How Infrastructure Shapes the Way We Move

2474443223_5cef1114ca.jpgThis infrastructure makes only one choice possible. (Photo: prefers salt marsh via Flickr)

Thanks to a few of the posts on the Streetsblog Network over the last 24 hours, we’re thinking about free will, morality and infrastructure. Jarrett Walker of Human Transit linked to a post from our newest network member, Michael D at Psystenance, about something called the "fundamental attribution error."

Don’t let yourself be put off by what may sound like impenetrable social-science jargon. Walker called it "the most important blog post you’ll read this year," and while he might be overstating the case (Cap’n Transit has quite a spirited rebuttal), there’s certainly a lot to think about in the post.

Here’s the meat of what Psystenance’s Michael Druker has to say:

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error
refers to the tendency for people to over-attribute the behavior of others to personality or disposition and to neglect substantial contributions of environmental or situational factors. …

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.…

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.

What I like about this way of thinking is that it gets us away from the mindset that frames transportation choices primarily as moral choices. This goes both ways. Those of us who want to discourage driving can too often come off as smug and judgmental when we criticize drivers, ignoring the real power of infrastructure to shape people’s actions.

On the other side, those who depend on driving can easily see events such as pedestrian fatalities as being the fault of those who are on foot, the result of their "poor choice" in transportation mode. Sustainable Savannah points out such a case today — and also notes how the built environment itself creates a chronically hazardous situation for anyone outside of a motor vehicle. (Related: this story about an older woman in the United Kingdom who has to take a bus 14 miles simply in order to cross a busy road near her home.)

As Mikael Colville-Andersen has often pointed out at Copenhagenize, and as Michael D says at Psystenance, that Danish city’s success in encouraging bicycling does not stem from finger-wagging or guilt-tripping. Nor does it spring from some inherently virtuous strain in the Danish character. The people who ride their bikes in Copenhagen do so not because they are "the kind of people who bicycle." They are not morally superior to Americans who drive cars. They do it because the infrastructure makes it easy and convenient.

It could happen here. After all, look at what the head of the US DOT is saying on his blog about the agency’s policy shift. As the National Complete Streets Coalition says,

[W]e’re celebrating the new policy issued by the USDOT and rolling up our sleeves to ensure that this policy — and all Complete Streets policies — results in the transformation of our roads into welcoming corridors for people of all ages and abilities, however they choose to
travel.