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Car Culture

How Infrastructure Shapes the Way We Move

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
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
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

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
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
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

[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

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