newcastle can webpage

I’m a leading expert in travel behaviour change. I know this because it says so on my website.

So I watched Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall’s series “Britain’s Fat Fight” , earlier this year, in which he challenge the city of Newcastle to shed weight through a "Newcastle Can" campaign, with a mixture of interest and apprehension. Basically I’m concerned that a TV chef has delivered a behaviour change campaign far more effectively than we tend to as travel planners. (You can still see the series on the BBC i-player til August 2018 here).

There are several potential reasons for this. First, there’s the money and the celebrity. Hugh’s got access to a range of experts, celebrities and a television production company that can help spread awareness and interest. And with these resources (and coming from a media background), they’ve put together a campaign that just looks so much more interesting than our typical travel behaviour offerings.

But more fundamentally, is the best way to promote more active travel to target the primary motivator for people – health?

Would we be better advised to throw our eggs into the Public Health basket and ensure that their campaigns promoted active travel as a part of a broader promotion of active, healthy lifestyles?

The problem with many travel behaviour change campaigns is that they are far too broad in their conception and their delivery – they try to do all things for all people. Councils are anxious (for the right reasons) to ensure that the services they offer are inclusive and relevant to all sorts of people. So we end up pushing generic messages “Please walk / cycle / use the bus / don’t drive” (delete as applicable) in order to “get healthy / save money / save time / be nice to the environment” (delete as applicable), which subsequently fail to resonate with individuals. And – something we often forget as transport planners – travel is a means to an end and not a primary motivator to people. So travel behaviour change campaigns are often putting the cart before the horse. The message needs to be “get healthy by changing your travel behaviour”, not “change your travel behaviour to get healthy”.

In my time, I’ve done a lot of personal travel planning (PTP). The secret of PTP is that a skilled travel advisor engages an individual in a motivational conversation to focus on their specific needs and their specific motivations and then presents ideas to them based on these. Or better still, enables the individual to identify solutions that meet their needs and motivations. Once PTP became a mini-industry, new players came into the market offering cheaper versions of the product. These were often survey-type instruments which asked people how they travelled and, if for example they drove to work, might churn out a public transport journey plan or cycle journey plan for that journey. These new, cheaper approaches entirely missed the P in PTP – that it’s about making it personal to individuals. (What happens if I don’t like cycling or the reason I drive is because I have to pick my child up on the way home? – a survey won’t pick this sort of information up).

Gloomily, it seems that as transport planners, once we get hold of a good idea, we feel the urge to systematise it so that it can be deployed anywhere in the same format – the antithesis of personalising it.

So how should we be going about travel behaviour change in the future?

  • Focus on one overarching motivator, such as health. You can then run individual campaigns and promotions targeting specific groups and specific behaviours under this umbrella.
  • Give people a community target to work towards – in Newcastle, Hugh challenged the city to shed 100,000 pounds in weight.
  • Adopt a celebratory tone. Avoid preaching.
  • And, learning from Hugh’s TV programme, put publicity and social media front and centre. Engineer those “made for TV” or “photo opp” moments.

Can we do this? Newcastle can!