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Why your brain keeps you off the train

MinnPost file photo by Raoul Benavides
As a metropolitan area, we are planning to spend billions to finance light rail, street cars, bike lanes and bus rapid transit in hopes of prying people out of their cars and encouraging them to use less wasteful transportation.

The Connecticut suburbs where I lived before moving back home to Minnesota made almost no provision for public transportation. There were buses, but their schedules were inconvenient, and they traveled mostly on main arteries, avoiding the sinuous roads that wound through the hills where most of the population lived. Using them required a lengthy hike along twisty roads without sidewalks. And, of course, there was MetroNorth, the train that swept commuters into New York City.

For eight years, my job called for me to drive to Yonkers, an hour each way. The route was unvarying and miserable. Much of the 32-mile trip had me stuck in traffic, inching along at about five miles an hour.

So when I landed a job in “The City” — Manhattan to you folks — I was jubilant. No more exhausting driving. No more $4 per gallon gas. No more worries about traffic, flat tires and accidents. On the train, I could eat, sleep, read, put on mascara, text and even (ugh!) work, without endangering other people.

But did I use the train?

Well, yes and no. MetroNorth had its own drawbacks. A monthly ticket cost $309, about $7.50 per trip, since most people work only 20 days a month. Plus, you have to have a permit to park in the train station lot. For that there was a three-year waiting list. I had to put my car in one of the few non-permit spaces located about a half mile from the station (usually in a snow bank) at a cost of $5 a day.

Though the seats on the train were ergonomic disasters, the trip was quiet and reasonably efficient. Then the task became boxing the crowds at Grand Central Terminal, shlepping up three flights of stairs from the sub-sub basement track and hiking a mile to my office — or taking a bus ($2.75). The entire journey door-to-door took two hours and had to be repeated at the end of the day — a trip that was much more stressful because missing the 6:25 express meant waiting an hour and not getting home until nearly 9.

Many was the morning when I arrived at the train station, thought about the ordeal I was about to face, said to myself “the hell with it” (or something worse), zipped onto I-95 and drove to Manhattan.

The car was marginally more comfy, allowed me to travel my own schedule and freed me from the prospect of watching one of my regular fellow passengers chewing his cuticles and swallowing what he reaped.

But no joy in driving

But driving was no great shakes. Even if traffic was light, drivers were stopped up at the toll bridges surrounding Manhattan (then about $3 a pop, now about $5), crawled to Midtown, deposited the vehicle in a ramp ($13 to $20) and walked the remaining block or two to the office. Door-to-door, the trip (50 miles each way) took maybe an hour and a half — and about $8 worth of gas. Going by car didn’t save money, obviously — I still had to pay for my $309 commuter ticket — and accelerated my vehicle’s depreciation. And, of course, I was aware that in my small way, I was adding to New York’s and Connecticut’s congestion and air pollution, wasting fossil fuel, becoming more dependent on foreign oil, blah, blah, blah.

I felt ashamed every time I made the costly, lazy and irrational decision to drive — so much so, that I usually concealed the fact from my husband, an inveterate cheapskate. If he knew how much I was spending merely to go to work, he would probably make me switch to less-expensive toilet paper.

Brain research and car travel

As it turns out, however, my behavior was not uniquely awful; it is SOP for many of us who remain habituated to car travel. To understand why, a group of researchers led by Yavor Yalachkov at the Institut für Medizinische Psychologie at Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt am Main in a recent article in Trends in Cognitive Science, suggests that neuroscience may help explain why so many people remain illogically wedded to their cars.

Now I realize that few people in the Twin Cities endure the horrific commute that the typical New Yorker puts up with. Here, a half hour drive to work borders on the onerous. But the quandary — car or not car — comes up at almost every juncture: walk or drive to the supermarket or the dry cleaners, take a bus or drive to school, bike to a nearby restaurant or drive? And, as a metropolitan area, we are planning to spend billions to finance light rail, street cars, bike lanes and bus rapid transit in hopes of prying people out of their cars and encouraging them to use less wasteful transportation.

The researchers aren’t too sanguine that new public transit systems will spring regular drivers from their cars. “Simply providing alternative choices for the individual can be a disappointingly unsuccessful method for reshaping particular behavioral patterns,” they write.

Rational factors vs. habit

They point out that when analyzing transportation choices people make, city planners and engineers usually weigh rational factors — cost, convenience, length of trip and so on. But neuroscience has shown that humans often fall back on habit. So instead of actively making a choice (driving will cost me $45, and the train only about $20, I choose the train), we rely on regions of the brain that are reflexive. In my case, I was used to driving so I considered it the path of least resistance, only to get on the highway and learn that the car trip was a nightmare.

Worse, that experience doesn’t seem to change subsequent behavior. Italian behavioral economists tested people’s habituation to cars through a series of games. Players started with a specified number of tokens. In the first game, which consisted of 50 rounds, they chose whether to travel by car or subway. There was a travel cost (time plus fare) for each mode which players paid for in tokens.

The cost of the subway was fixed, but the car cost varied with weather, road conditions, traffic and so on. In the best case (for cars), the cost of taking the car was lower since the trip was shorter. But when traffic got heavy, the car became more expensive. After each round, players could see whether their decision had made sense. If it didn’t, they lost tokens. Presumably they would learn from their mistakes.

What happened? Even when congestion upped the cost of driving by 50 percent, people chose cars two-to-one. Even when people did change transit mode to save tokens, they didn’t do so for long but switched back to their cars. What the researchers called “the car effect” — a bias or addiction to car usage — remained in place even though the game players never had to step on a subway platform or take a train.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Christopher Williams on 05/02/2014 - 09:44 am.

    Waiting to go back

    I can’t wait to go back to either an express bus or light rail. I used to work downtown, parked in a park and ride and took a non-stop bus to within two blocks of my office in Minneapolis. It was quick and efficient. No extra stops. Point to point, and it was cheap.

    Where I work now would only be accessible with a 3 hour bus ride (each way), 3 transfers, and a ride on a city bus with frequent stops every other block. It’s just not an option.

    I hate commuting, and wish I could find another solution. I might even take a crack at biking to work this summer. Google maps tells me the bike route would only be an hour and 15 minutes each way (versus 45 minutes commuting on the highway). If the light rail to the west metro ever gets built before I retire I’ll be a happy guy!

  2. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 05/02/2014 - 10:10 am.

    Oh, here we go again…

    “bias” “addiction” “ashamed” “costly” “lazy” “irrational” “awful” “unsuccessful”….. Why is it that every one of these articles paint the driver as mentally ill?

    I used to live and work in England. I walked to work every day. I did it because I COULD. My job and all the shops I needed were in line with each other. When I went back to the Twin Cities I tried taking the bus. But they had discontinued the express line and it took me 45 minutes to get somewhere that should have taken me 20. And I still needed to get into my car and backtrack to the grocery.

    Now I am a social worker. Although I deliberately chose an apartment close to my headquarters, I use my car daily to drive clients back and forth and commute between multiple work sites, all over the metro, sometimes at a moment’s notice. Anyone else want to tell me that I am lazy and irrational for driving a car?

    Before you say it— I know that the reporter would claim to be targeting those who do not think their options through and not people like me. But my evaporating patience lies with MinnPost’s ongoing philosophy of shaming those who drive in one, big collective lump. Article after article seems to be just one, big smugfest.

    Forgive my tone but one more thing: I am a member of the struggling 99%. I can’t AFFORD to leave a big carbon footprint. So please stop trying to guilt me about every little thing I do and go after the corporations and the 1% who ARE in a position to harm the world and who DO have more options to change their behavior when they have a change of heart.

    • Submitted by Lance Groth on 05/02/2014 - 12:53 pm.

      Deep breath

      Wow, there’s a lot of emotional content in this post. I didn’t read it that way at all. I don’t believe the point was to shame anyone about their lifestyle. I read it as an analysis of why people make the choices they do, with the added dimension of personal experience. It resonates with things I learned as a psychology major, back in the day. The fact is that many of the choices we all make, day to day, *are* irrational, and it has to do with how we’re wired as human animals, and the culture in which we’re raised. I have to laugh at myself from time to time, when I stop to rationally consider what I’m doing, because it often does not stand up to logic – it is, as Marlys said, reflexive. Habituation. Stuck in a rut. Pick your term – it’s how we are. I guess shaming is in the eye of the beholder, but don’t take it personally. As you said yourself, your job requires you to drive, and that’s the way it is and the article was certainly not targeted at you. If the article upsets you so much, perhaps it’s your own situation that frustrates you?

  3. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 05/02/2014 - 10:31 am.


    Ms. Harris, how did you get through this whole column without mentioning global warming? Climate change gives us a healthy choice: one foot in front of the other.

  4. Submitted by George Carlson on 05/02/2014 - 12:09 pm.

    It is SOP

    I once worked several spring through summer months at a suburban location in a beautiful walking area with paths, ponds, and wildlife. There were about 120 employees at this location. Only one other person and I ever left the premises by foot. The others going to lunch on a beautiful temperate day drove a distance as short as 2 blocks. I would sometimes ask someone why he or she drove that two blocks and they might admit that maybe they should walk. But they never did.

  5. Submitted by Lynn Gitelis on 05/02/2014 - 12:09 pm.

    Irrational? According to whom?

    It is sheer arrogance to announce that anyone who disagrees with YOU is irrational. The reason (logical) that people drive cars is because they need to do things BESIDES just driving to and from work. They have to take children to daycare and pick them up after work. They have to run errands. They have to go to meetings. They are living a life, not just commuting to and from a set location. Mass transit never will enable anyone to achieve all those goals. It’s not a “bias” or an “addiction” (talk about a judgmental attitude!); it’s a RATIONAL choice that accommodates a whole life.

  6. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 05/02/2014 - 01:00 pm.

    Silly article.

    People choose to use a car because it provides options not available otherwise. Note the problem with the commuting (fixed price–NO PROBLEMS) via car (cheaper = NO PROBLEMS). But then they throw in problems to make ONLY the car commute more expensive–and take out the savings of being able to do multiple errands with a single commute. Where ARE the problems in the train commute? There aren’t any–yeah, right.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/02/2014 - 01:15 pm.

    I’ve tried both

    In metro St. Louis, I happened to live close enough to the airport that I was also close to the first light rail line built, which provided me with smooth, reliable and hassle-free transportation downtown for both recreation and work. Once I’d ridden the light rail, which has a station across the street from Busch Stadium, I never again drove my car downtown for a Cardinals game. But I still put a lot of miles a year on my car.

    In metro Denver, I lived about half a mile from a bus transit “hub,” where an express bus took me downtown for $3 each way, and usually just as rapidly as if I were driving, but without the cost and hassle. That bus deposited me at a station a few blocks from Coors Field, so I didn’t have to pay for parking for a Rockies game, as well as at one end of the 16th Street pedestrian mall. Denver’s first light rail line now has a station within yards of the bus transit hub serving the same locale, and if I were still there, I could take light rail to the station within a few blocks of Coors. I bought my suburban condo specifically so that I could take transit downtown. For most of my metro Denver residency, I used public transit to get downtown. But I still put plenty of miles a year on my car.

    The automobile mileage piled up because I didn’t always want to go downtown to a ballgame, and public transit was generally inconvenient otherwise. In my Denver suburb, I could (and did) walk to a lot of places I needed or wanted to go. That was less so in my St. Louis suburb, but I could still accomplish quite a few errands on foot.

    Here in the Twin Cities, I’m not near the airport, or the southwest line (naming the lines after colors is stupid), or the line to St. Paul, nor will I be close enough to the proposed Bottineau line to get to it on foot, though it will be the nearest light rail. If I’m still alive when the Bottineau line is finally up and running, that’s the one I’d use, but I may not live long enough to see it. In the meantime, my neighborhood has exactly zero retail. It’s a mile-and-a-half to the nearest grocery, or any other commercial activity, so even when I don’t want to, I will often drive, especially in inclement weather.

    My neighborhood has buses by the dozen, but they don’t go where I want to go, for the most part, and on the rare occasions when they do, they often stop – as Ms. Harris pointed out in an earlier column – every single block, which makes the bus trip interminable. Public transit here is less convenient than in either of the other metro areas where I’ve lived. If I catch the bus that stops at the end of my block, I can get downtown – in 2 hours, with 2 transfers. Once downtown, the same is true for the return journey. Bus transfers in this climate are deal-killers from the beginning, and when it takes 4 hours to cover 16 miles, with 4 transfers making their contribution, taking the bus downtown simply is not a viable option. I’ll drive, or not go downtown.

    Getting people to use public transit is a struggle in part because the automobile offers what the bus and the train do not – flexibility. Trips, long or short, can be taken on the spur of the moment. Individual costs are in many ways hidden – $3.50 a day to ride the bus (or whatever the light rail ticket cost is) is coming right out of your pocket. $35 to fill up your car’s gas tank isn’t happening so frequently (I hope), and if it’s going on your debit or credit card, the cost is even more hidden. Another difficulty in converting people to public transit is information. If you drive, you know where you’re going, and at what time. Twin Cities bus stops, at least in my neighborhood, provide potential users with zero information beyond the fact that – at some point – a bus stops there. It might be the single most egregious flaw in a transit system with several flaws. When the bus stops there, where it came from, where it’s going is essential information notably absent from any bus stop in my neighborhood. Most of them, in fact, don’t even tell riders what numbered route stops there, much less what time or where it’s headed.

    European transit – or even big-city transit in the U.S. in (a very few) other cities – works far better than here because it’s ubiquitous, and the cost of owning an automobile (with its flexibility and convenience) is so high that transit is a genuinely viable alternative. Trolleys, buses, light rail, commuter rail, intercity passenger rail, are all readily available alternatives throughout most of Europe. New York City is so hugely expensive for automobile use that there, too, transit becomes a genuinely viable alternative.

    Not so, here. At least, not yet. Global warming is certainly an issue, but easier than many other issues to rationalize – as Ms. Sojourn does above. In order for public transit to successfully take on its former role as the dominant transit mode, it will have to be built, and rebuilt, and marketed with a vengeance, and subsidized as highways are now, until it has become ubiquitous. When public transit is everywhere, and convenient, and inexpensive as an out-of-pocket, daily expense, then it will supplant the automobile, but that day is a long way off, and I say that as someone who’d be happy to use public transit if it met my needs.

  8. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 05/02/2014 - 02:31 pm.

    Comparison off

    I’m from NYC and lived seven years in Connecticut so I know the territory. Metro North (which runs on Amtrak tracks) is not comparable to the light rail version of public transport in any sense of the word. The closest raIl comparison would be the Northstar if it went to St. Cloud and perhaps had another branch splitting off towards Mankato. And then comparable only if the SW LRT and the Central Corridor were already operational and there was a good chance the St. Cloud commuter would have to leave the Northstar for additional public transport instead of just walking to the job.

    The choice of train or driving is not nearly the question for NYC’s closest light rail equivalent as the author implies: commuters from the farther reaches of the boroughs who need to get to Manhattan. They take the train.

    I do not think the author is intending to coerce or mislead anyone by choosing such a poor analogy; I think she’s just prioritizing writing at length about her own experiences.

  9. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 05/02/2014 - 03:17 pm.

    Time consumption

    I used to live in a Minneapolis neighborhood with no reasonably close bus stop and infrequent service as well, so I drove to work downtown. Then I moved near Hennepin and Franklin, with lots of bus service. But I soon quit trying to take the bus unless my car was laid up. Three reasons:
    1. The trip took 35 to 65 minutes, involving a transfer that frequently was missed because my first bus got caught up in downtown traffic. On a normal day, swooping around downtown on I-94 and I-35 and coming up 3rd Avenue by the Dome, I could drive to work in 10 to 12 minutes.
    2. I often had to work after 6 p.m., when bus frequency decreases. I worked about five blocks from the bus lines that ran near (three blocks) my house, which meant either a time-consuming walk from the office or a wait outside for a bus to Hennepin or Nicollet.
    3. I had children of grade-school age and decided that because driving usually was one to nearly two hours a day faster, I wanted to invest that time at home.

    When my children were off at college, I was working until 11p.m., totally ruling out the bus.

    I don’t blame the transit folks, but as Ray pointed out, for many people, the bus just takes way too long.

  10. Submitted by George Carlson on 05/02/2014 - 03:46 pm.

    Most of these replies miss the point

    Lynn Gitelis’ comment is typical. She says it is rational to drive when you have children to drop off and pick up at day care, run errands, etc. And she is right, then driving is rational.

    But the article discusses studies that have shown that when the errand reasons, etc., are eliminated, people still use the car out of habit. And it further and more importantly points out that because people are creatures of habit, logical engineers and city planners may be disappointed with the actual number of mass transit users.

    My experience,described in a separate post above, is consistent with the research described by the article. Even when there is no logical reason to drive to a restaurant two blocks away in a beautiful area on a beautiful day, people still hop in the car out of habit.

  11. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 05/02/2014 - 08:52 pm.

    Emotions Everywhere

    There are lots of emotions in MANY of these comments — which actually just underlines the premise of the article itself: We often make decisions based on emotions (which are the foundation of comfort and routine) despite the fact that rational factors suggest a different response.

    Boiled down, it comes to this: When all other factors are equal, we will often choose the most familiar and comfortable option. This makes some sense. But beyond that, when all factors are NOT equal, we will still often choose the most familiar or comfortable (i.e. emotionally satisfying) option even when it goes measurably against our best interest.

    This well-documented fact of human nature has striking implications for policy decisions, politics, and pretty much every single part of human existence.

    Yet we often do not like to admit to ourselves that it’s the truth — yet another case of the principle in action.

  12. Submitted by John DeWitt on 05/02/2014 - 10:08 pm.

    Built around the car

    A big part of the problem is that for 70+ years we’ve built everything around the car. The three planning elements were highway, parking lot, front door. I’ve been told that as it built its Brooklyn Park campus, Target offered Hennepin County space for a library. But Hennepin County had to turn the offer down because no one could get there without a car. Had the library been built, we could have argued that 100% of the visitors to the library chose to drive.

    My favorite story is about a friend who’s parents were in assisted living for three years. She faithfully visited them every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – some 3,000+ trips, And she admitted that she had walked maybe three times. And we’re talking 1,200 feet on tree-lined streets in one of St. Paul’s most walkable old streetcar suburbs. Up the block and around the corner.

    Americans are sort of OK with walking for recreational purposes but if you’re actually going someplace only driving seems to be OK. I know Jewish people who have told me that they can’t eat pork even though they’re no longer practicing the faith. In much the same way, many Americans simply can’t walk anyplace. You just don’t.

  13. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/03/2014 - 01:40 am.

    It is a mindset

    I voluntarily lived without a car as a graduate student in New Haven, as an exchange student in Tokyo, and later as a free-lance translator in Portland, Oregon.

    I hate driving for a number of reasons, but it’s hard to avoid in the Twin Cities. Furthermore, even when there is no rational reason to use it, the car is right there.

    Well, now I’m trying an experiment. I have a trip to Asia scheduled for June, already half paid for, and just last week, my car’s brake began malfunctioning. That is likely to be an expensive repair, so the car is just sitting idle while I do my best to get along without it at least until I return from Asia.

    Since I work from home and go only a limited number of places, it’s fine so far, although it requires a little more thought about scheduling and planning of errands. It slows me down in some ways, and I think that would be a good thing for most people.

    I loved being car-free the previous times I experienced it, and during the time I lived in Portland, five of my friends became car-free as well. It is unfortunate that nearly our entire nation is built for cars first and people second. When I lived in Portland, I was on the Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and it was surprising and dismaying to see how many architects and builders seemed to think of cars as the focal point of their designs. We on the Committee would point out that a new shopping area or apartment building proposed for a site literally within a hundred yards or so of a light rail station or a major transit center had no pedestrian access, and the builders would look at us as if we had criticized their project for not having a landing site for UFOs. Pedestrians and transit were simply not on their mental map.

    If transit is to compete with cars, it has to run more often and go more places. Metro Transit falls short on both counts. If I were Transit Czarina, only people who actually used transit on a regular basis would be allowed to determine the routes and schedules. Just for example, I would have the #6 bus be frequent service for its entire length, from Stadium Village to Southdale, on both the Xerxes and France Avenue routes, not just between downtown and 39th and Sheridan.

  14. Submitted by Will Shetterly on 05/07/2014 - 05:01 pm.

    carfree in Minneapolis

    A few decades ago, I loved being carfree in Manhattan. A couple of months ago, I went carfree in Minneapolis, and I have no regrets. With a bicycle, the LRT, Car2Go, buses, and traditional car rentals for long trips, my needs are met and my worries are few. Goodbye, car insurance, maintenance, and repairs.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/10/2014 - 11:14 am.

    habbit cuts both ways

    If transit becomes habbit it will be just as durable.

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