Kaid Benfield Archive


We will take transit if it meets our needs (IOW, don’t fall for “the fundamental attribution error”)

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 18, 2010 at 1:32PM

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  light rail in Geneva (by: me)

Here’s an insight from relating human behavioral science to transportation:  people who use a particular form of transportation such as driving or taking transit sometimes misunderstand the motives of those that use a different mode.  We generally have a basic understanding of why we may take the bus, for example, but we make the assumption that the guy who drives is doing so because, well, he’s the kind of guy who drives. 

In fact, it’s not that simple.  Except for those of us who are environmental purists – and I am not one – our behavior stems not (or seldom) from something intrinsic to how we feel about driving or transit but, rather, on our particular circumstances.  For most of us, how we get somewhere depends on how well each available mode meets our needs.  This sounds sort of self-evident, but unfortunately the fallacy – that people in [insert name of community] do not and will not use transit in the future, given evidence that they don’t use it now – still infects too many transportation planning and investment decisions.

  bus rapid transit in Amsterdam (by: Daniel Sparing, creative commons license)  interior of a new BRT vehicle in Minnesota (by: Bill Roehl, creative commons license)

Michael Druker, a student in behavioral neuroscience at Waterloo University in Ontario, and writer of the blog Psystenance, calls this “the fundamental attribution error.”  In a recent post, he explains:

“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.”

  sometimes driving is the only rational decision (by: Mark Pritchard, creative commons license)  where options are convenient, we use them (Washington DC by: Trailnet, creative commons license)

Read Druker’s entire post here.  Transportation planner and writer Jarrett Walker called it “the most important blog post you’ll read this year.”  On his blog Human Transit, Walker adds:

“My own work is built on the belief that people making routine trips will make reasonable choices based on their situation and options, subject to the limits of their information.  Everybody knows that they do this, but they need to be reminded that everyone else does too . . . 

“When we say that Americans drive because they're a car culture, we imply that that the choice of most Americans to drive isn't a rational one, in light of each person's situation, and therefore requires a cultural explanation . . . 

“But in the places most Americans live, given the current economics of driving, and transit options being as they are, the decision to drive is rational for most of the people making it.   If most Americans are in situations where driving is the rational choice, we don't need the ‘car culture’ to explain their behavior, and we can see a clearer path to changing it, by helping to change people's situations. 

“Conversely, car advocates who cite current car use as evidence that people want to drive cars are also making the attribution error; they're implying that everyone who rationally chooses to drive is culturally committed to driving.  That's wrong; some of the people driving cars would like to be in a situation where they didn't have to.”

Sounds right to me.  If we want more people to use environmentally preferable ways of getting around, we need to build the kinds of communities and provide the kinds of convenient and comfortable alternatives that make the preferable choices also the rational ones.