Flexibility in transportation choice

My actually last Record column for the year focuses on points I’ve discussed in the blog, particularly the fundamental attribution error:

Flexibility in Transportation Choice

When transportation is discussed, inevitably the categorizations get made: cyclists are asking for this, that project pits transit riders against drivers, this road widening is good for drivers. But the basic assumption here – namely, that most of us fall neatly into one of those groups – just isn’t true.

Certainly there are people who will drive no matter what, and hardcore cyclists, and so on. I, however, walk, cycle, drive, and take transit. Though I have my preferences for walking and against the stress of traffic, in general I travel by the means that makes the most sense for the trip I’m making. I’m not wedded to my car, or my bike, and certainly not to the bus — and I venture to say that the same is true for you.

There’s a basic finding In social psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It refers to people’s tendency to attribute too much of the behaviour of others to their personal traits. In other words, while you might choose to do X in light of the situation, if others do Y it’s because they’re the kind of people who do Y. So while we aren’t likely to ascribe our choices to our being Car Drivers or Pedestrians or Transit Riders or Cyclists, we eagerly pigeonhole others in this way.

The reality is that our transportation choices depend not only on our personal disposition and financial constraints, but also on the choices available to us. When there are protected bike lanes that get plowed, we’ll cycle. We’ll walk to the corner store. We’ll drive when we need to get to the edge of town. Considering how we’ve built our cities, don’t be surprised to find that most cyclists own a car. Many transit riders use Grand River CarShare to access to a car when needed.

Accepting our transportation flexibility suggests certain approaches. If we want to get people to switch some trips to transit, we need to break down barriers to entry. Already, Google Maps on our smartphones looks through schedules so we don’t have to. A network of frequent express bus routes can make it clear where transit could easily take us.

We should stop implicitly assuming that people must always drive, as exemplified by parking at work being typically paid for. If the cost of that parking is made an explicit choice, some people will forgo the parking and take the cash. Better yet is if we can pay for parking only on the days we need to use it – thereby making each day’s choice of transportation less biased towards clogging the roads.

The situation at the University of Waterloo shows that even this can be improved. Parking there is essentially offered at cost and there are indeed lots for daily parking. But despite the price, demand for parking is still high enough that close short-term spots are difficult to find. Which is a problem if we want people to choose to leave their cars at home more often.

The university ought to provide conveniently placed short-term parking, priced high enough to ensure available spots. People would then be able to easily drive to campus when the convenience is worth it, while typically getting there by other means, such as through the transit pass included in student fees.

The big picture context is that Waterloo Region’s built up areas are growing dramatically, and we don’t have the space or the billions needed for roads to accommodate every trip being made by car twenty years down the road. Planning for effective transportation solutions requires us to understand that our travel habits are more malleable than we think, and depend on the options we face.


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