Customer service and the ethics of influencing travel behaviour to improve public transport operations

Influence is a powerful phenomenon. As people go about their daily lives, they are pushed and pulled in various directions by forces as varied as advertising, the news media, their significant other, even signs and information points – these all influence the decisions they make.
These relationships are positive if they are in the best interests of the influenced party – following a street sign is beneficial if it gets someone where they need to be correctly.

The ethical issue arises around the question of exactly how much influence different forces have on you and whether they always result in a benefit for the person interacting with them. In the above example – a street sign should be able to influence you into following a particular path, but it shouldn’t be powerful enough to make you follow it blindly, even if that leads you into some sort of danger – say, going over a busy city street with no pedestrian crossing.

The transport system like that proposed within Encircle is the same – and in fact it is more powerful than a typical street sign. This comes from its dynamic and shifting nature, which can manipulate people into doing certain things – like following instructions to go and stand at a certain point on the platform.

This seems innocent enough on its face, but there’s an important ethical issue at hand here – the degree of control these instructions can have on someone.

With this in mind, the system is intended to be a recommendation rather than a mandate. As an example – an elderly person’s safety should be more valuable to them than what a green light on the station means. Regardless of what the signals might tell them, they might travel near the guard’s carriage because they value being closer to the guard over getting a seat. That’s something the system shouldn’t be powerful enough to change.