Removing the Sunk Cost Fallacy: Making Commutes a Daily Choice


Posted: 11/24/2020
Category: General News


By Andy Keeton, Sustainability & Product Strategist at Commutifi, a Champion Corporate Partner

Most commuters travel between work and home the exact same way everyday, without giving it a second thought. Once a commuter decides they’ll drive to work, their choice becomes a habit, and our job of changing that behavior becomes much harder. This is what excites many TDM professionals about the post-pandemic return to the office: a real chance for millions of people to make that choice again and an opportunity to intervene at a scale never seen before.

Unfortunately, our opportunity may be gone just as fast as it arrives, as many people will use this intervention point to shift towards SOVs, not away from them. As we discussed in our webinar series, commuters in a recent Commutifi survey have indicated a strong intent to use single occupancy vehicles upon their return to the office (even if they previously used a shared mode).

The return to the office doesn’t appear to be the intervention point we all expect. Instead of accepting our fate and the inevitable uphill climb to reset learned habits, we can rethink the system to build in more intervention points. We do this by embracing the daily commute.

What is a daily commute?

Imagine if every single day for 20 years, you ate the exact same tuna sandwich for lunch. If the grocery store starts carrying new locally-sourced fresh turkey or your office puts a new toaster oven in your break room, are you going to magically trade in your tried-and-true tuna for some turkey? Unlikely.

This is how we currently think about our commute. You decided long ago how you would get to work and haven’t changed it since. In fact, you may even stop off at the same coffee shop or stand in the exact same place on the platform every single day. But what if we could make the decision of how you get to work the same as what you eat for lunch? Maybe then you’ll be open to new programs when they arise.

While we certainly want to shift people away from SOVs long-term post-pandemic, we have to be careful not to force commuters into modes they feel uncomfortable using in the short-term. Encouraging commuters to confront their choice each day provides us with ample opportunity to intervene with new programs once it’s safe to do so. You can have your tuna sandwich and eat it too.

How do we make the commute a daily choice?

Commuting programs often operate on a monthly or quarterly basis. The same problem that makes it hard to show drivers the true cost of car ownership (e.g. monthly car and insurance payments) is standing in the way of helping commuters make the best choice each day: the sunk cost fallacy. Individuals fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy when they continue a behavior as a result of previously invested resources. A monthly parking pass or annual bikeshare membership limits the chances a person will make a new choice each day - “I already paid for the whole month, so I should use it.”

Overcoming the sunk cost fallacy is difficult, but removing it from the picture altogether is surprisingly simple:

  1. Operate commuting programs on a daily basis.
  2. Baseline commuting choices to demonstrate improvement.
  3. Provide flexible benefits and rewards that are easy to use.

Operate commuting programs on a daily basis

To give commuters the feeling that they are making a daily choice, you need a “transaction” to occur every single day (even if it’s free). This starts with programs your organization controls, like parking and shuttles. Replace long-term passes with daily “tokens.” Each day someone wants to park or hop on the shuttle, they simply trade in a token (virtual or physical). It may seem insignificant, but now commuters have to make a decision about whether to trade in their token each day. The sunk cost fallacy is no more.

The same idea should apply to externally-operated services as well: public transit, bikeshare, scooters, rideshare, carshare, carpooling, vanpooling, etc. While monthly passes for these services generally bring good value for those that use them frequently, they are generally not cost-effective for occasional users. With the impending rise in partial remote work, monthly mobility passes and subscriptions lose their value. Since you can’t restructure how mobility providers offer their service, you have to get a bit creative. More on that in a bit.

Baseline commuting choices

Shifting to daily tokens doesn’t necessarily mean that commuters will change their habits. You have to give them a reason to do so. How do you know if you need to improve? How can you tell if another commute will actually benefit you? Start by providing a baseline. Pick a key metric that matters to your commuters: time, cost, emissions, or their Commuter Score. Spell out exactly where they stand today and how each commuting program can help them improve. As you roll out new programs, repeat the process again. Now commuters have a reason to reconsider their commute...and the shift to daily means they don’t have to wait until the end of the month, quarter, or year.

Provide flexible benefits

So you’ve created intervention points and clearly articulated value, but how do you actually convince commuters to change their behavior? How do you manage all these new daily tokens? And how do you measure performance?

Flexible benefit cards, like Commutifi’s Commuter Rewards Card (formerly called the Mobility Card), provide a creative, easy-to-use solution for both managers and commuters. With a rewards card, organizations can create universal token-like daily transactions, incentivize and reward good commuting behavior, and measure performance and impact.

While not every card operates the same way, the premise is simple:

  1. Identify the commute modes, providers, amenities, or programs where you want your commuters to use the card (this goes beyond traditional pre-tax benefits...so carpool’s an option too!).
  2. Add a spending limit for each commuter every month.
  3. Create rewards for good commuter behavior (ex: $2 to use at the cafe in the lobby every day you take transit).
  4. Let your commuters decide how they’ll use the card every day.
  5. Track usage to measure impact and adoption.

Now each day is a new opportunity to make a decision, and making the right decision couldn’t be easier.

Commuting habits must become daily commuting choices or we risk losing much of the progress we’ve gained over the past several years. Luckily, there are steps we can take today to provide a flexible commuting future that benefits us all. Shifting programs to daily, baselining commuter choices, and providing flexible benefits and rewards will help you create a successful daily commute future.

At Commutifi, we are working with partners in the employer, commercial real estate, municipality, TMA, and consultant spaces who are unsure how they will handle the influx of new drivers, sustain underused programs post-return, and shift behavior long-term in a positive direction without overlooking the concerns their commuters have now. In response, we have been collaborating with our mobility partners to usher in the future of flexible, daily benefits via our connected Commuter Rewards Card. We’d love to connect with you to further the discussion.



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