What I've learned about systems design, health, and human nature a year after I sold my car and decided to bike 12 miles to the office every day
In our era of polarized politics, the idea of changing someone's mind seems increasingly implausible. But what if instead of changing someone's mind, you could change their behavior? This is a subject on the mind of many designers today. Whether you're talking about healthcare, the environment, or education, designers are increasingly being asked to solve problems by changing the way people act. How can we encourage people to eat right, reduce carbon emissions, and spend less (or more)?
For empathy's sake, over the last year, I undertook a behavior change of my own: I sold my car and started biking to work every day. One year later, it's time to reflect on what I've learned about behavioral change: What it takes to make it happen, how it can surprise you, and the limits.
There Is No Silver Bullet
We all crave simple solutions. For example, it's tempting to think that getting healthy is as simple as making exercise more fun or standing up at work. In the case of commuting solutions, we tend to focus on the role of public infrastructure, such as bike lanes and public transit. What I've learned over the last year, though, is that bike lanes were only a single component of an overall public and private sector system that enabled change.
For instance, my wife used to greet me with a kiss when I got home from work. But when I arrived home after one of my first rides in the Austin heat, she informed me that I smelled "like a corpse." I relate this not only to demonstrate my wife's facility with metaphor, but also to highlight the importance of looking at a whole ecosystem when trying to achieve behavioral change. Shower availability, particularly when living through a record-setting heatwave, is crucial, but easily overlooked when people are thinking solely about the bike when designing bike infrastructure. Luckily, my company provides a locker room with showers and towel service. This is a rare luxury that I'm guessing few have, but it's critical in Texas if you're biking more than a short distance. Even if our governor's prayers for rain had worked out, I would at least have needed a place to towel off.
Another piece of my transportation system that involved both the public and private sector was my backup plan. On days when I either couldn't bike or simply didn't feel up to it, I needed another way to get around. The bus was one option, but its schedule was infrequent in my neighborhood. More often, I took advantage of car2go, a car sharing service in Austin (and a subsidiary of Daimler AG). Given its unique approach to rental pickup and return, car2go has provided a nice complement to my bike.