Thursday, February 11, 2010

Transportation and the Irrational Consumer

I learned two disappointing facts of life when I grew up: (1) people are not logical and (2) making good choices is often not as simple as it first appears to be, even when we know "the facts."

Our lack of logic doesn't mean that we make random choices; we use what logical abilities we have, but we're sub-consciously influenced and can be manipulated by all sorts of factors like emotions, expectations and social norms. And, probably because we're mostly "pack animals" of sorts and have similar hard-wiring in our brains, we seem to make the same kinds of errors in logic repeatedly and collectively. The currently popular book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by MIT professor Dan Ariely, delves into this issue (quote from

Not only do we make astonishingly simple mistakes every day, but we make the same types of mistakes, Ariely discovers. We consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. We fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions on what we want, and we overvalue what we already own. Yet these misguided behaviors are neither random nor senseless. They're systematic and predictable—making us predictably irrational.

Other contemporary authors come to similar conclusions about our inability to be as logical as we like to think we are: Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman; A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, by Cordelia Fine; Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell, who has a cottage industry in books about human behavior and how the mind works. But the general concept is nothing new; the flaws in human logic were well-observed by Charles Mackay in one of my favorite books, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there's some sort of documentation about us being illogical that dates to the cave drawings in Lascaux.

In spite of this, we all make myriad decisions daily using our apparently limited skills, and we do the best that we can. But surely the decision-making process must be complicated further when we discover there are multiple choices and when we're informed that compelling arguments for more than one choice can be made. It certainly seems complicated to me.

In previous posts (see below for links), I've discussed some of the challenges we face when we're trying to make environmentally-responsible decisions. Everything from the value of using ethanol fuel to that of re-using cloth grocery bags can be debated, sometimes with impressive research backing both sides of an argument. But my own completely non-scientific, observational research indicates that the most significant factor influencing our decision-making is the "cool factor." Facts and logic take a backseat to cool more often than we'd like to admit. Of course, we're influenced in our choices about what's cool, too, but let's save analyzing that phenomenon for posts about the power of advertising. For now, let's look instead at an example of a surprisingly debatable issue: something as "simple" and "straightforward" as the advantage of public vs. private transportation.

Most of use would say that efficient, high-speed rail that moves many people would be a better choice than everyone owning cars. But Suzanne Smalley of reported that "many economists now say the costs of building a high-speed rail network far outstrip the possible benefits, especially when cars are becoming more energy-efficient." Of course, this conclusion doesn't take into account the problems Toyota is having right now with the fuel-efficient Camry, the most popular car in America, or the problems with the Prius, the most popular hybrid car in the country, but we can safely assume that those problems will be resolved eventually.

Will this pro-car point of view have a significant impact on the car-buying choices and public transportation plans we make in the future? Will trends away from ostentatious, gas-guzzling vehicles continue because of the economy? Perceived and, perhaps, actual advantages to public transportation resulted in President Obama allocating $8 billion for high-speed trains in the stimulus package, and Congress upping the figure by another $1.2 billion. Does that mean that the previously agreed upon logic of the value of public transportation has won the battle? Or will we ultimately be affected by the "cool factor" more than anything else?

I vote for the "cool factor." The economy may dictate certain changes but, if there's any wiggle-room at all in our budgets, we're most persuaded by what kind of statement our purchases make. It's currently cool and getting cooler to own fuel-efficient cars. Hybrid and alternative choices are still optional. But there's nothing cool about daily public transportation, unless perhaps it's a bullet train or, for short trips, a cute trolley or double-deck bus. Otherwise, public transportation is perceived only as functional, to a greater or lesser degree. Until public transportation becomes fashionable, any debate based on the "logic" of its environmental advantage or lack of advantage won't be as significant as it should be, considering the impact the ultimate choice will have.

Of course, the other big issue about public vs. private transportation is convenience. In Los Angeles, it's pretty much impossible to rely exclusively on public transportation even if you want to. (You can read more than you probably need to know about this in the NY Times Freakonomics series about transporation in LA; the comments are integral to understanding what's really going on in this city and are often more accurate than the articles.) Los Angeles can claim the number one worst commute in the country (the Hollywood Freeway headed into downtown LA always, I repeat, always slows down at Vermont Ave.) and residents complain endlessly about traffic, but giving up a car would mean giving up reasonable access to the vast majority of the urban area. In addition, because this is a car town, cars are (too) often used as a reflection of the owner's status and personality.

So, give up your car and in return get inconvenience and a loss of identity? That's definitely not cool.

Would you give up your car? Does your city or town have adequate public transportation?

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo by Cieleke at stock.xchng

Related posts:
Going Wrong, Going Green
Going Wrong, Going Green, Part 2