MOTIVATE is an exploratory study of how differing social norms surrounding mobility may impact of the effectiveness of structural interventions to promote active travel, using agent-based modelling. It is led by Dr Simon Miles at King’s College London and Prof Steve Cummins at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

There is growing commitment globally to rebalancing the travel system, so that more journeys are made using more active modes, particularly walking and cycling. Walking and cycling are good for people’s physical and mental health, and reduced dependency on private cars mitigates noise and air pollution, reduces risk of road traffic injury and prevents cardiovascular disease and obesity.

A structural barrier to active travel is the design of the urban built environment, where roads can act as physical barriers to pedestrian movement and interaction. Governments are investing substantial resources to remove structural barriers to active travel. One example is the Transport for London/Greater London Authority Mini-Holland initiative, a programme aimed at reducing car use and increasing walking and cycling through changes such as new cycle lanes and coherent walking and cycling routes, new and upgraded pedestrian crossings that prioritise walking over cars, upgraded junctions to improve traffic flow, new and improved public spaces, etc.

Complex interventions such as this are difficult and expensive to evaluate. Often, evaluations are geared towards establishing whether the intervention worked based on aggregate measures of usage. Determining why an intervention worked is much more challenging and it can be difficult to unpack the contribution of different pieces to the success or failure of the whole. Also often left unspoken is the role of individual agency and the underlying social norms of travel behaviour.

A social norm is an unwritten understanding held collectively by members of a population as to proper or acceptable behaviour in given circumstances. Norms around mobility may relate to the perceived social importance of owning or driving a car, or the appropriateness of riding a bicycle. Social norms may differ according to population groups (e.g. men vs. women or young vs. old), and may be conditioned by environment (e.g. neighbourhood walkability) or culture. In the context of the design and evaluation of active travel interventions, social norms that prioritise car use may limit the effectiveness of interventions like Mini-Holland and, if these norms vary by socioeconomic status, they may even serve to widen inequalities in active travel and physical activity.

We use agent-based models to simulate the effects of differing social norms on the effectiveness of active mobility interventions. Agent-based simulation is a bottom-up modelling process in which individuals, households or other autonomous entities are imbued with simple behavioural rules that define how they act in an environment and interact with one another. These rules derive from a conceptual understanding of a system of interest, augmenting analyses of observational data based on aggregate patterns of mobility to simulating the impact of individual preferences.

The MOTIVATE project explores two linked research questions: what social norms of travel behaviour minimise or maximise the effectiveness of interventions on active travel, and can we simulate, using agent-based models, the potential impact of social norm interventions on the effectiveness of interventions?

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