Recently I attended the inaugural lecture of a colleague on issues of energy and sustainability. Following the lecture our discussion turned towards the perennial question of how to get people out of their cars and into public transport.
A usual response is to suggest a combination of taxes and subsidies. Subsidising public transport makes it cheaper. But subsidies have to be paid for by taxes on something else.
It is also not clear that people are not taking public transport because it is more expensive. Driving a car to work is a lot more expensive when you factor in the cost of petrol, parking and effort.
I think the issue is this: driving is convenient. Riding the bus has small inconveniences associated with it - walking to the bus-stop, waiting for the bus, getting off and walking to work. The inconvenience increases when it rains. So even if in the long run the benefits of taking the bus far outweigh the benefits of driving, the small inconveniences prevent us from getting out of the car.
We could tax drivers. In Singapore, for instance, you need to pay a very large tax to buy a new car, which makes them unaffordable for many. London has congestion charges.
But these taxes affect people disproportionately. People with small children often have to drive since taking the bus is not always convenient.
It is also not the case that I am better off driving if everyone else is taking the bus. In the parlance of economics, what we have here is a coordination problem. I will ride the bus if everyone else does so. But if everyone is driving then I drive too. Clearly everyone is better off if we all took the bus. But currently we are caught in a situation where we all drive.
So the trick is to get people to break out of that status quo inertia and get them to take the first step towards taking public transport.
My research suggests that we might be able to make a difference by appealing to people's intrinsic motivations.
How about declaring a "Ride the bus/train to work day"?
Obviously we cannot ask everyone to do so on the same day; otherwise the system will be overwhelmed. So we need to ask far-flung neighbourhoods to do this on a given day. Let us say that the residents of Blockhouse Bay and Titirangi in the West and Glen Innes and Glendowie in the east will be asked to ride the bus on the first Monday of each month.
At this point I can hear the guffaws of incredulous laughter. "This will never work" you are thinking. But consider this: we routinely stand in line to vote; we rush to donate blood in response to appeals; we contribute to charity; in the midst of a drought we voluntarily reduce our water usage.
We engage in a wide range of activities that serve the common good even when it does not serve our self-interest. And in this case the activity in question is in our own self-interest as well. All that is needed is an initial push to get us going. And we need someone like the City Council to coordinate this.
Here is the other issue. My research suggests that most people are conditional co-operators. We are willing to do things if others are doing so.
One way of getting people into the buses then would be to enlist MPs, councillors and celebrities. Ask them to set an example by taking the bus or the train. And ask them to collect a group of people to take along with them. Chances are that if Lucy Lawless or Dan Carter is riding the bus then a crowd will form even without asking.
It is entirely possible that enthusiasm might wane after a while. Over time more and more people will revert to driving.
But it is also possible that we might be able to hit a tipping point and the habit will stick.
Why not try it? What is the downside? At most it is the additional cost of some advertisements in the media and an additional insert in the bulletin the City Council sends out to us routinely.
If it does not work then we have not lost much. But if it does then we have solved a deeply entrenched problem at minimal cost.
My daughter's school does a "walk to school" day once in a while and on those days we do leave the car behind and end up walking. At the end of the walk the kids get a sticker or a lolly as a prize, which seems to make them very happy. We could try it with adults too! Lollies are pretty cheap.
Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Experimental Economics at the University of Auckland Business School.