The fundamental attribution error in transportation choice
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency for people to over-attribute the behaviour of others to personality or disposition and to neglect substantial contributions of environmental or situational factors. (Actually it isn’t quite fundamental, as collectivist cultures exhibit less of this bias.) People are generally more aware of the situational influence on their own behaviour.
Thus, the fundamental attribution error in transportation choice: You choose driving over transit because transit serves your needs poorly, but Joe Straphanger takes transit because he’s the kind of person who takes transit. This is the sort of trap we find ourselves in when considering how to fund transportation, be it transit, cycling, walking, or driving.
Let’s say you live in a suburban subdivision. You can afford to drive, and it’s the only way you can quickly and easily get to your suburban office and to the store, and pick up your child from daycare. How do you interpret the decision of other people to take transit? Is it something about the quality of transit where they are? More likely you are going to attribute it to something about those people themselves — they’re poor, or they’re students, or they’re some kind of environmentalists. It’s difficult for people to realize the effect of the situation, e.g. one with frequent transit service to many destinations along a straight street that is easy to walk to. (I’d also point out that students, the poor, and even environmentalists do drive as well.)
Why do Europeans walk more, cycle more, and take transit more? Surely it is something about their culture? But this is an excessively dispositional attribution. I won’t deny that culture plays some role in transit use, especially in the decisions that lead to the creation of transportation infrastructure. But that infrastructure itself and the services provided on it are a strong influence on the transportation choices people make. The European infrastructure situation facilitates those other modes of travel much more so than does typical North American transportation infrastructure.
Where our infrastructure gets closer to the European model, so does the transportation mode choice, and conversely, where Europe is more like the North American model, Europeans turn out to drive more. If culture were really the driving force, you wouldn’t expect to see much fluctuation in transportation choice. But just as North America suburbanized and fell in love with the private automobile, so did Europe, albeit to a lesser extent. Only recently has Europe started again building new tram lines and clawing back space from the car. Copenhagen, now viewed as an urban cycling mecca, wasn’t always one. The rise of the car drastically lowered cycling there in the 1960s. Copenhagen owes its recent fame to restrictions on parking and to its dedicated cycling infrastructure, which have led to a cycling renaissance.
Consider how North American visitors travel in Europe. How do they get around London? The Underground. How do they get between London and Paris? The train. How do they get around Amsterdam or Copenhagen? Quite possibly they rent a bike. When in Rome, they do as the Romans do: they walk, take the subway or tram, or maybe ride a Vespa. What do European tourists do in North America? Generally they rent a car, because that’s the only realistic way to travel in most places. There are exceptions, of course: tourists to New York City or Washington, D.C. take the subway because that’s the most convenient way to travel in those cities.
We’re not so different from tourists in how we choose to get around. We may have our own preferences, but the biggest influence on our choice of transportation mode is what modes are available to us and how useful they are. Above all this is determined not by culture and personality but by the kind of infrastructure and transportation service provided.
Addendum: Jarrett Walker has some great commentary on this post at Human Transit. More context was given in the Streetsblog write-up. Cap’ Transit provides a counterpoint, and there’s more commentary at Kaid Benfield’s blog.
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