Behavior Change Case Study: The National Streets Service Project

By Kate O'Brien

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

The National Street Service (NSS) is a project designed to find ways to get more people engaged in the movement to shift American street design from auto-centered to human-centered. NSS was born from a collaboration between GehlPeople, an urban design consultancy, and Ford Motor Company’s Greenfield Labs, whose leadership envisions itself a steward of the movement for streets to change, becoming more human-centered and enabling more sustainable transit modes.

Most Americans have heard of the National Park Service, a federal agency that celebrates, conserves, and stewards the rich natural and cultural resources and its outdoor recreation potential across the United States. NSS was developed in that same spirit, in embrace of the fact that 80 percent of public spaces in American cities are comprised of streets, and thus are essential pieces of connective tissue across our communities and the public realm.

Architects of the NSS project sought to engage passive supporters of human-centered streets as its target audience. These are people who might support this idea, but don’t (yet) recognize themselves as supporters, or know how to affect change. This target group is distinct from those who are already active in organizing for change (e.g., chair of bike coalition, frequent neighborhood meeting attendee advocating for complete streets, etc.). The NSS team’s approach to reaching this audience was informed by research and data on psychology and human behavior.

The first phase of the NSS project involved the team developing and refining its theories of change, as well as testing a variety of messages and engagement strategies on the streets of its “home base” in San Francisco. The second phase of NSS involved implementation in four other US cities chosen as a representative sample of communities that might seek and implement tactical urbanist strategies to advance change in their streetscapes. The NSS team encouraged replication of the strategies that demonstrated greatest success in the San Francisco pilot. Interactive and provocative NSS projects took place concurrently in Boise, Idaho; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Pontiac, Michigan; and San Antonio, Texas.

Rather than exchange words or jargon themselves, the NSS team recruited, trained, and coached locally-based volunteers to create and implement their own small, low-cost “intervention” connected in some way to streets in their community. During the training period, volunteers participated in several tactical urbanist activities that prompted exploration of their emotional relationship with local streets. Volunteers were then coached through design and implementation of their own intervention based on their training experience. All interventions were designed to spark ideation and conversation, offering passers-by in the public realm a “moment” or experience that appealed to their sense of emotion, place, or history. Volunteers gathered feedback from those who participated in their interventions. The NSS team then spent time reflecting on the data gathered and distilled a set of principles that NSS hopes will inform and advance a broad national movement toward designing and building more human-centered American streets in the future.

Behavior Change Analysis

GehlPeople focuses on making cities for people, using the interdisciplinary lenses of architecture and psychology to build cities that encourage people to choose, say, biking or walking as a transportation mode. Created by Ford, Greenfield Labs focuses on exploring the future of mobility through human-centered design. Through the NSS collaboration, the team set out to answer one key question: “How do we provoke a change of mindset about streets in order to change behavior?”.

The kinds of behavior change NSS sought centered on how people think, how they vote, and how they engage in and advocate for change. The idea that seeded the genesis of and strategy behind the National Streets Service project was that transforming streets for a human scale would require building political capital. Thus, the NSS project was designed to engage people meaningfully and thoughtfully by embracing the tendencies of human nature and behavior.

Gehl’s philosophy centers on the social-emotional aspects of urban design, especially the urban landscape and the streetscape. Gehl’s tagline “Making the easiest choice for an individual also the best choice for society at large,” suggests that the NSS team embraced an understanding of human cognitive bias. By design, the NSS project sought to harness the power of DEFAULTS; in this particular case, the powerful default of the human brain choosing the EASY path, or path of least resistance, when expending effort. This has been observed of humans tending to cross a street where the distance to cross is shortest, and can be seen in the way NSS volunteers designed their interventions to encounter people already in their daily routine.

The NSS team was explicit in understanding the importance of attuning their language and message for an intended audience. In this case, while the identity of the MESSENGERS themself varied, what was important in every intervention was the forethought and strategy given to their communication. GehlPeople team member Anna Muessig spoke about urban designers needing to engage deeply with traffic engineers, those who currently control design and function of the American streetscape: “We speak the language of engineering. We create data to inform engineers about how people move/get around.” This sensibility was adapted to the NSS volunteer role, which utilized straightforward, jargon-free language of laypeople to communicate with those encountered in NSS interventions in the public realm.

The NSS project focused heavily on AFFECT, that is, humans’ emotional responses and associations, which can powerfully shape human actions. In this particular project, the NSS model focused on creating “empathy moments” between street users across modes as a strategy for helping people value changes that prioritize more vulnerable people among us.

The National Street Service project also focused on PRIMING THE PUMP amongst members of its target audience. Rather than exchange words or jargon, NSS recruited and built the capacity of locally-based volunteers who were coached to create and implement a small, low-cost “intervention” connected somehow to streets in their community. Each intervention was designed to be encountered by a community member, who was then solicited for a reaction, or offered a call to action. Data collected from these interventions were then reviewed by the NSS team to distill principles and messaging that would advance a broad national movement toward designing and building more human-centered streets in the future.

The overarching strategy that informed the entire NSS project was the intent to make it SOCIAL. Engagements on the ground in five pilot NSS communities encouraged local people to tap into and use the power of networks to encourage and support people in making a commitment to be a part of streetscape change in their community. The NSS team was very clear in understanding that the best way to nurture a person’s sense of ownership or buy-in is to have them participate in something first-hand and alongside fellow participants.

The NSS project team also sought to make it TIMELY. By design, NSS “interventions” on the ground prompted people when they are most likely to be receptive– in this particular case, encountering them in their day-to-day commute along streets and through the public realm in the course of their daily lives. The NSS team knows that meeting people where they are is a great way to ensure some type of engagement with a target audience.

Designers of the NSS project were intentional about appealing to shared values around the street, particularly those around changes that are of the highest and best use for society, that allow for democracy to play out on the street. Thus, the NSS project tapped into the cognitive bias associated with COMMITMENTS, specifically humans’ desire to maintain public promises; the value proposition of streets and the public realm can be viewed as one of these “public promises” associated with life in civil American society.

Conclusion

The National Street Service project offers an excellent example of how leveraging cognitive biases and the human behavior that results from them can inform and build a campaign for social change. “You have to experience something on a one-to-one scale, with other people, in real urban space in order for an experience to make a difference in someone’s mind,” says Muessig. By creating emotional “moments” like this for people to encounter and engage first-hand with other people in the course of their daily routine, the NSS team and its volunteers designed a very powerful strategy for sparking introspection and dialogue among laypeople. NSS also designed a near-term strategy in multiple communities with an eye toward affecting change over the longer-term: “We ran the program concurrently in these 5 cities in order to cultivate a sense of urgency and importance as a result of being part of a ‘national movement whose time has come’,” says Muessig. Indeed, it will be interesting to watch this national campaign for designing more human-centered streetscapes across the United States unfold in the years ahead. Visit www.ourlivingstreets.com to review the National Street Service Principles for the Living Street of Tomorrow.

Special thanks goes to Anna Muessig of the National Street Service for her willingness to be interviewed for and participate in this project.


The theoretical basis for the Behavior Change Blog Series is informed by two mnemonic frameworks shown in detail below. The MINDSPACE framework is a list of the elements that inform cognitive biases and human behaviors, while the EAST framework is a list of directives that are derived from MINDSPACE and help inform strategies for influencing behavior change in humans. These two frameworks were established by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a social enterprise based in the United Kingdom.

MINDSPACE Framework EAST Framework
Messenger – We are heavily influenced by who communicates information to us. Make it Easy – Harness the power of defaults, reduce the ‘hassle factor’, simplify messages.
Incentives – Our response to incentives is shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as reference points, aversion to losses, and overweighting of small probabilities. Make it Attractive – Draw people toward preferred behaviors, design rewards and sanctions to maximize effect.
Norms – We are strongly influenced by what others do. Make it Social – Show people the norm, use the power of networks to encourage and support, encourage people to make a commitment.
Defaults – We “go with the flow” of pre-set options. Make it Timely – Prompt people when they are most likely to be receptive, consider immediate costs and benefits, help people plan their response.
Salience – Our attention is drawn to what is novel and also to what seems relevant to us.
Priming – We are often influenced by subconscious cues.
Affect – Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions.
Commitments – We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and to reciprocate acts.
Ego – We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.

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