Yesterday, we featured a creative nudge in Copenhagen for getting bicyclists to park their bikes in designated spaces. “Bicycle butlers” who oil your chain, pump your tires, and leave you a note kindly asking you to park your bike in the appropriate place next time. The number of illegally parked bikes has dropped by more than two-thirds. Those are impressive results and would-be nudgers should be curious. What’s behind that big drop?
One possible explanation is implied in the bike butler project leader Poul Erik Kinimond’s comment about the solution. Kinimond said the team wanted to tackle the “problem in a way that wouldn’t make people angry because we moved their bicycles.” Call this the kill them with kindness explanation. Persuasion with a velvet glove rather than an iron first.
Maybe. The Nudge blog agrees that kindness is doing the persuasive work here, but only indirectly. Kindness works because it’s unexpected. To be more specific, unexpected in this situation. What situation is that? Parking. When your vehicle (car, bike, etc.) is parked illegally, what happens? You get a ticket, or a boot, or even towed. Punishment is the predicted outcome. Occasionally, like on Christmas Day or New Years, police officers may have written you a “happy holidays” warning instead of a ticket. If that’s ever happened to you, chances are you remember it. Why? Because it was out of the norm, which is exactly what the Copenhagen nudge is.
Exploiting unexpectedness is a powerful strategy for getting people to remember something, a point behavioralists Dan and Chip Heath make in Made to Stick. Think of an unexpected occurrence as akin to a reminder note that continues to pop up in your mind every time you revisit the original situation. What’s unique about the Copenhagen example is the free oil lube and air pump. There are some similarities to the world of customer service. The Heath brothers point to the example of Nordstrom’s legendary customer service where employees have gone so far as to wrap products a customer bought at another store. The friendly note to park elsewhere next time ties the unexpected oil and air “service gift” to a specific request, putting it back in context of the larger message about appropriate bike parking places. Those two items, the gift and the message, will come together as a package every time that person returns to the metro stop on their bike. They’ll think, “Remember that time I parked my bike illegally…”
The lesson of Copenhagen isn’t that all cities should start oiling the chains and pumping the tires of illegal bike parkers. It’s that more cities should break out of the ticket norm if they want to induce behavioral change.