What good can come from Tube chaos? - RSA

What good can come from Tube chaos?


  • Behaviour change
  • Social brain

Five million people had to find alternative ways of getting around London yesterday. I for one was ill-prepared to cope with my first tube strike. But what if everyone was prepared to see the opportunity in the chaos? How might we collectively take advantage of this moment in time when the patterns of behaviour of 5 million or so people are so radically disrupted?

I decided that yesterday’s London tube strike was a great opportunity for me to cycle in to work for the first time. I didn’t have many other options; a convoluted combination of DLR, river ferry, and lots of walking. But as I considered it I realised I didn’t have any lights, I needed to pump up the tyres, I didn’t know where my waterproof was, or where to leave my bike when I got to work… none of which I was in a position to sort out at 10pm on Sunday when the strike was confirmed. As a result I couldn’t take advantage of this opportunity: my failure to think systematically about this in advance meant I couldn’t be entrepreneurial in response to it.

Why is this an opportunity? We are creatures of habit; when was the last time you went to work via a different means or route or at a different time? The habitual is comfortable; the new often uncomfortable. Yet we often need a shock or an event to force us out of our comfort zone. A heart attack leads to a new lifestyle. Redundancy forces us to refresh our skills.In the uncomfortable there is opportunity.

These are examples of what we are calling at the RSA ‘social moments’ – a point in time when an event triggers a heightened opportunity for change. The challenge is two-fold: how do we spot the opportunity and how do we prepare for it in order to leverage the benefits these moments might offer? So in the context of yesterday’s Tube strike, where are the opportunities for change? 

Clearly, there is much preparation I could have done to make me ‘cycling ready’. Now imagine I’m not the only one in this position; how many of the people taking tube journeys every day considered and ruled out cycling for similar reasons (no bike, helmet, unconfident, etc)? This is the individual response.

Now imagine that a cycling charity had prepared for such an eventuality and rather than ‘tube strike day’ their response was to call it Cycle to Work Day and quickly leverage their communications and advocates to make it seem like a normal thing. Tips and advice. Routes. And everyone’s doing it! I would feel as though I am not the only one contemplating cycling; the power of safety in numbers and social norms. Perhaps, for one day only, the Santander cycles are free, so those without cycles can take advantage of the opportunity. Perhaps cycling clubs lead organised rides along the major cycle routes. These are all organisational responses.

On their own, these are each small actions; collectively they can create an impact greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Ultimately these are all actions designed to make it easy to cycle. What proportion of the 5 million of us using the tube would it take to cycle to work in order to make a movement at sufficient scale to result in interesting and unpredictable outcomes? Just a 1% shift would lead to 50,000 extra cyclists on the streets. What might that result in? Cycle to work/school Mondays. Car-free day. People being more active. Meeting new people. Feeling better (of course there are downsides as well as upsides that need to be considered).

For some this would be a one-off; for others, this might be the start of something more habitual, meaningful and life-changing. We know from LSE research that people forced to find different routes to work in 2014 were significantly less likely to return to their old routes after the strike.  

One of many behaviour change models, BJ Fogg identifies behaviour (cycling) as the product of motivation (I have to get to work), ability (it’s easy to do) and a trigger (the tube strike), occurring at the same moment. Critical to this is the idea that making it easy to do requires preparation. So, time for me to head out and get those bike lights. My question is this: what do you need to do to try something new? 


Follow Ian on Twitter @ianburbidge

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