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TravelSmart and a Philosophical Formula for the Urge to Drive
Sarah Rich, 14 Sep 06

walk-sign-250.jpg Yesterday, Jon spoke of the behavioral economics and the psychology of accepting alternatives. Much as we might think we're rational beings who come to decisions by logical means, the fact is that when weighing our options, we are often swayed by emotion and by the framing of the choice that stands before us. Take driving, for example. If we need to pick up a bag full of groceries at a store half a mile from home, we could easily walk. But if the car is sitting there and they keys are in hand, chances are that in spite of the fuel savings, the breath of fresh air and bit of exercise, the avoidance of traffic, and all the other reasons, we'll still drive. This is the paradox that Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute has been grappling with during his family's year-long experiment with living car-free.

Durning's most recent installment in his chronicle of carlessness expounds upon this paradox. He breaks down our illogical driving decisions like a skilled philosopher:

[W]hen you have a car at your disposal, driving it is your reflexive response to most mobility needs. And I mean this in a specific, cognitive sense. I mean that when a need that involves distance or travel comes up, you immediately think of driving the car and your brain avoids thinking about alternatives.
This may sound like a stretch. Surely, it’s a matter of convenience, not cognition. Surely, it’s an intuitive economic calculation: a weighing of costs...What if it’s not?

His ensuing chain of reasoning leads to the theory that maybe not having a car increases the likelihood that we will make decisions that better reflect our true wants and needs. Maybe not having the option to drive allows us to think more clearly about the possible benefits of other means. As it turns out, many people have organized around this theory and created TravelSmart, a program geared towards helping people choose an alternative to driving by equipping them with personalized information on walking, biking and public transit in their areas.

You not only get personalized maps and data related to your locale, but TravelSmart representatives will pay you a visit to help you figure out your best, most convenient and economical options. The program has been instituted in a number of cities from Germany to Australia to the U.S., always with dramatic overall reduction in car use -- around 10% on average.

These results make TravelSmart a fascinating anomaly in conventional economic theory, which presumes that people are good calculators of their own self interest. [...] TravelSmart works, I believe, because it’s a mild antidote to default driving. It converts nondriving from an abstract and complicated option – the kind of alternative that we intend to consider but find easier to ignore until some indefinite future date – to a straight-forward choice that we can quickly and intuitively weigh against driving.

This speaks a little to the idea of choice fatigue. Having too many choices can cause us discomfort and anxiety; we think we want lots of choices, but when we have too many, the need to figure out which is best can be agonizing. Since driving seems to occupy its own mental category, separate from all other modes of travel, it offers an easy solution to the potential choice fatigue of tranportation alternatives by essentially eliminating choice altogether. A system like TravelSmart is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too solution. It brings definition and clarity to all those abstract options, allowing us to have the abundant variety we value so highly without the paralysis of indecision.

No doubt we'll go on justifying our decision to drive until we're blue in the face. There's always some excuse. But the more these kinds of innovative solutions emerge, the easier it becomes to think of alternatives as reflexively as we think of our car when we head out the door. We're glad to have Alan Durning reporting from the other side, where the driving default no longer exists and mobility is a wide open road.

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You're a little unfair in your characterization of the half-mile grocery store scenario. I used to live a quarter mile from a grocery store. Walking takes several times longer than driving. Instead of a breath of fresh air, it's a breath of car exhaust, and instead of avoiding traffic, I get to hear its noise: roaring engines, screetching brakes, and thumping bass. When it's raining, I get splashed by passing vehicles. Part of the way has no sidewalk because the city is designed around cars, not pedestrians. So the convenience of driving isn't entirely illusory.

Posted by: Automaton on 14 Sep 06

A lot of this is due to city design. For nearly the last 90 years, especially in the newer cities in the west, cities and suburbs were built around cars. Back in the 1920s it all made perfect sense.

Sidewalks and rectilinear block designs were abandoned because cul-de-sacs were cheaper to wire up and hook to sewage and everyone had a car and an attached garage, right?

Or at least everyone who mattered. I suppose we could talk about what the flight to the suburbs did to the urban core but that's another matter. US suburbs are a vast monument to cheapness and short-term thinking.

Now, especially in the west, we're paying for that mindset.

No matter how many roads we build the traffic jams never seem to go away. Instead of sharing rides, we just buy more cars and sit in them for hours on end looking for places to park and waiting in line. And we wonder were all the back trouble and heart disease comes from.

I suppose I could lay a lot of guilt on people who do own and drive cars but that would be counterproductive. In the rural and suburban areas, because of the way they are built, you really don't have a choice.

But in a dense urban environment, with decent sidewalks and good mass transit, I don't miss 'em.

Cars are a deeply mixed blessing. I'm glad of any development that slowly weans us off them. It will probably take us another 90 years.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 15 Sep 06

IMO shifting away from intensive automobile ("automatic mobility") usage is likely best done in small, well considered increments with different time horizons rather than "cold turkey" through incentives for individual choices that harness the power of the market. For example, communities can begin improving the sidewalk system immediately but changing community layout to improve walking access will take a much longer time horizon with considerable thoughtful planning involving zoning and land-use changes. Businesses will take advantage of emerging opportunities, spreading commerce out to capture the walkers when it is economically advantageous to do so.

As for cars themselves, what is the smallest vehicular mass and footprint that can transport a typical human driver (grey-haired elderly women to typical commuters to teenagers just learning to drive) in an enclosed structure at reasonable urban speeds? The work of Amory B. Lovins and others likely provide a basis for this decision. That establishes a technology target; the key is establishing the incentives for consumers to approach that target through their own individual choices. For example, for the long term begin designing special freeway lanes, parking spots and so on for that footprint and place them in preferential locations. As the best urban car solution is likely the plug in hybrid, provide an incentive for the near term by beginning to place electrical outlets in specially designated parking spaces and provide some amount of subsidized or free electricity per plug in event as an incentive. As lower mass, more efficient hybrids will get more "bang", this provides an incentive for smaller, lower mass vehicles. On freeways in the short term, establish the policy that vehicles can use exisiting special lanes on the basis of vehicle mass per occupant being less than some value rather than the number of occupants being over some value. And so on.

Posted by: JMG on 15 Sep 06

This theory definitely applies to me. I wanted to be a bike commuter for a long while before I actually became one. I would ride sometimes, but more often than not I would take the car, finding some way to justify it. One day I decided to just sell the car. My fiance has a car, so there was still one around that I could use, but I found it was harder to justify borrowing his car to go somewhere I could just as easily bike to. By forcing my own hand, I finally found the motivation I needed to rationally consider my transportation choice.

There has been lots of discussion lately about this irrational economic man - I sure wish my econ professors had spent more time teaching us useful real-world models instead of logical, rational falsehoods!

Posted by: Heidi Guenin on 15 Sep 06

This is totally true. We sold our car two years ago. When the car is sitting there, walking to the grocery store seems to require a horrible effort. Now that there is no car, we just grab the cart and go. Same for riding the bike to work.

Posted by: Jim on 15 Sep 06

I am sorry but this is just so lame. I found that during the early 70's when we were faced with an oil 'limitation', some of us took this seriously. I found that our city's bike community had many fine people in it from which to find a mate, a man who had the sexy sense not to drive. When we settled, we started and maintain food clubs which brought us our staples bimonthly, cooperating with others who had trucks or cars to go to meet the distributors' trucks. This makes shopping easier, this and the intensive garden, aerobic compost and aerobic compost teas. So does a grass-fed meats, raw milk and egg delivery drop point for farmers and, as well their markets. Flexcar helps now, too, maybe four times a year. This just became a way of life with the soil foodweb. This is all woven together like a mycellial mat.

Fall, jump or get pushed in. There is lots of room and it is cushy. Seems alot more interesting to follow instinct. How nice to have a philosophy and info if one cannot find one's aesthetics thru tastes, tummy and toes.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 15 Sep 06

Lots of discussion about folks trying to "Kick the Car Habit" over at a new blog

Come by and visit often. Leave a comment to let us know you were there.

Posted by: Brian on 15 Sep 06

Jim found TravelSmart to be lame, but TravelSmart is not targeted at “early green adopters” like Jim. Rather, TravelSmart uses a deep understanding of human behavior to “push people into” greenness. The target market is more for average folks who want to be greener, but need some help and human persuasion to reduce driving.

Sarah claims an average TravelSmart car use reduction of 10%. From the 8 or so academic papers I’ve read on the subject, it’s actually hard to reduce car use by 3% with TravelSmart-like programs. Further, it’s hard to keep the behavior modified when the pilot program ends. And, it’s tricky to accurately measure trip reduction, so there’s noise in the data. See “In Motion - Neighborhood Transportation Demand Management Pilots. Community-Based Social Marketing for Trip Reduction. Final Report.” April 2005. By the Greater Seattle King County Metro Transit agency. In-Motion’s cost per “vehicle mile reduced” was $19 per mile – so it’s not yet cost-effective, and that’s why U.S. pilot programs haven’t been getting renewed.

But, don’t get me wrong, TravelSmart is a major innovation that goes beyond trip reduction in pioneering “community based social marketing to foster sustainable behavior.” Here’s a crucial link on sustainable social marketing: - the book is a quick read. TravelSmart, and the evolution thereof, and other community based approaches, will end up making a huge difference, but we’re in early stages. Overstating the benefits of current programs should be avoided.

Posted by: Steve Raney on 20 Sep 06

I love the idea of it, but it's tough here in Los Angeles. Just a few weeks ago, another cyclist was killed after being hit by an SUV driver. I ride my bike to work occasionally, and people think I'm nuts --it's too dangerous, everyone says. There's a dedicated group of cyclists here, but it's a town built for cars. People prefer enormous vehicles, and they're not expecting to see a cyclist on the road, so it's scary. I spend a lot of time planning my routes when I do ride. I've used quite a lot--but I find I do better by following my instinct about which roads are too dangerous (congested, no shoulder). If you want to ride in L.A., you have to accept that it's a risky business.
On the plus side, we have good weather and wide streets in many areas. Lots of businesses have made an effort to have places to lock your bike. But overall, you have to be determined and perhaps a bit reckless to ride here.

Posted by: Lib on 28 Sep 06



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