starting lineReady, set … change!Photo: Jon MarshallA couple of weeks back, I went to a conference at the Garrison Institute, located in a former monastery in the Hudson River Valley of New York. The presenters included municipal officials from around the country, many of them somewhat weary veterans of battles to motivate citizens to recycle, or make energy-efficient retrofits to their homes, or change their incandescent light bulbs for  CFLs.

There was no real consensus on what works, or whether anything works in every case. But one mantra kept being put forward by the conference’s organizers: Attitudes follow behavior. Behavior does not follow attitudes. People change their minds about something like biking to work by getting out and doing it — they don’t listen to an educational lecture about the benefits of biking and then become ardent bike commuters who also want to recycle and change all their light bulbs.

The behavior-attitude question is a complicated one, and Dave Roberts has written a lot of super-smart posts about it (look here and here and here). But if you take it as a given that you want to target people’s behavior, then the question becomes, how the hell do you do it?

How do you push people to do something new and different and maybe at least initially uncomfortable? That’s the million-dollar question that all those very smart and earnest people were mulling over.

One method that’s often used is competition. Pit people against their neighbors or co-workers to see who can save the most electricity, or recycle the most waste, the thinking goes, and you are harnessing a deep and primal human urge to do better than the next guy — and maybe even rub his face in it a little.

All for the good of the planet, of course.

A couple of these competitions came to my attention recently. One, recently featured on U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s blog, is sponsored by Clif Bar, and it’s called the 2-Mile Challenge. It plays on the fact that 40 percent of trips in U.S. cities are less than two miles — and yet 90 percent of those short trips are made by car.

Challenge participants sign up to support one of three teams, the Alliance for Biking and Walking, 350.org, or Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Then they log how many trips they make. The goal is to get people to give up a total of 100,000 car trips — and Clif Bar is going to be handing out $100,000 in grant money along the way. Last year, a children’s bike advocacy group called Trips for Kids got $50,000 from the challenge.

Another competition we noticed grew out of a London program that is trying to get more kids to walk to school. We saw it on This Big City:

[A]n innovative new system called Step2Get is being tested out with school kids in London. In an attempt to get children to take more exercise and cut congestion, the new system rewards kids for walking to school. If a child walks to school five times they get a free cinema ticket, if they walk eight times they get a £5 shopping voucher!

To prove they have walked to school, kids must swipe electronic cards on several scanners at points along the journey. The swipe cards use Near Field Communication (NFC) and are similar to other transport smart-cards like London’s electronic ticketing system, the Oyster card.

In two pilot schemes at London schools the system managed to get 18 percent of children to switch to walking.

Now Step2Get is being expanded into a competition between kids in the U.K. and the U.S.:

Due to the success of these pilot projects, UK Government has teamed up with the US to launch a walking competition between kids in London and New York. The project will use the same swipe card technology, plus game-dynamics to encourage over 30,000 children to walk to school. This massive game between kids on either side of the Atlantic will see each school gaining points for walking, with the final result announced at the 2012 Olympics.

I wrote last year about a slightly different type of competition — a citywide campaign in Malmö, Sweden, called “No Ridiculous Car Trips.” It awarded free bikes to people who had the most absurd stories about times they had used a car to travel a short distance. Here’s what one city official said about the thinking behind that campaign:

“If the motorists tried cycling for just one day, I don’t think they’d go back to using the car. It’s just so much quicker than the car. No queues, no stress. You travel independently of everyone else, and that’s a good feeling.”

Apparently, the idea is working. Malmö’s bike commute share is now 30 percent. Because once you try the new “behavior” of riding a bike for that quick trip to the store, your attitude changes.