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Why your brain keeps you off the train

Neuroscience may help explain why so many people remain illogically wedded to their cars.

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.
MinnPost file photo by Raoul Benavides

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?

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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.

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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.