Podcast transcript (Nudges for Social Good) – Merton Council: improving air quality by reducing vehicle idling at level crossings

Transcript of episode 18 of our behavioural insights podcast – Nudges for Social Good – in which Miar Crutchley and Jason Andrews of Merton Council share the work they have been doing to improve air quality for Merton residents. They discuss how they managed to reduce vehicle idling at level crossings and how using the correct message can make all the difference.

Rhian Gladman: Hello, and welcome to the latest episode for the Nudges for Social Good podcast from the Local Government Association. My name is Rhian Gladman and I manage the Behavioural Insights Programme here at the LGA. We really want to demystify behaviour change and share practical examples of where councils are using this approach to improve local services. So, in today's episode we will be sharing the work that the London Borough of Merton has been doing to improve air quality for local residents. It's great to have Miar and Jason from Merton Council with us here today, how are you doing?

Miar Crutchley: Yes, good thank you.

Jason Andrews: Very well, Rhian.

Rhian Gladman: Excellent stuff. Thank you so much for your time today to record the podcast for us. So, first question really can you introduce yourself and your role at the council, please? I'll start with you Jason.

Jason Andrews: Yes. My name's Jason Andrews, I'm the Pollution Team Manager, I cover air quality and contaminated land in what's called the Regulatory Services Partnership, which is a really long way of saying that we share services with other councils. So, I represent Merton, Richmond, and Wandsworth councils for air quality.

Rhian Gladman: Excellent, and you Miar?

Miar Crutchley: So, I work with Jason, I'm one of the lead air quality officers in the tri-borough partnership, I mainly focus on Merton. So, my role is to help deliver air quality projects across the borough, which are to improve air quality and ultimately have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of our residents.

Rhian Gladman: Excellent, thanks guys and we're really excited to speak to you today because as you know councils across the country are using behaviour change techniques to deal with the climate emergency locally and there's a real thirst for information and projects such as the ones you're going to talk about today. So, I guess let's start at the very beginning really, I'll start with you Miar on this, what was your original behavioural challenge that you wanted to address through this project?

Miar Crutchley: So, air pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats that we face to health in the UK. So, we were looking at ways we can help improve air quality. So, we were looking at engine idling, so this is the act of people sitting in their car with the engine running where they could be turning it off and saving emissions. So, it's often a very simple and unconscious act. So, the thought really was this would be a good behaviour change project because, you know, asking people to switch off their engine, well when they're idling rather it doesn't particularly have a negative impact on that individual. So, in theory, that's a behaviour that we can implement and change without them having too much resistance to that. So, originally the project started back in 2019, with a view to look at engine idling outside primary schools because that's a known hotspot at pick-up and drop-off times. Parents can sit out there with their engine running waiting for the kids and again that, kind of, subconscious, they don't realise that they're causing an issue by leaving their engine running. Unfortunately, just as the project was kicking off so did the COVID-19 pandemic and the project was put on a bit of a hold because schools closed initially and then when they were opening up again we found that there was a different approach to car parking practices. There were the staggered pick-up and drop-off times, for example, so there wasn't the convergence of vehicles all at one time outside of schools. So, we re-scoped to look at another area that would benefit from a behavioural change project which was also a hotspot for engine idling. Sorry, Jason, go on.

Jason Andrews: Yes, if I can jump in there. Anti-idling is a bit of a strange one, it's something that's just captured the imagination and most councils get an awful lot of complaints about idling vehicles. We have a number of levers that we use to deal with pollution but this one it seems to be the poster child of air quality locally. So, we find that our inboxes, not just in our three boroughs but across London, are full of complaints about anti-idling that we can use to deal with that but it's a really weak piece of legislation. So, actually using that to find people is virtually impossible and I think there's probably only one or two fines that have been issued throughout London. So, we wanted to try and find a way of implementing the change in behaviour without having to go down that enforcement route because that's really a blind alleyway anyway. So, we put out things like signs and we have interventions and in some boroughs, we have the CEOs or the civil enforcement officers, the parking wardens, that go out and intervene with people but there's always been this concern about how can you actually directly change behaviour. All we wanted to do is get to a place where, you know, the seatbelt thing in the seventies and smoking in pubs and we wanted it to get like that where people were aware that it's a behaviour that they shouldn't be doing but how do you get that without any legislation or any legislation with teeth in the background. So, it was a chance to start to explore that and we originally were going to look at a school. We had a particular problem in the borough where we had a secondary school being built next to a primary school and the view was that there's going to be lots of vehicles turning up and the primary school are going to be suffering from fumes. COVID-19, as Miar said, hit and we had to find a different location, so we looked at a level crossing which is permanently in use and there are issues with idling there and we do get complaints about that.

Rhian Gladman: So, you've re-scoped that project from the school focus, due to COVID-19, to being at a crossing, a particularly local area with a high level of idling and you're looking at rather than, sort of, the stick, the legal enforcement approach, is there a more subtle way we can nudge / change behaviour in that way. So, that was, sort of, your project in a nutshell. So, how did you start to gather the insights and the understanding of what was driving, that was a pun, I didn't mean that, honestly.

Jason Andrews: Oh dear, not a good one.

Rhian Gladman: Oh dear, deary me. So, that was really, you know, you said that people continued to idle, they can't see the benefit for them, it's, sort of, a behaviour that's quite entrenched. So, how did you go about gathering the insights into, you know, what was behind that behaviour and how you could start to change it?

Jason Andrews: So, we know because of our complaint inbox that there are areas in the borough where people are concerned about it, we know around schools. Prior to school streets and I should think you understand where school streets are, where they closed off during certain periods but prior to those and still in the borough, there are lots of locations that don't have school streets. We know you can just walk up to a school and you'll find that there are queues of idling vehicles waiting for kids. I've seen some appalling behaviour at schools of putting just sitting there, outside their cars, on their phones, with their exhaust pipe pointed into the playground area next to kids, completely oblivious. So, we know that there's a problem but we wanted to do was to do a baseline, so I think Miar can probably cover that quite nicely, she's the one that made our colleagues go out at seven o'clock in the morning in the freezing cold to do the baseline as well. I'm going to handover to Miar at that point, I make you sound really bad, sorry Miar.

Miar Crutchley: No, thanks for that. Well, luckily for us we got a really good consultancy on board to help design the project for us. So, we worked with The Behavioural Insights Team. So, we went through their accounts and procurement process to find a suitable delivery agent to support us with this work, they've got a lot of experience in this area, hence the name I guess. So, BIT, The Behavioural Insights Team, BIT, they completed a literature review and they, kind of, looked at the things that can influence idling behaviour. So, there is strong evidence that campaigns and signage can reduce idling. So, that was, kind of, the starting point and we also know this from ourselves, I mean, in the borough already we have idling signage in place in our hot-spot areas but we needed, kind of, a different take on it. The static signs, yes they do have value but as I'm sure everybody's conscious of down a normal street lampposts are normally occupied by a number of signs. So, sometimes the idling signs can get lost in that clutter or, you know, you just stop taking them in. So, we were interested in signage, we already do campaign work but if it's campaigning then that's officer time that constantly has to go out and do the campaigning. So, we wanted something, kind of, in place to be there all the time and to cut down on resources in the long run. So, they, kind of, BIT looked at evidence on why people idle and they looked at surveys and (TC 00:10:00) they found that most of the time it doesn't occur for drivers to turn their engine off or they believe that it's not beneficial for reducing emissions or beneficial for their fuel consumption. Some drivers might have a concern that if they turn off their engine it might not start up again. So, most people just don't turn off their engine but we do know that when asked drivers when prompted to, you know, nine times out of ten a driver will, sort of, say sorry, didn't realise and they turn off when prompted.
So, that then goes back to the signage, having a sign there, that visual reminder, that prompt, evidence is there that can help drive that change. So, yes, we, kind of, started looking at the route of signage but a different kind of signage, so we then arrived are LED signs. So, this is the ones that they're illuminated essentially, so instead of the static sign these would be activated at the level crossing. So, when the barriers come down and the traffic stops they'd be a camera there to, kind of, know then that the traffic was stationary and the sign would illuminate. So, it's not on all the time, so when people are driving through it's not there to be a distraction but it's just there when it needs to be there and it's illuminated when it needs to be illuminated. So, that's how, kind of, the research bit was based and also from our experience as borough officers.

Rhian Gladman: So, Miar, when listeners look at the report of your project which is on our website you can see we've got visuals in there of there was already a sign wasn't there at this crossing, there was already a static sign that had been there for some time which wasn't having an impact on that behaviour. Then obviously as you've described there you've gone to the LED motion, sort of, sensitive activated sign. What was the difference between the two signs?

Miar Crutchley: So, well the LED's much bigger. So, there are three level crossings in the borough, so we picked the one that had space to carry a larger sign and it was a nice straight bit of road, so it was the best visibility we could possibly get. So, that one sign could influence, you know, the greatest number of vehicles that we could. So, the main difference is the size and it being illuminated and we thought about having different messages, there was a possibility that it would be a variable messaging sign. Again, BIT conducted a literature review to look at the different types of messages and whether that would appeal to self-interest, to raise awareness, whether it would be a social norm type of messaging of air quality messaging. So, we went down the self-interest and awareness-raising route, so the message that was chosen was, 'Save money, save fuel, turn off your engine.' So, that's different already to the static signs we already have, which are, they're just, I can't even remember now, they're just, like, switch off your engine I think. So, it doesn't really appeal, we were obviously at this unique timing in our lives as well at the moment with the fuel crisis. So, it is quite salient to people saying, you know, if you turn off your engine you save, well that first message is save money. So, you know, straight away you've got that hook there because it's very relevant to the time. So, yes, I mean, those are the main differences, they're appealing to people. Everybody wants to save money don't they, so there was no mention of air quality which in my mind I thought that's the route we go down that, you know, the thought was that people don't really understand air quality but they do understand save money.

Jason Andrews: Yes. Rhian, we toyed with a number of ideas when we first looked at this, we were thinking perhaps we'll paint the highway, put a nice, like, mural on the highway and when drivers come up to it they'll see that. We also thought about these new laser signs that, sort of, shine images onto the pavement but it was getting so complicated but then you see LED signs are everywhere, you know, they talk about road closures and things like that. If we look at the location that we put the sign in there are signs all the way up the road on all the lampposts and they're all pointing towards the motorists but I think people just get sign blind. So, what we wanted something to do was to illuminate when the traffic stopped so it catches people's eye rather than them sitting there fiddling with their radios or whatever it is they do in their cars. Then that would be the trigger for them to think, perhaps I'll switch off here and we did some testing before. So, before the sign was up we had officers out just counting the idling vehicles and keeping numbers and keeping track of what's happening, so we formed a baseline. Most of that was at, sort of, seven o'clock in the morning.

Miar Crutchley: Yes. They were long days for the officers involved.

Jason Andrews: They were.

Miar Crutchley: So, it's a massive thanks to them our data collection.

Jason Andrews: Yes. We wanted to baseline it, we wanted to have something to compare it to, so a big thanks to those officers that were out there freezing at seven o'clock in the morning for days at a time.

Miar Crutchley: Also, boiling because it was winter and summer, so they got hit by both ends of the spectrum.

Jason Andrews: That's true. Yes, that's true and they didn't complain, well not officially anyway.

Miar Crutchley: Not much.

Jason Andrews: So, we did look after them don't worry, we gave them coats and jackets and things like that. So, yes that was the baseline, so then we installed the sign, which in itself was a mammoth task. Anyone that's been through procurement and having to dig up the public highway but we had some tremendous help from colleagues in Highways and from the company that put the sign up. Again, I think Miar touched on it, we did talk about what message should be there, whether we should appeal to social conscious around pollution and, you know, people breathing but we came up with the, sort of, appeal to the pocket. So, we had pollution and save money and then we did the study after the sign was in place and Miar you can probably jump in at that point and say what the effect was.

Rhian Gladman: I guess just at that point, sorry, just to, sort of, summarise there, it's really interesting the behavioural treatment you decided to take as you say, no mention of air quality, no mention of climate change, that's just a really salient point I think for listeners there that you've gone for that, you know, what's the benefits to the drivers. You talked earlier there about, you know, people being oblivious and not really understanding what the benefits to them are of switching the engine off. So, you've really good for that particular treatment with the save money, save fuel, turn off your engine message. In terms of you talked around, you know, getting the sign put up but just again for people thinking how can we do this in our own borough, how long did that take, can you talk me through a bit more maybe of the practicalities of that for councils listening in, please.

Miar Crutchley: Yes. It did take quite a while, I mean, like anything you put, kind of, a time frame on it, you say six weeks for sign production, while the signs being produced we'll be getting the infrastructure ready to support, you know, the structuring to support the sign but best made plans and all that. I mean, the key thing really for us was to get our colleagues in Highways involved right off, you know, as soon as we decided we were going down this sign route it was to talk to colleagues straight away, so we know exactly what's possible. It's no good running away with this design and then going to colleagues and say you can't put a sign there and they were very supportive. Obviously, Highways they managed the installation of posts and all that side of things, so they really dealt with that side of the project for us to get the infrastructure in place, the power connection, the post to carry the sign. They liaised directly with the sign manufacturer as well, so that was TWM Traffic Control Systems, again they were superb at recommending designs to us. They gave us a number of options, it wasn't just a right this is what you want, here it is, you know, we were involved in the design process as well. So, it was very much a two-way conversation. So, yes, get colleagues that need to be involved, involved as soon as you can and then yes, just you've got to be flexible with timings. So, our air quality officers who were doing the pre and post collection they were, kind of, on standby ready to go out to collect the data because we had to get everything in place with the sign beforehand. So, the pre and post data collection they needed to occur quite close together because obviously if too much time elapses there are other environmental factors then that can influence the impact of the sign.
So, we left three and a half weeks where in between pre and post sign installation for the data collection and even in that time because, as mentioned the fuel crisis, fuel prices had increased by 11 per cent in just that short amount of time. So, there's a caveat in the resource to say that we can't say that increase, you know, had an external influence on the efficacy of the sign.

Rhian Gladman: I think that point on data collection is really important and is one that does come up a lot in these projects is how are you going to measure it because we want to make sure, you know, obviously as you say there are other extenuating circumstances sometimes and pre and post is a really good way to do it actually. Like you say it sounds like that was a huge task and great work from your officers to actually be there doing the counting, doing that baseline because it's vital, you need that baseline to understand has it worked or not, shall we roll this out, this is all evidence-based innovation we're doing through behavioural change. So, I just want to pull that point out about, so it's three and a half weeks before the sign went in you had officers out there collecting the baseline, sign went in and then it was three and a half weeks after measuring again, was that correct?

Miar Crutchley: So, I can't think of the dates for the pilot measurements, I think it was before then, I think it was some months before getting the pilot measurements. They take eleven and a half hours collecting observations over five days, so over the working week and that was three officers there at the time, so they could collect data from the queue of cars because obviously we get quite a large queue there. So, this helped BIT with setting the definition for the outcome measure, just getting these pilot measurements and that then determined how many hours of observations would be required and the details of the trial, kind of, you know, the main trial. So, BIT they were on hand to do it but they did some power calculations, so based on the information that was collected then they could say, you know, how many hours of observation was then required to collect a sufficient sample number to look at, you know, impact. So, the idling behaviour was measured again during the trial over a five-day period, so before the sign was placed, so that was in the May and then again over a five-day period after the sign was placed in the June. So, we did our pilot, kind of, ahead of time because the sign opening it took a little bit longer to come through procurement but essentially the pre and post sign period was May and June.

Rhian Gladman: Okay. Sorry, the sign, you know, you were measuring it for five days, it's quite a quick intervention, I say that, that's easy to say isn't it, once it's in place it wasn't like you kept it in place for six months, it was a very short, sharp which is an important part for other councils to be aware of. Sorry, Jason, you were going to come in.

Jason Andrews: I think the good thing about the level crossing is that you have a really stable baseline and you wait, if we would have done this at the school then you've got fluctuations in travel and that sort of thing. So, we had a really nice Petri dish to work with, so, you know, the drivers were more or less the same, the number of vans were more or less the same and the traffic levels were quite static there. So, it was an easy baseline to use but obviously we needed to put the effort in to get the data out of the other end.

Miar Crutchley: Of course, we still had to be aware of school holidays because that has a massive impact on the number of vehicles on the roads and the level crossing is quite close to a couple of schools. So, yes we were very conscious once that sign went in we needed to get all the data collection before schools were breaking up in the July because we needed to have like for like. So, both measurements were done in the summer and both were during the week, both were, like, a standard flow, there was nothing that would particularly impact, you know, avoiding bank holidays and things like that.

Rhian Gladman: So, it was those extenuating circumstances, it kept the sanctity of the trial.

Miar Crutchley: Yes, we tried to.

Rhian Gladman: Because it wasn't like you came back the year after or anything like that, you did it within that short same seasonality, hopefully similar weather, school, communities, you know, similar type, that's really important as well. So, what were the results?

Miar Crutchley: So, thankfully we did get a really positive result. So, before the sign was in place around 30 per cent of drivers turned off their engines and afterwards, 50 per cent of drivers turned off their engines. So, that's a statistically significant increase, we've got thirteen percentage points there. So, everybody was thrilled because this has been such a protected project, to start out in 2019, to go quite a long way down a road with schools to then find we're not doing schools, to re-scope that, to bring different stakeholders on board. It's been a bit of a labour of love, so fantastic to get that positive impact there and yes, because of the time-lapse of the project Merton officers had to step in because obviously a lot of the Behavioural Insights Team time was taken with the re-scoping. So, you know, that then put the burden onto our officers to go out and it was a lot of hours of data collection, there was over 2,000 vehicles were measured and recorded. So, it was a fantastic result for us and hopefully we will go back and have another look, I haven't told the officers yet but if you are listening to officers you may go back this summer, I don't know, just to see, you know, where we are with things and if that's still working nicely.

Rhian Gladman: Well, I guess again the context has moved on even more hasn't it with the cost of living, obviously there's a huge impact to your local residents with that. So, that message, the saliency as we, sort of, say of that message continues to grow and be relevant doesn't it. So, fantastic result and like I say, you know, rigorously measured, a clear evidence-based and a clear statistically significant outcome of success of that measure that can then be rolled out elsewhere across London, hence us doing the podcast to get others to, sort of, take that project on board as well. So, brilliant result, what have been the, sort of, next steps, what are the next steps for the council in terms of behavioural insights and how are you taking this learning and this project forward?

Jason Andrews: Shall I jump in there Miar?

Miar Crutchley: Yes, great.

Jason Andrews: Yes. I mean, 50 per cent is great, it's really good, we have to remember it's one sign in one borough, if we had signs everywhere then that would drip feed into people's minds and I would expect that to go up. We've had a lot of sign envy from other boroughs.

Rhian Gladman: Okay, tell me about that.

Jason Andrews: So, we've had councillors come in and say, 'Why have they got that sign and we haven't got that sign and that's a really good idea.' So, we've had lots of discussions in the background around that and we're, sort of, putting people in touch with the sign providers but it's nice to have this evidence base to that but you have to bear in mind it's one sign in one borough in London. So, if you replicated that in every borough it would start training people. We're trying to push this out through things like this, this podcast, we have a cluster group of air quality boroughs, we're sharing the findings with our governing body, so the GLA are picking up on this and sharing the work more widely. I think the biggest impact is the visual one and people actually seeing it and thinking we want one of those signs. So, we'd like to do it elsewhere, obviously it's all dependent on financing, we'd like to see smaller signs like this outside schools, on some of our problem schools and the ones we can't have school streets on. So, there's some discussion about that, obviously it's all driven by finances and the art of what's possible but yes, there's a lot of interest in it. It shows that this intervention does work and I think the more it gets rolled out the more it will soak into people's consciousness and they will start switching off and that 50 per cent should go up even higher. We also have to think about the cost-benefit, if you have three officers out standing and talking to motorists which can be dealt with by one sign which costs very little, you know, accumulative cost of having officer time out there and you can outweigh that with signage. So, there needs to be that sort of forward-thinking around the finances as well. So, there's lots of discussion in the background about this one.

Rhian Gladman: I think that point you raised earlier about, you know, those one-off campaigns, air quality local campaigns they are time-sensitive aren't they, they only last for so long and as you say the point of having officers out and about as well continuing to put that message when you have sign in place that's doing that for you every day there is a key difference there isn't there. So, has this project, you know, prompted any other behaviour change types of projects across Merton, have you got any other plans in this field?

Jason Andrews: For behaviour change we're running a number of large projects through Merton, we have currently the construction low emission zone for London that we deliver on behalf of all of London and this is around behaviour change of an entire industry, the construction industry and what equipment they're using on sites. So, we've been doing that, sort of, for the past four years and it's matured now really nicely and we're seeing some really good results in London and that is basically fundamentally a behaviour change of the construction industry throughout London. That would be an interesting one to cover because we've had to use lots of tools that don't exist in the background that we've got to a place now and I think we're seeing about 90 per cent compliance in London.

Rhian Gladman: That's again true that carrot rather than stick, rather than the enforcement approach we're taking a more behaviourally led approach.

Jason Andrews: It's about appealing to company's green credentials and their commitment to, sort of, they have cleaner sites and cleaner equipment and it's something we've been able to feed into quite easily because the will is there, it was just all they want is a level playing field and they want to know what to do. So, we've managed to tap into that quite well.

Rhian Gladman: Excellent stuff. So, really good to hear this work is continuing to move on, both within your borough, across the three boroughs you work within Jason you were talking about and then more widely across London, it's great stuff. So, we're coming towards the end of the conversation and how we like to finish these podcasts is to ask the speakers who feature on the episode for their top tips for other councils listening in. So, what was the three top tips, if I'm listening from, you know, I'm a busy officer, busy councillor listening in today and I'm thinking this is a great project, I want to do this in our local area. What are your top three tips for people listening if they want to undertake something similar, we'll start with you Miar.

Miar Crutchley: As I say know your stakeholders and get them involved, get everybody around a table and start that discussion as soon as possible. So, I mean, a lot of our work anyway in air quality it crosses over to different teams, so we're fortunate that we do have good relationships with our colleagues across different departments in Merton. So, I would invite other authorities, if those connections aren't in place having a project that benefits across the council that's a great opportunity to start talking to other teams. Just make sure that your vision aligns with theirs, you know, so it does fit with other people's plans and within the realms of what's possible. Also, when you're looking at funding, funding can be tight in teams but if you can pull resources and, you know, draw from different funding pots across the council then you can have a greater impact if you've got a bigger pot of money usually. I should say with this project, just quickly, because we re-scoped, we didn't plan to have an LED sign, so public health colleagues very kindly found the money for us to instal that sign because there was a cost associated with that which we had not planned for. So, yes thanks to them and then baseline monitoring because how can you evaluate the impact of an intervention without that initial monitoring. So, those would be my two and I'll leave one for you Jason.

Jason Andrews: I think you've stolen them all Miar, which is really unfair. Although, what I would say is you've got to be flexible, if we'd stuck to the original plan we wouldn't be where we are. So, be open to changing your mind and changing the way that you want to deliver something because this project has ended up in completely a different place to where it started. In terms of this project and other boroughs emulating this they don't have to do all the research because we've already done it, all they need to do is the practicalities of start installing these signs. So, we've done all the hard work for them.

Rhian Gladman: Yes, you've proved the concept, you've proved the concept, you've proved the messaging and I think yes, that key point around flexibility because you spoke there, you were open to a different type of message than one that was about air quality and I think that's really an important demonstration of your flexibility and your openness to a different approach to try something new. Again, that point, Miar, around stakeholders and getting your stakeholders involved early is so important as well as getting your base measure in. So, thank you so much guys, really important tips for others looking to, you know, take this really successful project and carry it out in their own local area. Great stuff, thank you so much and huge congratulations from us at the LGA on such a successful project and thank you for all of your hard work on it because I know it's taken some time but was worth it in the end and I look forward to hearing more about where it develops and where it goes from here.

The full Merton Council report, as we mentioned earlier, is on our website and that includes the visuals of the different signs, so you can see what they look like now. So, if you go onto our website www.local.gov.uk and search for behavioural insights you'll be able to find the link to the report there.

Please do share this podcast with your friends and colleagues and we will see you next time.