message we want to be sending? The campaign was without a doubt done with the best of intentions, with the objective of personalising cyclists from a motorist’s perspective while working to overcome the difference that can often exist between these two groups. But this kind of campaign works directly against AT’s goal of getting more people out on bikes by perpetuating the belief that cycling isn’t safe. It’s no wonder people are concerned when every second bus or billboard carrying this message basically serves to illustrate how dangerous cycling is.

The second perceptual barrier to cycling that can be addressed via normalisation is the widely held belief for many that “cycling just isn’t something for someone like me”. This belief is largely driven by cycling’s current association with the male European demographic, or more colloquially, with MAMIL’s (Middle Aged Men In Lycra). As this is the group actually engages in the behaviour AT want to encourage (albeit often for recreation purposes centered around the coffee shops of Takapuna and Mission Bay), they are champions of the message from AT’s perspective. However, in many instances these groups and the perception they propagate are actively working against the uptake of cycling.

In order to combat these issues, AT launched their GET EXCITED and I Love My Ride campaigns focused on normalising cycling as an everyday behaviour for real, everyday Aucklanders. Showing a variety of Aucklanders in various settings going about their daily commute will work to demystify the MAMIL perception and communicate that cycling is in fact, for everyone.

Looking forward to the future

Auckland Transport have seen fantastic results off the back of this work. One in four Aucklanders now say they hop on a bike at least once a month. In 2018 there's now 518,600 people cycling across the city, with 52,800 new cyclists in the last year alone.

We're seeing a shift in the types of people who are cycling too. In particular, growth is coming from females, millennials, migrants, child-free workers and families. And perceptions of cycling in Auckland are shifting to be far more positive, with Aucklanders feeling more confident in cycling, largely due to the removal of mental barriers and improved infrastructure. 

Transport is going to be critical to Auckland Council achieving its goal of reinventing Auckland into the most livable city in the world. We consistently see cities that score highly on happiness and livability score similarly well when it comes to transportation and navigability.

Smart infrastructure is going to play an undeniably important role in this reinvention, but we also need to fundamentally change the way Aucklanders think about transport. Otherwise, no amount of infrastructure will help ease Auckland’s traffic woes. As a population, we need to undergo a major shift in mindset. We like to think of ourselves as active, outdoorsy people who don’t back down from a hard day’s work or shirk a challenge – well now it’s up to us to prove it.

Black and white headshot of Shaun Fitzgibbon, partner at TRA
Shaun Fitzgibbon
Partner at TRA

New problems need new solutions.

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