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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36 responses to “The fundamental attribution error in transportation choice”

  1. Jane Mitchell says :

    Great post! Great conclusions. If you can move the big words down to Grade 6 level, it will make a great rebut to the Outhit and Shawn Taylor articles in the record, particularly the points about Europe and tourists. People will understand that.

  2. Jarrett at says :

    This is the most important blog post I’ve read in months, and the notion of the FAE is a critical tool for understanding the incoherence of most transit debates. I’ll link to it soon.

    But you lose me a bit when you use tourists as an example. Tourism is different because tourist travel has different objectives, and a difference in objective is not the same as a difference in situation, which is what you’re describing in the rest of the post.

    Tourists will often travel for the experience, while locals generally travel with the sole purpose of getting somewhere. There are exceptions both ways. But in general, tourists will go out of their way to use cute/sexy/unique transit technologies, such as historic streetcars and cable cars, while locals will generally choose the service that actually meets their needs. I’ve been very critical of the use of tourist experiences as a guide to how we plan transit in our own cities, because tourists are attracted to rarity while transit in our own city needs to be routine. This, I thought, was the fundamental fallacy of Darrin Nordahl’s book My Kind of Transit. More on that here:

    Still, the concept of FAE is essential, and you explain it very well.

    • Michael D says :

      You’re right — tourists are not the best example. What I’m trying to get at is the experience of an outsider to the cultural situation, who nevertheless has to figure out the best way to get around. A better example would be longer-term visitors (e.g. month or more), perhaps for work.

      Thanks for the link and kind words!

  3. smably says :

    Peter Shawn Taylor’s recent piece in the Record, “Public transit or a free car? The choice should be obvious“, is a great real-world case of this error. His argument goes like this: the majority of transit users right now are poor or students; therefore, a huge improvement in the quality of our transit would just attract more poor people and students.

    • Julian Wearne says :

      When you try to argue against the sort of logic in that article, nobody can win.

      And nothing beats a car for getting around.

      A train takes me 15 minutes to get to work, a bike about 20, yet on the rare occasion that I’ve driven it’s taken me over 40 minutes… I’ve skateboarded the journey in 30…

  4. Hector says :

    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.

    Then the question becomes: why is European infrastructure and transportation service more transit-oriented than American infrastructure and transportation service? I think there are three main reasons: historical contingency, geography and wealth. First, most major European cities developed long before the rise of private motor vehicles. The core layouts of these cities were established in medieval times, before there was any kind of motorized transportation, when all trips were made on foot or by horse-drawn vehicles. As a result, the core areas of European cities tend to be very dense and have narrow streets. This makes it very difficult for them to accommodate large numbers of private motor vehicles, so buses and trains tend to dominate transportation in these core areas today. Second, Europe is much smaller than the U.S. and has a much higher population density. Land is scarcer and more expensive in Europe than in the U.S. This makes Europe much less conducive to low-density, car-oriented suburban development than the U.S. And third, Europeans are not as wealthy as Americans. Fewer of them can afford the cost of owning and operating a car.

    In short, Europe’s greater use of mass transit is mostly a matter of historical, geographic and economic necessity. If Europeans were as rich as Americans, had as much land as Americans, and weren’t so constrained by historical contingencies, they’d do as much of their traveling by car as Americans do.

    And in fact the difference isn’t really that large anyway. Despite their medieval city layouts, shortage of land, and lower incomes, Europeans do the vast majority of their traveling by car, just as Americans do. On both continents, mass transit is just a small component of the overall transportation system. It’s just a bit larger in Europe than in the U.S.

    • Michael D says :

      You’re missing the proximate cause for that infrastructure in modern Europe: political. This is made very clear in everything on Copenhagen’s cycling and in the excellent article I linked above on Strasbourg’s reinvention and deliberate return to its roots. The article I linked on New Urbanism and Europe’s sprawl makes it clear that Europe can definitely do sprawl; it just views it as a larger problem that needs to be, and can be addressed. In many places it is doing just that and as a result significantly affecting how people travel. Historical, geographic, and economic necessities fail to explain the substantial fluctuation in the transportation patterns in European cities over the 20th century.

      And people in Europe are plenty wealthy enough for cars, at least if cars were to cost the same. They have, however, made cars more expensive by externalizing fewer of the costs of car ownership. But note that in the U.S., everyone drives, including many who can’t really afford it (but who have no other choice).

      The question could also be about why North American infrastructure is so car-oriented. Here too, the answer has much to do with politics, including zoning and entrenched laws favoring highway investment.

      • Richard Masoner says :

        @Michael: In dismissing Hector’s environmental / situational argument as a “troll”, aren’t you attributing European vs American transportation policies to a Continental vs New World disposition rather than to the environmental and situational factors that Hector proposes?

        You write the reasons are political, but politics is people, and people have their reasons for making the decisions they do. Why did the politicians of Amsterdam choose differently than the people the United States in transportation policy?

      • Richard Masoner says :

        Never mind my previous comment — I get the picture better now after reading Human Transit’s followup to this post.

    • Marcus says :

      Most older American cities were also built up before the development of the automobile, but we chose do built massive freeways tearing through the hearts of our cities, while Europe did not.

  5. Free Refills says :

    As someone who recently moved from Detroit to New York City, I can tell you that you’re right on the mark. I used to commute 60 miles each way in my car and I was someone who enjoyed a nice Sunday drive in an unfamiliar part of town. Before leaving Detroit, I thought I would miss the “freedom of the road” greatly. Turns out, public transit works pretty well–and walking or biking around New York pretty much fulfills my need to explore new neighborhoods. I don’t miss my car one bit.

  6. Alon Levy says :

    Tourists have special situational factors influencing mode choice, but the factors create two opposing forces, rather than a force with a predominant direction as with students. On the one hand, tourists are less familiar with the local transit system, which would make them less likely to take it. This is especially true if it’s bus-based (you can’t see the rail lines or the subway stops). It’s a completely situational factor: locals, too, would take the bus less often if the map confused them as it would confuse an outsider.

    On the other hand, renting a car is more expensive than driving one’s own car, because the full cost is marginal, whereas with an owned car only a minority of the cost, consisting of gas, tolls, and parking, is marginal. That factor is situational, too. Where the primary mechanism of encouraging transit use is a tax on cars, such as Singapore, car ownership is low but people who have cars drive them. Where the primary mechanism is a tax on such marginal costs as tolls and parking charges, for example London, car ownership is high but many car owners take transit to work.

  7. Hector says :

    You’re missing the proximate cause for that infrastructure in modern Europe: political

    No, I’m not. Your point about the importance of environmental and situational factors to the choices people make applies to their choices as voters as well as to their choices as consumers. The historical, geographic and economic factors I described make Europeans more supportive than Americans of transit-oriented public policies. Americans are generally much less constrained than Europeans by historical city layouts, shortages of land, and lack of wealth, and American public policy on transportation and land use reflects that greater freedom.

    The article I linked on New Urbanism and Europe’s sprawl makes it clear that Europe can definitely do sprawl

    Yes, it can. Europe is becoming more and more like America in its transportation and land use patterns. Most new development in Europe, as in America, is low-density, car-oriented suburbs and exurbs. The growth of travel in Europe is overwhelmingly dominated by cars (and planes). But it is unlikely that Europe will become quite as sprawled and car-oriented as America, at least for the foreseeable future, because of the constraints I described.

    And people in Europe are plenty wealthy enough for cars, at least if cars were to cost the same

    Yes, and as I said, cars are already the overwhelmingly dominant mode of transportation in Europe, and that dominance is growing. They’re catching up with America. But for the reasons I have described, cars will probably never become quite so dominant in Europe as they are in the U.S.

    The question could also be about why North American infrastructure is so car-oriented. Here too, the answer has much to do with politics, including zoning and entrenched laws favoring highway investment

    Laws and public policies are not imposed on the American people against their will by unaccountable overlords. They are created and sustained by the democratic process. The car-oriented zoning laws and public spending priorities that you seem to dislike are not new or isolated. They’ve been in place for decades, all over the country. They have been sustained through countless federal, state and local election cycles. It all comes back to the will of the people. It all comes back to how people prefer to live and get around. And the evidence is pretty conclusive from decades of political and consumer choices that most people prefer a car-oriented lifestyle to a transit-oriented one.

  8. Cap'n Transit says :

    Hector’s atrocious – yet strangely familiar – argument leads straight into my response. In short: people can be rational and irrational, sometimes in the same decision. It’s important to acknowledge the irrational bases for decisions good and bad, just as it’s important to acknowledge the rational bases.

  9. thomasthethinkengine says :

    Hey, this is a pretty simple argument dressed up in a fancy tuxedo.

    In its naked form it says this: If transit is better, all kinds of people will take it.

    Including psychological concepts burnishes the impact but doesn’t change what is definitely the most importanr argument in all of transit theory.

    If transit gets better more people will take it.

    If this article helps people understand that, then damn good.

  10. Justin N says :

    As a social scientist (political science, with more than a little dabbling in political psych), I’m glad to see academic concepts applied to real-world problems. Don’t let everyone else simplify unnecessarily- keep on using big words!

  11. Hector says :

    Micheal D, quoting Mencken on democracy:

    “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” -H.L. Mencken

    So what supposedly superior alternative form of government do you propose? Dictatorship?

    [Note: This blog is a benevolent dictatorship, and I am not letting through any further discussion on this tangent. -Michael D]

  12. Steve Busman says :

    I think the kind of people we become, our culture and identity, is shaped by our environment, and if that environment contains a government that favors and subsidizes cars, car companies that bombard us with car ads, and zoning laws that makes it near impossible to walk anywhere nearby, then over time, we become car-people. We become the type of person who prefers cars despite recent new trends in transit options. It’s easy to say, hey, we can change people’s habits immediately by changing their environment, but fact is, not only do we have to provide better transit, but we have to sell it and ingrain it in our culture just as aggressively as cars have done in the past, and that’s reversing thousands of hours of car commercials and billions of dollars of advertising and car marketing. I migrated from Europe to America at a young age, and in trying to become Americanized I fully embraced the car culture and worshipped cars and bought car magazine and made car models and I became a car person and I still am. It may take a generation or two and an huge investment in transit and transit advertising and marketing to change Americans into transit-people. It is my ability to see the world through the eyes of others that lead me to believe that other Americans are car-addicts like me, and existing data reinforces this perception.

    • Nathanael says :

      Actually, data says Americans under the age of 30 (or so) are largely sick of cars and like trains. So it really shouldn’t take more than a generation, nor should it require significant advertising and marketing.

      It does, however, require actually providing the trains, which requires a lot of investment.

  13. dave says :

    I think Hector has a point, but I also think you are correct. The fact is that through our culture we shape the environment, and over time we’ve ended up with a sprawling, car-dominated landscape in the U.S.

    It is important to remember that at one time the railroads were hated monopolies, that cities were seen as dirty and crowded, and that, for example, G.M. bought trolley car companies just to close them down and rip up the tracks. And that at one time we were like China, with a huge industrial capacity and no one to buy anything. The people in the U.S. were stubbornly ‘self-reliant’ and did not need a bunch of gadgets and goods.

    It took a huge effort to turn a bunch of frontiersmen and women into couch potatoes, sitting around watching the shopping channel.

    But now here we are, and I think your post is right on target. The environment we’ve inherited influences how we get around.

    But that’s also the good thing. Keep in mind what Hector wrote, and then take some time to see how people really feel about driving. Just toss a few ideas out there – say, driving slow in the left passing lane, and see what sort of reaction you get. It’s almost insane, how angry and fed up everyone is. So the conclusion that we’ll just keep driving more and more is hard for me to accept.

    I think we’ve been conned to some extent – we’ve lost some freedom. A car may give me a sense of freedom, but it’s not real, it’s a proxy and maybe only for a half-hour and as long as I don’t run into traffic. The thing is, the trade-off is high, and it’s in real freedom. From debt, reliance on foreign oil, high transportation taxes, pollution.

    • larisa says :

      Exactely! The idea that the car in itself gives you more freedom is susceptible. It is not so much that the car gives you freedom, it is that without it you don’t have any freedom at all , and hence you are FORCED to get a car.You don’t receive a real option here. I drive a car not because I want to, but because I have to. And everytime I sit in traffic I remember that. It is my belief that America would be able to increase its economy greatly by increasing its public transportation. That would solve part of our oil dependency problem, and part of our pollution problem.

  14. Ben says :

    I was introduced to transit when I was in City Year Cleveland. We had free bus passes then, so we took it all the time and it was the normal thing to do. I wish other workplaces would encourage transit ridership to this extent. I find it funny that Cleveland Clinic has to keep building new parking facilities. Employees still continue to drive there even though there are excellent frequent bus routes leading there, including the new health line. I have become a bicycle commuter, because my current workplace isn’t very far and has poor transit connections. I still ride the light rail to get downtown. Many people who look into transit may find they have excellent options here, but not many people think this way.

  15. Robin says :

    What we are hearing now is a call for “more ped and bike infrastructure” or “complete streets” but the fundamental issue is not about improving those modes, but rather requiring auto drivers to pay the real cost of driving through tolls, congestion fees and gas taxes. We have been subsidizing decentralization for so long that the only way to move people back to compact developments where biking, walking, and transit are viable—as they are in declining cities all over the country—-is to stop subsidizing the placement of commercial and industrial sites through direct grants and subsidized road construction then further subsidizing worker mobility when they can’t get to their jobs

    • Michael D says :

      Don’t forget the cost of parking!

      Both are important. Here in Kitchener-Waterloo, many trips are sufficiently short to be reasonably made on foot, by bicycle, or by transit. One of the ways to get people to choose those modes is to ensure the infrastructure and services support those choices. It’s important for advocates not to get caught up in either-or sorts of infighting.

  16. Tom Harned says :

    There’s good reason that politicians in Europe treat transportation differently than those in the U.S. The best explanation I’ve heard was from long-time bicycle planning professional Michael Ronkin. Ronkin argues that, for a variety of reasons, automobile use in the U.S. gradually but steadily increased throughout the 20th century, while in Europe automobile use did not grow significantly until the 1960’s, at which point it skyrocketed.

    In short, the automobile ate away at the livability of American cities gradually so it went largely unnoticed or under-noticed by mainstream society. European cities saw the damage happen in less than a decade which was quite alarming. Not surprising, many European countries made efforts to reclaim their streets as early as the 1970’s. Ronkin’s full explanation of this phenomenon can be found at: WalkBikeCT

  17. Jarrett at says :

    This thread has wandered a bit from the topic, but if anyone wants to read more about Fundamental Attribution Error, you can watch me flail here:

  18. JD Moore says :

    I know you know. Can you convince people?

    • Michael D says :

      It would at least be helpful to make clear and vivid to people the influence of the situation on their own choices. E.g. draw attention to the absence of choice where streets are not human-navigable and the only transit is infrequent, slow, and doesn’t go anywhere useful. Transport people’s imagination to somewhere where the situation makes another mode an obvious and easy choice, like cycling in Copenhagen. Or better yet, to a part of their own city.

      Then the leap is to understand that what applies to you, applies to others. The most powerful examples of the effect of situation is where the place wasn’t “always this way”, such as Phoenix’s light rail and Copenhagen’s cycling infrastructure.

      • JD Moore says :

        Do you really believe what you said convinces people to choose? I feel there’s a big difference between “consciousness raising” and convincing people to “buy the product;” check out the history of America’s second wave of feminism. I know of “conditioned existence,” whether it be psychological or something built into the infrastructure. What applies to MY situation DOES NOT necessarily apply to others, in my opinion. We have plenty of advocates in the Boston area who feel that “making people aware” is going to convince them to change their behavior. Sorry, but I find it doesn’t work that way. Convincing people takes more than just raising awareness, in my opinion. Americans are notoriously resistant to behavioral change; they would rather use a device. That is why the social engineers place most of their effort on the children and mentally deficient, as they are more compliant than adults of sound mind.

  19. Jane Mitchell says :

    This has been an amazing post with some great and informative replies!

    • Michael D says :

      Thanks! I’m glad it’s been able to spark this much good conversation, and I hope it helps us make more effective progress in changing modal attitudes and situations.

  20. fpteditors says :

    People drive cars because the streetcar system was deliberately dismantled and replaced by subsidized sprawl.

  21. John Bailo says :

    In order to understand the suburbs, you have to understand it’s about choice. Living in a low density area, and having a car, gives a person many market choices.

    Instead of buying everything from one corner grocery, the suburban-consumer has the option of traveling as far as 50 miles to get the products they need for their home.

    The suburban retail-warehouse model, where the consumer does the “last miles” of transport (rather than having a truck move goods to lots of small retail boutiques in a dense urban grid), is extremely and obviously efficient. Going to the optimal place and transporting the optimal good integrates the consumer into the supply chain.

    Many suburban homes are productive factories of food, entertainment, education. They are also “last mile” production facilities, tailoring furniture, producing restaurant grade food, using computer technology for education and communications. They are mini-office-factories. Suburban families are highly productive, and have the green space in which to live and work…much as an ideal high tech workplace has a campus.

  22. larisa says :

    You say:

    “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.”

    True. But, in completion to what you say, what exactly determines the type of transportation and infrastructure made available to us? Sure, part of it is the natural environment and the length of distances faced.I guess one could argue that the USA relies more heavily on private transport due to the vastness of its spacing and the long distances between cities. Yet, one can’t argue that if properly invested into, public transit couldn’t do the same for transportation needs that our cars do- and in many cases at less costs. USA may extend on a larger space than most advanced countries, but it also has a larger population than many of the latters. A recent study I read showed that a simple tax of 2 cents per mile of each American driver could be enough to propel a sophisticated public transportation system accross the country, to equal the developped highway system we built in the 20th century.

    The real reason of why America doesn’t have that many trains and efficient bus routes consists of two factors. The first one is political lobying: more public transit means less work for car sellers and manufacturers , and so companies like General Motors strongly advocate against it. The second reason is economics- more exactely supply and demand. There aren’t many trains and buses because people don’t demand them. Car ownership has become a part of American culture, and most middle class citizens actively preffer individual rather than shared transport. Driving your own car is a part of the American cultural status quo. This sentiment is strengthened by the general public oposition to any bigger government intervention.

    So, what we use to transit from one place to another is caused by what is readily accesible to us, but at the same time what is accesible to us is determined by social, political, and economic factors. Therefore, our prevelent mode of transport is in fact a cultural matter.

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