Several times each day, most of us move from one place to another using one of the many options available – walk or drive, take the stairs or the elevator, bike or bus, taxi or limousine. Most of the time, most of us don’t really think about it; we just do what we’ve usually done, what everyone else usually does, fall into the default behavior: we drive, take the elevator, call a cab.
What creates the default? What nudges so many of us in the same direction? Not an act of nature or of god. Behavioral defaults are not inevitable or inescapable. They are created by the surrounding context – the structure of our buildings, the nature of the transportation system, the attributes of high social status, the cultural assumptions that make some things feel normal and others unthinkable. One way to understand the decision-making context is to examine the “Four Cs” of Convenience, Cost, Comfort, and Coolness. Which method of movement is easiest to access? Which feels like a good value? Which requires the least effort to use? Which is the most appropriate for people of our (self-imagined) social standing and style?
None of these default-creating factors occur by “accident.” They are the aggregated product of past human decisions and actions. And that is the good news — if the Four Cs are the factors that create our society’s defaults in transportation and many other areas of daily life, and if they are themselves created by human action, then we can use our power over them to change our “ordinary” behaviors. We can design the Four Cs to create defaults that generate the most overall value from public infrastructure investments, maximize personal and public health, create the safest and most livable neighborhoods, and other social and individual benefits.
Of course, we can not create a brand new transportation system from scratch, no more than we can shape our land use patterns as if nothing already occupied the land, or improve public health as if evolution had not programmed us to crave sugar, fat, and salt. We have to start from what exists. But we are not condemned to simply replicate the past. Using our creativity, mobilizing our political forces, and finding ways to tap our society’s immense resources – we can move ourselves towards a better future.
It’s true that this is a hard time for progressive reform, efforts to create a more humane world for all. It is, rather, a time when insecurity undermines public understanding that we rise and fall together, leading to policies that move us towards the barbarism of “all against all” and the kind of malignant inequality that creates even more insecurity. In such a time, it is vital to keep the visionary hopes alive while focusing on the pragmatic victories, the specific improvements, the local actions that we can win.
What Shapes Our Choices
There must be some truly existential decision-makers in the world. People who fully investigate and rationally weigh the full implications of every action, personally evaluate every possible alternative, and remain utterly unaffected by anything around them.
But I don’t know any of them. Everyone I know, myself included, is almost always influenced by the context in which we make a decision or take an action. And context is rather broad – from the weather to the physical layout of our neighborhood, from what our friends are doing to the advertisements we’ve most recently seen, from what’s at eye-level in our refrigerator to the price of gas.
This isn’t a new revelation – advertisers, marketers, and salespeople base their success on understanding and manipulating consumption contexts. Marketing is not simply designed to let people know that a product exists; it’s about associating that product – or an entire brand – with a desirable set of personal or social attributes. As my publisher once told me during my magazine editorship days, after explaining that the most fundamental job of the media is gathering eye-balls for resale to advertisers, sales is simply the final handshake while marketing is getting the person to want to buy in the first place.
Public Health Insights
Public health professionals also understand this process. A recent book by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein, titled “NUDGE: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” (Yale University Press, 2008) describes how much of what we do is subtly but significantly influenced by the context. They point out that there are almost no “neutral” contexts – every context has an influence, whether deliberately set up for that purpose or just haphazardly assembled. The more powerful the context, the more it creates a default – the choice or action we, and most other people in that context, take without thinking. If we live in a dispersed suburb with no sidewalks, no transit options, and no nearby stores we’re going to get into our cars for nearly every trip. If we live somewhere with a grocery store around the corner, we might walk. We’re not being forced to drive or walk, there is no policeman standing in front of our house giving orders – it is simply that the context guides us (and everyone else) into a default behavior that it takes a huge amount of emotional commitment and self-discipline to avoid.
This is all pretty obvious, so far. But Thaler and Sunstein go further. They point out that to a greater or lesser extent all decision-making contexts are shaped by people – by every one of us. We do not have the option of not influencing others – it is built into the very fabric of our shared existence. Why not, they ask, use that fact consciously and positively, why not do our best to shape contexts so that the default option is a healthy one, good for both the individual and the society? Why not find ways to make healthy food cheaper, more visible, more available in more places? Why not make signing up for your employer’s 401(k) the default? They describe this as a policy of “libertarian paternalism” – allowing people to make whatever choice they desire, but creating socially healthy default starting points.
Of course, there will be many situations where people have different opinions about the best default – from same-sex marriage to women’s control over their own bodies. But there are many, many more situations where we have broad societal agreement, often based on scientific fact – it is good to eat more fruit and vegetables; it is good to be more physically active; it is good to have enough resources to avoid poverty in old age….and much more.
Libertarian paternalism (I love the contradiction of the two terms!) seems like an attractive strategy in areas both personal and political – from parenting to community affairs, from interpersonal relationships to social services.
Shaping Defaults — Convenience, Cost, Comfort, and Coolness
In transportation, as with many things, the decision-making and behavior-influencing context is shaped by our perceptions of Convenience, Cost, Comfort, and Coolness – the Four Cs. Is it nearby and accessible? How much must we pay? Is it easy to do? How does it affect our self image or our perception of what others will think about us?
The Four Cs underlie the findings of a new study on the impossibility of solving car congestion through new road construction. Professors Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner, from the University of Toronto in Canada, tested the truth of “if you build it, they will come” and found what they describe as a “fundamental law of road congestion.” For “a broad class of major urban roads” including both highways and arterials, “we find that VKT [vehicle kilometers traveled] increases one for one with interstate highways, ….suggest[ing] that increased provision of interstate highways and major urban roads is unlikely to relieve congestion of these roads.” In other words, the more convenient and comfortable the roads become the more people will use them.
People want to move around. And the desire to move is enormously elastic, expanding like a rising river into whatever channel is most accessible. Creating more capacity simply attracts more cars, trucks, and commerce – which then attracts more cars, trucks, and commerce. Even expanding transit – which Duranton and Turnert admit may be good for other reasons – will simply make driving more comfortable and thereby attract more cars. Especially in the context of a growing population, congestion can be postponed but not eliminated. In the delightful words of Walter Kulash, a traffic engineer from Orlando, Florida: “Widening roads to relieve congestion is like loosening your belt to relieve obesity.”
The Canadian study suggests one way to reduce congestion – raise the cost. The AAA reports that the cost of buying and driving a new average sedan rose to $8,776 per year in 2011, and that has had some effect on the number of miles we drive. In addition, congestion pricing – raising the cost of driving in certain areas at certain times – has been shown to have some effect on people’s willingness to drive. (see my follow-up Comment note, below) And another recent study suggests that making road less convenient and comfortable – reducing capacity – also reduces volume even more than it increases congestion. In other words, if you take it away, they go away! According to a British study, [emphasis added] —
“Many cities…have introduced measures to reallocate road space away from cars. In general, they reported that there has often (but not always) been a fairly short period of traffic disruption, but that ‘gridlock’ or ‘traffic chaos’ are rare, and never last longer than a few days, as traffic adjusts relatively quickly to new conditions. [A] characteristic comment from local transport planners [is] ‘the traffic has disappeared and we simply don’t know where it has gone to’.” …Evidence from over 100 places [contradicts] the assumption that all traffic displaced from one street will simply divert to another…. [Rather], the available evidence is consistent…: traffic does ‘disappear’ in response to reductions in road capacity due to a very extensive set of behavioral responses. These include, but are not confined to, changes in choice of mode, destination and trip frequency as well as rerouting and retiming.…”
(from Traffic Impact of Highway Capacity Reductions: Assessment of the Evidence. P. Goodwin, C. Hass-Klau, S. Cairns; Landor Publishing, London, 1998. http://www.worldcarfree.net/resources/freesources/Evide.htm )
Finally, it now appears that – at least among some sectors of young people – driving is no longer as cool as it once was. In 1988 over 45 percent of 16 year olds in the United States had a driver’s license. In 2008 this had dropped to 30 percent – a huge decline that was impacted by more than the lingering effects of the financial sector’s speculative melt-down. Citiwire columnist Alex Marshall paraphrased his own nephew’s attitude as “A car is ‘helpful,’ but not really ‘cool.’” (http://citiwire.net/post/2413/)
Presenters at the recent National Association of Home Builders conference focused on the fact that the 80 million people comprising Generation Y do not want their parent’s homes in the suburbs. Instead, they prefer smaller homes in neighborhoods where they can walk or take public transportation to their destinations. One survey found that about 1/3 are willing to pay more for housing that allows them to use their feet for most transportation.
Big Visions; Small Steps
The other good news is “if you build it, they will come” works for sidewalks, bike facilities, and transit as much as for cars. (We already know that the opposite – “if you don’t build it they won’t come” – works for these modes: it’s what our transportation system has been doing for decades.) To some extent, people will have no choice — nearly a third of adult Americans do not drive and as our population ages the numbers will go up. In cities the percentage is even higher, rising to nearly 60 percent of all New Yorkers.
And there is a huge latent demand for making the alternatives more inviting, not just among the young. According to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, most adults rate neighborhood features like sidewalks, crosswalks, and lighting as “moderately” or “very” important to them. A recent AARP study reports that two-in-five Americans over 50 say their neighborhood sidewalks are inadequate; nearly half reported not being able to safely cross a main road near their homes. (The study says that “this is a key reason why 65 percent of non-driving seniors make fewer trips to visit family and friends, or to shop and attend community events.”)
My father used to say that when you are heading for the horizon you should always watch where you step. I used to counter that society’s need for fundamental improvement required systemic changes so deep and so threatening to established interests that accomplishing it would be impossible without radical action.
We were both right although (as usual) his phrasing was easier to remember. We do need visionary goals. And winning them will require the kinds of radical change that is only possible at moments of crisis, when systems are failing and the establishment’s hold on power is weak. But being able to take advantage of those moments requires years of small scale work and the slow accumulation of small victories that lay the foundation for the “sudden” leaps.
Related previous posts include: