The Best Way to Educate People That Bicycling is Desirable

By Dom Nozzi

It is quite common in America to believe that the only way to convince people of the desirability of a behavior is to educate them. “We need educate people that suburban sprawl is bad.” Or “we need to persuade college students to recycle more.” Or “we need to inform the residents of our town that they should not litter.”

I want to be frank. “Educating” people is an exceptionally poor way to modify human behavior. Indeed, it is quite common for a person who disagrees with a community objective (such as, say, reducing energy consumption) to oppose a new regulation and instead claim that we simply need to “educate” people to do the right thing.

However, if we are honest, we will accept the overwhelming evidence that the best education, by far, to convince people that they should behave in a more socially desirable way is to adjust market prices so that the behavior becomes more rational. As an aside, if adjusting market prices is not feasible or appropriate (for example, a local government is usually unable to modify the price of, say, a barrel of oil from the Middle East), a second-best tactic for modifying behavior is government regulation.

When modifying prices or adopting new regulations are NOT pursued as a way to modify behavior, and “education” is instead the tool used, it is a sign that the community is not serious about achieving the objective.

A frequent question in my profession of transportation planning is the question of how to increase travel by bicycle.

In my (dangerous?) opinion, the most effective way to increase the level of bicycling in a communty is to adjust market prices so that it becomes rational to bicycle.

Sure, it can be a nice idea to point out that bicycling is good for your health. Or reduces air pollution. Or saves money. But almost no one is convinced that they should bicycle when they hear such platitudes. Thinking that such messages are sufficient to increase bicycling, again, is a sign that we are not serious about increasing bicycling.

If we are serious about increasing bicycling, we need to modify price signals.

For example, increase the cost of motor vehicle parking, accept traffic congestion as a way to increase the “time tax,” increase the cost to drive on roads (via electronic road or congestion fees), increase the cost of gasoline (via an increase in the gas tax).

Get serious about modifying behavior in a socially desirable way. Opt for price signals (or regulations). “Education” is a feel good tactic that delivers little, if any, beneficial change in behavior.


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