Posted on: 11 December, 2018
Application deadline: January 31, 2019

PhD opportunity, Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds, UK

Persuasive technology and direct messaging for achieving modal shift in urban areas (EPSRC DTP)


Contact Dr Kate Pangbourne ( to discuss this project further informally. Other supervisors will be Professor Susan Grant-Muller (Alan Turing Fellow)

Project description

Climate change is a major energy challenge for cities. This project will design and test a digital intervention that will make urban transport (and hence cities) more sustainable through addressing end user demand and steering it to lower energy transport modes. These modes also have other advantages, for air quality improvement and increasing physical activity, which are also significant urban policy challenges with large-scale public health implications.

Urban congestion also undermines the economic performance of cities and reduces quality of place and residents’ well-being. Therefore, the digital intervention trial will be sufficiently large to enable the results to be used in a whole-systems analysis of the impact on transport energy use and interlinked factors at city-scale.

As part of systems analysis, the project will also gather qualitative data on the situated practices in which car-commuting is embedded (such as tacit or explicit employer expectations or household-level constraints) and shaped by local transport attributes and policies. The digital intervention will be tested in Edinburgh, where discussion with the Regional Transport Partnership (RTP) has indicated a need to address car commuting by the staff of large employers. The RTP has indicated a willingness to provide in-kind support this project, including short periods of time working alongside their officers and facilitating access to key stakeholders. The successful candidate will be expected to identify a second trial city during the early months of the study.

The project will build on success of the results emerging from an EPSRC LWEC Challenge project led by the supervisor, Dr Kate Pangbourne (ADAPT). ADAPT is creating a dataset of existing travel behavior change communications, analyzing the content from an argumentation and discourse perspective and testing the principal arguments experimentally to uncover whether travel attitudes or personality affect the likely effectiveness of the commonly used arguments for travel behavior change.

The successful candidate will be able to benefit from the opportunity to work alongside the ADAPT project team, as well as Dr Pangbourne who has several years’ experience working on ‘intelligent transport’ projects looking to balance addressing end-user requirements with key policy objectives. The second supervisor, Professor Susan Grant-Muller, has been PI to projects with a value of more than £5.5m in the field, with sponsors including the EU, ESRC and ATI. The PhD topic will build on existing knowledge by designing a message delivery and modal tracking digital tool to enable the testing of promising forms of argumentation in a real-world context. The objectives of this part of the project are:

  • to show whether intrinsic motivations to make individual travel mode choices more sustainable can be stimulated and supported using simple personalized arguments; and
  • to measure the effect on actual travel behavior using a randomized control trial approach in two cities.

As cities are complex systems, it is important to be able to contextualise the quantified results of the digital intervention trial by taking a holistic view of the case study cities and their system interdependencies. The successful candidate will also be encouraged to embed qualitative approaches in the methodology in order to understand the limits of digital messaging interventions in terms of ethics as well as the constraints on individual behavior change imposed by social practices (e.g. at the employer or household level) as well as in relation to the transportation attributes and policies operating in the case study cities.

The successful candidate will therefore have an opportunity to explore how the trial outcomes can be utilized in a systems analysis of interventions to shape travel demand to meet key policy aims to reduce greenhouse gas, NOx and Particulate Matter emissions, tackle public health issues caused by poor air quality and the sedentarism associated with car dependence, and address city centre congestion and associated economic and quality of life impacts. The methods and objectives of this part of the project could include the following:

  • qualitative interviews with participating large employers to understand how their business needs and processes are linked to employee commuting practices; and
  • qualitative interviews with a sub-set of trial participants to explore their perceptions of how their personal or household practices were challenged by the digital intervention;
  • systems analysis exercises with key transport stakeholders, to develop causal loop diagrams exploring how direct-to-citizen digital interventions might be used to shape urban transport policy.

The project approach is intended to be highlight interdisciplinary and will develop the successful candidate’s knowledge and skills in synthesizing insights across the following fields: mobile and persuasive technology, the psychology and practice of behavior change, statistics, trial evaluation, qualitative methodologies, systems analysis and transport planning and policy.

Entry requirements

minimum entry requirement of a UK 2:1 undergraduate degree, or equivalent, in a relevant subject is required unless the applicant can evidence other strongly relevant qualifications or extensive relevant industry experience involving research and science writing for external audiences.

A Master’s degree in a topic such as Behaviour Change or Persuasive Technology design would be highly desirable. Knowledge of transport planning, policy or geography and systems analysis is desirable.

Experience in the interdisciplinary use of Qualitative and quantitative research methods, including the use of mobile technologies in data collection, is highly desirable.

If English is not your first language, you must provide evidence that you meet the University’s minimum English Language requirements.

How to apply

Formal applications for research degree study should be made online through the university’s website.

If you require any further information, please contact the Graduate School Office e:, or t: +44 (0)113 343 35326.

We welcome scholarship applications from all suitably-qualified candidates, but UK black and minority ethnic (BME) researchers are currently under-represented in our Postgraduate Research community, and we would therefore particularly encourage applications from UK BME candidates. All scholarships will be awarded on the basis of merit.

Original listing