“Blocking the Box” Is a Behavior – How Do We Change It?

You may have heard: “Don’t Block the Box” is moving on to a new round of intersections. The City’s initiative to keep drivers from blocking intersections and crosswalks has been in effect since April, starting at major downtown intersections like Congress Ave. and Cesar Chavez, and now moving outward from downtown.Screen shot 2015-09-01 at 12.29.17 PM

So far, the City of Austin reports that the program has been successful in deterring box-blockers. At enforced intersections on Congress Avenue and east, lane blocking decreased by 5% and crosswalk-blocking decreased by 10%.

But as the Austin American-Statesman recently asked, once the officers stop handing out tickets – will drivers still make the same choices? After sitting at light after light as only a few cars get through, then watching as cross traffic refills the lane in front before your lights turns green, aren’t your instincts, including your driving habits, kicking in to push forward and claim your “slot” in the traffic?

“Hopefully when we were down there we educated a lot of people and they will think twice before doing it in the future,” said Sgt. Craig Fox with the police department’s motorcycle division.

We’ve learned a few things about behavior change in talking with downtown commuters over the years. To really break a habit and form a new one requires continued reminders, as well as internal and external motivations. Getting a ticket in an intersection is a pretty solid external motivator to not run the light – but will drivers internalize these messages, or just keep an eye out for cops?

To create lasting change, drivers need to have a reason to care that becomes an internal (and therefore much stronger) motivator. Maybe it will take something that helps drivers see a more logical and fair order in the way traffic flows – something akin to getting a number at the grocery store deli counter that helps administer a fair order to who “goes.”

Then you need to reinforce the new behavior for quite a while (21-64 days). Drivers will need consistent reminders and periodic enforcement. Once the habit finally sticks, and as long as drivers perceive a fair system, drivers won’t even need to think twice about waiting their turn at intersections without blocking the box.

Or maybe we just decide to make it as painful and arbitrary as possible to drive alone in the city, and as safe and attractive as possible to choose any other travel option. Everyone, including people who have to drive, will win as the numbers of people driving alone drops to a level the transportation system can actually handle.

Photo courtesy of the City of Austin

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