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Auckland’s transport love affair and the problem with MAMILs

Separating Aucklanders from their beloved cars – easy? It can be, says TRA's Jeremy McDonnell. 

We all know that traffic in Auckland is an issue. Try getting from Epsom to our offices in Britomart at 8 am (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. And, it’s everyone else’s fault. It’s astonishing how we look at problems and don’t see ourselves as part of the problem and, let’s face it, transportation and the way people move through and around Auckland is a problem occupying the hearts and minds of everyone living in the city. So if not ourselves, where can we point the finger of blame?

Auckland busy keeping up with its own 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 a reputation for innovation all position New Zealand as a popular end destination from a global migration perspective. Auckland’s multi-culturalism, ethnic diversity and being New Zealand’s only really sizeable city are just some of the factors that result in the majority choosing to make Auckland their home.

The second component in Auckland’s population growth can be attributed to an increasing trend in urbanisation; New Zealanders are leaving the regions and settling in cities and Auckland is capturing more than its fair share of these relocators.

50,000 new arrivals to Auckland a year is hard to comprehend. To give you some perspective, this represents:

  • 961 additional residents per week.
  • 400 new homes built on a weekly basis.
  • 1 new street created every second day.
  • 670 vehicles imported via Ports of Auckland daily.

TRA’s office overlooks the car yards at the port and, trust me, I can vouch for this number.

So though we like shiny new cars, congestion on the roads, slow travel times and stress impacts our personal lives, family time and wellbeing. And, it also reduces the productivity of Auckland, affects all of our business and ultimately impacts the GDP of New Zealand.

Who will save us from ourselves?

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:

  1. 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 of Auckland as a city.
  2. Alternatively, AT can look to implement a program of behaviour change supported by the development of a more efficient and altruistic infrastructure. And, in doing so, direct people to more desirable, sustainable and beneficial travel experiences.

AT have settled on the latter – sustainable infrastructure supported by a program of behaviour change, which will help Auckland Council achieve its long-term objective of making Auckland the most livable city in the world: a global city that stakes a claim in and amongst the likes of Tokyo, Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

Build it and they will come – nice idea, but it only works in movies

While Auckland Transport can develop the new infrastructure, there is still the challenge  of getting people to use it. People don’t like to change their behaviour. Life is complicated enough as it is and habitual behaviour is how we cope, save energy and persuade ourselves what we are currently doing is the best thing for us.

We helped AT take on the challenge – driving the uptake of ‘active modes’ of transport. Getting people out of the car habit and walking or cycling instead.

It wasn’t going to be easy because as well as being up against years of unconscious, habitual behaviour there is a social and cultural context that sees people reach for their car keys well before their bikes or walking shoes. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The decision-making criteria of Aucklanders differ 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.

The issue that AT face is that while yes, people walk; 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 one in four Aucklanders participating at all, and just one in ten 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, our frame for these activities is for exercise or recreation – we don’t yet see how they can fit into our daily lives and how they can start replacing motorised transport.

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.

First we need to walk in Aucklanders shoes – metaphorically that is

Before we can understand how transportation in Auckland will look in the future we first need to look at how it exists today. By looking at people’s daily habits and what’s driving this, we can identify where the opportunities exist. We can pinpoint the levers and nudges we are going to have to use to get people to change their behaviour.

Focusing on actual behaviour was essential, as it is vital to get an accurate baseline. So, the first stage was data analytics with a focus on mapping the existing and potential travel behaviour of Aucklanders.

Through Statistics New Zealand we accessed 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. We drilled down to 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. So we had both a robust and a granular view of movements around the city, providing us with a foundation of current behaviour.

This propensity modeling meant we could pinpoint areas to focus both infrastructural investment as well as marketing campaign activity. A suburb level view of Auckland allowed us an understanding of 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.

Walking the walk

People who would never normally walk to work were asked to do so and document, via smart phones, key elements of this journey, providing their accompanying thoughts and commentary. Challenging non-walkers to break their daily routines, and their habitual behaviour, on video gave us a much deeper understanding of the reappraisal and reconsideration process and enabled us to further explore the interesting disconnect between expectation and reality. Now we were getting a handle on the friction points and some insight into how we could intervene and reframe these.

Changing habitual behaviour always causes a degree of pain. You know how irritated you feel when you open a familiar website and find they have changed it – maybe change for the better, but all you feel is irritation. There is a simple pain gain equation that we use to activate behaviour change – there has to be a reward. What reward could changing the car habit for walking provide? The good news was that people were telling us that walking was nowhere near as bad as they had expected it to be. A lot of people even found it surprisingly pleasant. The pleasure of the walk was the reward that reframed all the things they had been most concerned about, such as getting ready on time and having appropriate footwear, as something that was easily overcome with minimal effort, because 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 would not have emerged. 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. But how could we get people to the point where they could experience the reward without habit and rational barriers in the way?

Three guiding principles

We were able to help AT and their agencies through the development of a marketing and communications strategy that would guide campaigns and messaging to achieve the behaviour change.

There were three guiding principles that would need to be embedded into the desired programme:

  1. The injection of emotion
  2. Creating positive memories
  3. Normalising behaviour

Emotion in the driving seat

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 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. 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 experience as opposed to the functional A to B travel element. By talking to people who frequently cycle or walk we saw that the emotional driver of the behaviour was all the other stuff it offered – mental clarity, a greater sense of control, freedom from the tyranny of the car, developing a greater connection to the neighbourhood by seeing it through a new lens. These were all strong individual emotional factors for walkers.

The context of cultural and social influence was the other important lever at an emotional level. Arguably the strongest 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 belonging – being part of the herd expressed so uniquely by the Kiwi upward nod. It gave people the sense of being part of a cultural movement that is building in energy and momentum – an undoubtedly powerful emotion AT aim to dial up wherever possible.

What’s interesting is that people who walk and cycle regularly implicitly get this stuff. They have an embedded understanding of the benefits. And whether they are aware of it or not, these are the rewards that keep them repeating the behaviour day after day.

Re wiring habits with positive memories

Another guiding principle for AT is how they create positive memories which people 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 the emotional peaks and endings that people recall. Everything else largely disappears into oblivion.

The more AT can leverage the power of positive memories, the more success they will have in driving the uptake of walking and cycling. People trialing walking or cycling assess and gauge their likelihood to repeat the behaviour by 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 things AT can do to minimise the perceived effort of the experience and the memories that creates.

Suggestions ranged from apps and tools to help plan the fastest and most direct route, identifying covered walkways to mitigate the weather and reduce negative memories, to partnering with someone like Urban Sherpa to deliver gym bags and other bulky equipment you might need to carry.

All of these initiatives will help ensure that when people reflect on the overall experience of walking or cycling to work, it’s not remembered as difficult. 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.

The herd effect – why normalising behaviour is so important

The final guiding principle we recommended AT employ to drive uptake of cycling in particular relates to the normalisation of behaviour. Whether we care to admit it to ourselves or not, we are a herding species and we choose a herd that seems similar to us. So our self-perception as it relates to our view of those around us is a powerful influence on our behaviour.

For AT, normalising behaviour is going to be critical in helping to address two key barriers that were particularly relevant to cycling.

  1. Concerns over safety
  2. People don’t see cycling as an activity for ‘people like them’

Both were massively impacting the trial and uptake of cycling in the city.

Aucklanders' concerns around cycling and safety can be broken into three big buckets:

  • 50% had concerns over safety because of how people drive.
  • 43% said there are not enough cycle lanes separating cyclists from traffic.
  • 38% did not feel safe cycling after dark.

An undercurrent of fear

Cycling is seen as a dangerous activity – people are just too scared to cycle. The “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. But this kind of campaign is working directly against AT’s goal of getting more people out on bikes by priming 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 problem of MAMILS

The second perceptual barrier to cycling that can be addressed via normalisation is the widely held belief for many that “cycling 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). Be honest, did that bring a pleasing picture to mind?

The irony is that this group does actually engage in the behaviour AT wants 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 have recently launched the GET EXCITED and I Love My Bike 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, demystifying the MAMIL perception and normalising cycling behaviour.

Doing it the Kiwi way

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 and act. We need to undergo a major shift in mindset, break some habits and behave like true Kiwis – active, outdoorsy people who don’t back down from a challenge.

I’ve only lived in Auckland for a couple of years, so I am by no means an expert on this city or able to appreciate the changes it has already undergone like true natives can. But even in the short time I’ve been here I’ve seen Auckland change and it feels as if Auckland as a city has never been so unsure of itself. And, I don’t mean that as a bad thing – it’s just that it feels as if the future of Auckland is still so up for grabs, yet ready and eager to be pointed in the right direction.

I am pleased to be helping Auckland Transport play their part in that redirection by re-imagining the way people move through and around the city, and ultimately helping to make Auckland the most livable city in the world.

Jeremy McDonnell is a consultant at TRA.  
This article first appeared in Issue 01 of TRA’s Frame magazineTo subscribe to the future issues of the magazine, please email [email protected]