Barriers to entry and the path of least resistance

(Photo: Flickr / Helen Cook)

Many people will volunteer that taking transit or eating locally is a good thing to do. But yet, people do not undertake sacrifices in droves to make “right” choices, unless there is no alternative. If we aim to change the choices people make, it helps to have a good way of thinking about the decision-making process. Here’s my way, which I find useful as a general conceptual framework:

People generally follow the path of least resistance given their situation and reject other paths due to higher barriers to entry. Moreover, the pool of resources for overcoming barriers is limited.

To be more precise, what matters is the perceived resistance and barriers.* We can be influenced by culture or limited information to perceive a choice as being more or less difficult. Though I think it takes a great deal of culture to get us to willingly refrain from littering, or to get us to recycle — and even then, we need those options to be easy.

Barriers to entry are anything that comes between the path of least resistance (or between no choice) and another choice. These could be a lack of information, difficulty of usage, discomfort of use, price, how long something takes, etc. — and there is both commonality and individual variation in the factors. The current path of least resistance may well have had its own barriers to entry.

Take the example of driving. At some point, the motorist had to learn to drive and had to buy and register a car. Following the framework suggests that overcoming those barriers actually was the path of least resistance, e.g. lacking a car severely restricted mobility. But once the car is in your driveway, the barriers to entry are few: the perceived marginal cost of gas/maintenance/depreciation (low), the price of parking (generally free), the price of the roads (generally free), and congestion to face (now we might be getting somewhere).

The view offers some specific guidance to changing choices:

Remove barriers to entry: provide frequent transit service for which one doesn’t need a schedule, let people use their cell phones or credit cards to get on transit, eliminate marginal costs through universal passes, get rid of helmet laws for cycling, make available bicycles that are easy to use in all conditions.

Put up barriers to entry: increase congestion, increase (or make more obvious) the marginal cost of driving — motorists won’t take into account the costs of highway infrastructure or parking if they’re never faced with them. Make roadways more narrow, thus decreasing the speed of least resistance (instead of hoping that speed limits will work).

Take advantage of the barriers that already occur, such as the large initial barriers to driving. Provide sufficiently good alternatives to car ownership — transit, cycling, walking, carshare — that it simply never makes sense to take the plunge and buy a car, and maybe not even to get a driver’s license. It’s much harder to get people not to use the car they own than it is to get people to continue not owning one.

Demolish false perceptions of barriers to entry, through education, good information and maps, and marketing.

The overwhelming implication of the perspective is this: to change people’s decisions, focus less on convincing and more on making the choice easy. Instead of attributing choices to something intrinsic about the person, or blaming the person for not doing enough, start changing the path of least resistance.

*To be even more precise and general would require adding in a notion of utility.


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6 responses to “Barriers to entry and the path of least resistance”

  1. John Bailo says :

    Case in point, I like Blue Sky cane cola which uses real sugar. I don’t like corn syrup sodas — all the major brands. But I do like eating fast food with soda…which means, that I violate the Muted Group in almost all situations. I went to my favorite teriyaki place last night. Normally, I order a hot green tea, because they only have corn syrup soda. This aways “disrupts” the pattern of the servers and half the time they don’t understand what I’m asking for. So, last night, I thought I’d join the herd and ordered a Coke. My order was dispatched promptly, I didn’t have to repeat it. Just to seal the deal, I took a plastic spork instead of chopsticks (so I wouldn’t make other people unconfortable at the dining area). You know what — it felt really good to stay in line. Being different all the time takes scads of energy, and sometimes it’s almost unbearable.

    However, the downside is that one of my teeth started to hurt (which happens when I consume a lot of corn syrup products) and I missed the fun of using chopsticks. This was my “morning after” effect from having it “their way”.

    Must one fight night and day to make things as an individual think they should be? In my case, yes.

    And so I continue to fight for independent bike ways (not vehicular “bike lanes”) because I have it any other way.

  2. Jason says :

    I love the picture. Great priorities: parking space for 3 or 4 cars > mobility of anyone not in a car…

  3. David Hembrow says :

    A very good post, with a very good illustration at the top showing what you’re talking about. Walking is made difficult, driving is made easy. ergo: people drive. It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible for road works to take cyclists and pedestrians into account. It simply requires a different mindset.

  4. Beige says :

    In the US if you travel anywhere you haven’t been to before, you know if you go by car it will be fine. There is a continuous route of roads highly suitable for driving cars on between here and there, you can get car-centric directions easily, there will be car parking there. No problem. Go by bike, well, route might be great, might have lots of pinch points squeezing you into the 40 mile/hour traffic. Might be a place to lock up a bike, probably not. No one really thought of you. If you commute to work every day you eventually figure out good routes and parking. But by car you can go anywhere for the first time and just assume it will work out fine.

    • John Bailo says :

      “Go anywhere” is defined reflexively then. You can go anywhere the road (designed for cars) lets you go. You can’t go on the dirt path behind my apartment complex, like I can with my bike.

      It comes down to letting each thing be what it is.

  5. John Bailo says :

    Here is a video that shows an evolution over the decades of how street bicycling is done in Utrecht, Holland:

    What is interesting is that our American towns are at about their late 80s, early 90s level.

    It definitely shows, as the subject of this post entertains, that one must “make a way” to get to safe, fun bicycling that anyone can use and enjoy. The result is a population that is heavily tilted towards bicycling.

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