The role of mindset in transportation

People make transportation decisions based on a whole host of factors—convenience, safety, comfort, economics, and much more.

But one of the most salient  misassumptions of people involved in transportation-related planning is that citizens make these decisions in a rational, cerebral manner.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While some people certainly make transportation based on reasons tied to rational reasons (taking a bus because you can’t afford a car), these decisions are often just as likely to be based on emotion as any of our other decisions in every day life.


Let’s take a person who lives in a suburb 30 miles from their downtown workplace and commutes by rail. On the surface, this decision seems to be a logical one—saving money on gas and parking, reducing commute time, cutting down on automotive wear and tear, helping out the environment.

But chances are if you dig down, you’ll find a person who was tired of arriving at work angry after fighting all that traffic, tired of listening to the same songs on the radio over and over, and sick of being so exhausted when he gets home that he doesn’t want to play with his kids.


In case you think the above fictional example is a convenient fabrication, here’s a real-life example that will illustrate how emotion and predispositions can not only affect a person’s transportation preference, but also alter their perception of reality to match their preference.

I was once asked to come along on a client meeting at work. The meeting went great, and the client invited my coworkers and I out for lunch. We all agreed, and as I’d never been to the restaurant before, asked where it was.

When I found out the restaurant was nearby in one of the busiest business districts in the city which was notorious for parking, I suggested we carpool over, the come retrieve our separate cars after lunch (we’d all ridden in separately since the meeting was first-thing in the morning).

My suggestion was met with a derisive laugh, and looks that suggested I’d either just waded through a sewer or begun to sprout a second head. Finally someone spoke up.

“It’s halfway back to the office,” said one of my coworkers. I thought this was false, but with the looks of disdain and confusion I’d gotten, I didn’t press the issue any further.

In reality, the restaurant was only one mile away from our client’s office while our office was 9 miles away. Not remotely close to halfway back.

Moreover, when everyone arrived at the restaurant and had to spend 10-15 minutes circling the parking lot to find spots a block or more away, they expressed surprise because they “didn’t think parking would be that bad.”

How they imagined finding a spot for half a dozen separate single-occupancy vehicles would be easy in one of the most parking-scarce districts in the city escapes me. Given the facts, it’s obviously a train of through based on preference for driving alone and not for the well-known information about the area.


My real life example was easier to decode because I was already familiar with the emotional transportation preference of the city where it happened.

In that city, the preference for driving, and driving alone specifically, is so strong that suggesting an alternative is usually met with skepticism or all out opposition. The preference has such a strong hold there that the burden of proof for a transportation choice lies with the alternatives, which can be disregarded with as little as a derisive grunt, which most people will find a valid argument.

I’m sure in other cities that the reverse is true—that trains and busses hold the most sway while driving is looked upon as the product of a deranged mind.


All of this is to say that if anyone responsible for planning or executing transportation infrastructure wants to have a chance of creating successful projects, they really need to understand the emotional aspects of people’s transportation choices just as much as their rational ones.

To ignore this is to ignore one of the strongest forces of support or opposition to a transportation initiative.


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