This post was originally published in The Atlantic on September 27, 2011.
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.
The Results Might Not Be What You Expect
Another facet of biking that was more complicated than expected was its impact on my health. The conventional wisdom on diet and exercise is simple: we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. So, surely the addition of 12 miles each day on the bike would result in a leaner body. But if you were to create a graph of my weight throughout the first few months, it would look like the bottom edge of the Van Halen logo: a sharp decline, followed by an equally sharp rebound. What happened?
It turns out that when you exercise more, you get hungrier, which means you eat more. While this may sound obvious, it actually flies in the face of conventional wisdom on diet and exercise. We are told to eat less and exercise more, as if these two activities were unrelated. But after riding home from work, I didn’t just smell like a wild animal; I had the uncontrollable appetite of one. Clearly, appetite and exercise are actually interdependent variables: they affect each other.
Of course, I’m not saying that biking hasn’t made me healthier. I’m confident that biking has provided myriad health benefits from stress reduction to cardiovascular fitness. But if weight loss had been the sole intended outcome of this behavior change, I would have been disappointed and possibly stopped this new healthy habit.
Changing Behavior Is One Thing; Changing Human Nature Is Another
When you’re on two wheels, cars are a menacing presence: lethal weapons that seem to have been designed for maximum distraction. One could reasonably expect biking to have turned me into a more empathetic driver. But if I’m honest with myself, there are still times when I’m driving my wife’s car and I still feel a sense of impatience with bikers. Deep down inside, a little voice is saying “Look at this jerk. I guess it his life’s mission to slow me down.” Something about driving brings out my inner five-year-old. Is this momentary lack of empathy human nature? Is it something that could be changed with a different approach to automotive design? If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of how much we are influenced by emotions that arise from somewhere out of our control.
One year later, I think it’s safe to say my behavioral change is here to stay. For one, my bike ride has become the most thoughtful and creative part of my day. Biking has also turned out to be a very predictable (and therefore low-stress) way of commuting. Between those benefits and the money I’ve saved on car payments, insurance, and parking, biking has become a daily delight. It may not have been a magical weight loss pill, but there’s no question that it’s left me — and the rest of the world — a little better off.