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People led city design
When we design spaces, we must firstly understand the needs and behaviours of the people we are designing for.
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Putting people first when designing city environments

Laura Lewis, Principal Human Factors Engineer

As providers of buildings and infrastructure we can directly influence the ways in which people act and experience their surroundings. When we design spaces, we must firstly understand the needs and behaviours of the people we are designing for.

A good way to explain why behavioural insights are essential is to give an example when such inputs were applied too late.

A busy commuter railway station has introduced new markings on the platform floors at the points where the train doors open and close. The markings are intended to reduce the train dwell times (the time that trains spend in the station) by optimising passenger boarding and alighting. The idea is that passengers will know the best places to wait on the platform so that they can board efficiently.

However, if you watch people on the platforms, you will see that these markings have been counterproductive. People stand directly on them, so that when a train arrives at the platform, the result is gridlock as people try to disembark and board the train at the same time.

This is a classic case of where a design has been implemented without considering human behaviour. The operator’s aim was to reduce dwell times and therefore help improve capacity on the network. However, a vital step had been missed. By jumping to a solution without fully understanding the problem, their action had the opposite effect than that intended.

Questions that they should have been asking at the outset include:

  • How do people currently behave on the platform? Are they standing against the wall, walking up and down, clustering?
  • What causes people to behave like this? Is it the location of entrances, platform width, lighting levels, their knowledge of destination exits?
  • What behaviours need to stop, start or continue to achieve reduced dwell times? Do we need to stop clustering at platform entrances or stop standing in alighting areas?

Undertaking this behavioural insights work at the start of the project would have helped them to understand what behaviours needed to be addressed. This would have informed the type of solutions that would be effective in encouraging people to behave in a way which would reduce dwell times.

This small example illustrates how the design of the physical spaces can have a direct impact on people’s behaviours, the ways that they move around and occupy spaces. As designers, we have a fantastic opportunity to develop environments which are safe, comfortable and enjoyable for their occupants. Embedding behavioural insights work within the design elements can add real value to our projects.

Improving imperfect spaces

Often, we need to work with spaces that are imperfect. We recently worked to improve the design of a tram stop which is narrow and shared between tram passengers and pedestrians passing through. As there was simply not enough room, there were major overcrowding issues and safety concerns.

Taking a behavioural insights approach, we were able to deliver an understanding into the ways in which the physical design of an environment creates certain walking and waiting behaviours. We identified design features which could help minimise cross-flows of people, deterred people from lingering in the space unnecessarily, minimised obstructions and maximised the feeling of openness. Being a fundamental part of the engineering team at the concept design stage, we have been able to influence the design options being put forward to create a location that works, first and foremost, for the people who use it.

More than just physical changes

As an engineering company, the obvious ways in which Mott MacDonald can have an impact on creating cities for the future is through what behavioural scientists call ‘environmental restructuring’, i.e. changing the design of the physical environment. However, environmental restructuring is only one of nine methods that are known to be influential in changing behaviours. Some of the other techniques include education, incentivisation, enablement, persuasion and restriction.

In a recent piece of work on cycling behaviour, we found that although the local authority had invested significantly in cycling (including cycle lanes, cycle storage, cycling advice and training), they had not seen the increase in uptake in cycling that they had expected. We were asked to provide insights into the reasons for lack of cycling and what encourages people to take up and continue cycling.

We found that people didn’t know about the cycling facilities available; that there were safety concerns relating to drivers’ and pedestrians’ behaviours; that people considered cycle storage to be unsecure and in the wrong locations; and that there needed to be better design consideration for the end of cycle lanes to ensure safety when integrating with traffic. The insights provided an understanding of engineering and design needs and delivered recommendations on effective use of interventions to inform and build people’s confidence, thereby encouraging cycling.

Our behavioural insights work has been exceptionally well received by clients who regularly use our outputs to support planning and policy. Our work also helps support clients’ social inclusion, environmental and sustainability goals.

As designers of buildings, spaces and infrastructure we should be aware that we can influence the ways people act in their surroundings, but also that engineering solutions will often have the greatest impact when implemented in conjunction with soft measures to encourage and support behaviour change.

-Mott MacDonald’s dedicated Behavioural Insights and Human Factors team is made up of psychologists and behavioural scientists who capture the wants and needs of people to deliver social outcomes which enhance the everyday lives of people. Find out more at: https://www.mottmac.com/article/876/human-factors or get in touch with us at human.factors@mottmac.com.

This article was co-authored by four members of Mott MacDonald’s Behavioural Insights and Human Factors team: Karen Wright, Laura Lewis, Suzy Sharpe and Zoe Cooper.

Laura Lewis

Principal Human Factors Engineer

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