Cars on the Brain

Over at Atlantic Cities, they are running one of those “neuroscience-explains-it-all” articles. These have been quite the rage, ever since the mapping the human genome project did not quite locate the “God” gene, the “shopping” gene, and so on. With the brain ex machina approach, you do get the benefit of seeing the pretty colors light up the picture of the brain, and where and how and when and how much those little lights light up proves…..well, they prove…, well, OK, they don’t ACTUALLY prove anything, but, still: Look at the Pretty Lights! Ain’t they purty! Don’t get that with your invisible genes explains everything thesis, do ya’! The current offering supposedly explains why folks choose to use their cars, instead of walking, biking or using mass transit.


The lab coats guys think that folks are stressed in the morning, and don’t want to have to think, so they just go with what they know, which is taking the car to get to work, rather than really considering the other options.

First of all, even if true, the “macro” decision to own and use a car most certainly precedes the alleged “micro” decision made (or foregone) each morning. No one is born with a car attached to their person, and very, very few enter adulthood without actually having to decide whether to buy a car or keep the one they had as an adolescent. Person moves or gets a job or whatever, and he or she decides what to do about transit. Cars cost money. A lot of money, relative to the wealth and income of all but the very wealthy. A car costs money to buy or lease. It costs money to register and insure. It costs money to have a driver’s license too. As do license plates. Maintenance, repairs, tolls, mandatory inspections and gas all also cost money. And perhaps parking as well. So, while, sure, the decision to use the car is not re made every morning, it is made, and it is conscious.

Secondly, as many commenters point out, in big parts of the USA there simply is no other option. Housing is zoned apart from industry and even offices and schools. There are no or limited bike paths or sidewalks, and the distance is too far anyway, at least in bad weather. Mass transit either doesn’t exist, or is grossly inadequate. So, yeah, for some folks having and using the car is kinda the default setting, because of necessity.

And, thirdly, and this is my real point, and was only touched on briefly in the comments and not at all in the main article….the “experts” simply underestimate, grossly, the advantages, when viewed from the perspective of many, if not most, individuals, of the car over mass transit. To the mass transit advocates, all travel is more or less fungible. If the monetary costs and time spent are the same, well then, one should not prefer one’s car over mass transit. To them, it is all a matter of schedules, number of routes, number of busses or trains on each route, fares, etc, versus car commuting time, tolls, parking fees, etc. And that gets it TOTALLY wrong.

Let me be clear here…if one really can walk to work, most folks would do it. Same with a bike. A short trip, barring bad weather, and a little exercise is great, and it is nice not to have to drive and park or rely on a bus or train. Of course, some jobs require nice clothes and shoes, and a non sweaty body, and that complicates things. Also, your carrying capacity is limited on foot and even with a bike, so that limits shopping/errand running. Also, some folks can’t hack it physically. Also, some jobs are manual or otherwise strenuous in nature, and walking or biking to and fro on top of working may be too much. But, all in all, OK, biking or walking to work would be cool.

But, again, for most folks it is not an option. The distance is too far. The weather stinks. The facilities (bikepaths, sidewalks) are not there. Plus, if one works at odd hours, there might be safety issues relating to crime.

No, the real choice, and where the “experts” always blow it, is in the car experience versus the mass transit experience. Assuming that one has good parking options on both ends, and assuming non crazy traffic, driving, when viewed from the perspective of the commuter, is almost always better. The caveat about the perspective is important, because we all know that it would be better for the environment, for global warning, and pretty much everything else in the natural world too, if one forsook the car.

But that is not the question. The question is why do drivers, for their own sake, and leaving the environment out of it, insist on driving, despite all of the alleged advantages of mass transit, as posited by the advocates of mass transit, their “expert” allies, and now the brain scientists guys too. Why is driving better?

Let me count the ways…..In your car: you control the temperature; you control the decision to have fresh air, or not, and if so how much; you control, to a degree, anyway, the route, you can “call audibles,” either to deal with emergent traffic or other issues, or because you have changed your plans; you can decide when to stop, and where, and for how long, if you want to rest; you can find a place to go to the bathroom; you can stop to eat; you can eat and drink rather comfortably in today’s cars too; you control the decision to have music or not, and, if so, what kind, and how loud; you do not have to suffer the presence, never mind the physical or emotional or psychological contact, of any human being whom you do not choose, on the other hand, if you are with an intimate (friend, lover, spouse, family member), you can conduct intimate, personal conversations if you so choose, or just be silly together, or, sing along to the radio. You can also incorporate any intermediate stops along the way. You can have all kinds of stuff with you, including clothes and shoes and gear for any kind of weather. You don’t have to carefully consider what to bring and what to leave behind, because you are not constricted by what you can comfortably carry and attend to while on a bus or train. The car can be as neat and clean or as dirty as you want it to be. If your job or wherever else you are going doesn’t require close contact with people, you can shower as little as you choose, because your commute does not require you to be around others either. If your shoes or pants are too tight, you can loosen them. There is no timetable. You decide when to go. No waiting for a late or even on time train or bus. No “connections” to make. No having to change conveyances once you are settled in. No having to stand. No crowds of any kind.

All in all, you have almost total personal (physical, mental and emotional) comfort, anonymity, privacy and autonomy in a fairly large personal space that doubles as a carrier for far more stuff than you could possibly need in your workday. You have total flexibility too, in terms of every aspect of your trip. You are in charge, in every way. You are like, if not actual royalty or divinity, at least “the king of your castle” and a little tin God to boot!

Mass transit? Assume a reasonably good system, with a reasonable schedule and service. Still, it does not pick you up in your driveway or garage, does it? It does not let you off as close to your destination as you could get to with your car, does it? And then consider the other factors….you are NOT in charge of air temperature and there is no fresh air, period. You are bombarded with written advertisements, and repetitive and annoying public service and transit related announcements, “tips,” warnings, “reminders,” “thank you’s,” admonitions, apologies and so on. You can listen to music, but only with a headphone, and that is uncomfortable for many folks. You have no control of the route. You cannot call an audible. The bus or train stops when and where and if it chooses, not when, where and if you choose. Bathrooms are hard to come by. You can’t really eat or drink on the bus or train, not comfortably anyway, not at rush hour. You are severely limited in what you can carry and wear. Which means you have to figure the weather right. And do “triage” on your backpack, brief case, or whatever. You will have to wait for late and even on time busses and trains. You will have to deal with service issues. And connections. And, worst of all, you will have to deal with “the Other.” With Other People. People NOT of your choosing. They will be in your space. They may want to talk to you. They may smell badly. They may be annoying or even dangerous. If you ignore them, they might get hostile. If you try to humor them, they might think you are their new best friend, and hound you to no end from then on, everyday. They may touch you, either because of train or bus motion/crowdedness, or volitionally (on their part, anyway). And the whole environment might, at least sometimes, smell, be dirty, etc.

One possible advantage of mass transit is that you can, maybe, although not usually at rush hour, read a book or use your tablet or laptop or smartphone while you ride. Another is that if your commute is long and stressful, you are freed from the responsibility of driving, at least part of the way, and so if you are tired or drunk or stoned or upset or preoccupied or physically hampered or just don’t feel like it, you don’t have to. Maybe you can even sleep a little. Of course, you could still use a car generally on your commute, and take mass transit only on days those considerations apply. But, you can’t really do it the other way ’round…because if you truly rely on mass transit then you don’t have a car to fall back on. So, again, the car provides more overall flexibility.

And, even with those caveats, that is about it when it comes to factors favoring mass transit. The comparative advantages of driving, which usually doesn’t take as long as using mass transit either, are overwhelming. And most folks have to have a car anyway, even if they take mass transit to and from work. For grocery shopping, for weekends, to run errands, to take trips, to drive the kids around, to do anything and everything besides commuting to work. So, the car is a sunk cost anyway. Why buy a monthly bus/rail pass on top of all that? Why not utilize to its utmost maximum efficiency the car you already pay to own, insure, register, maintain, etc.?

But the real bottom line is that people just LOVE their personal space, their comfort, their autonomy, their apparent (even if not always real) freedom, their privacy, their feeling of being in control, and so on. And the car delivers all of those in spades. To make, or even tempt, a car user switch to mass transit, the “carrot” of the mass transit system (how good, safe, clean and efficient, and well run and extensive and so on that it is) and the “stick” of tolls, parking fees, HOV lanes, etc, have to be very, very strong. Much, much stronger than the mass transit advocates think.

Most mass transit advocates are themselves not only mass transit users, but aficionados of mass transit as well. They love trains and cable cars and trolleys, and don’t dread busses the way the rest of us do! And they live in one of the few urban or college town areas that are really well served by mass transit. Also, they tend to be “people persons.” They like to meet “new people,” and prefer hooking up with random strangers on their commute to doing it alone. Perhaps they also live in area in which housing and shopping and work are not so far apart, so there is no real other need to have a car once their commute is taken care of. Some kind of little “village,” perhaps, near a big university with a huge bus fleet, or a trendy neighborhood in or very near one of the coastal cities with good, multiple mass transit systems extending out to at least the near suburbs, like Boston, Philly, New York, DC, Seattle, Portland or San Francisco. And they probably have very flexible schedules too. (So what if they have to leave early to make sure they are at school to teach their 11 AM class….they can spend that time hanging around campus, smoozing with their colleagues or chilling in their offices.) They just don’t get how the rest of us (1) don’t feel the way they do about mass transit in the first place and actually like/love our car experiences, and (2) don’t have the option of not having a car even if we don’t need it to get to work.

The “experts?” Again, they are either mass transit fans themselves or they just don’t understand that it might be the same seat in your car as on the bus, you might be on the same highway in your car as on the bus, and the bus might even go a little quicker for part of the way because of an HOV lane, and even cost a little less, on balance, but, still, all in all, you prefer your car for any, some or all of the reasons I gave. How you can quantify the love of privacy and autonomy? How much, in money, or even time, is it worth to NOT be jostled? To not have to hear “Please exit from the rear door” a hundred times a week? To never have to hear “Thank you for riding the Such and Such transit authority!”? To be able to open a window? To not have it be too hot in the winter, because the heat is too high, or too cold in the summer, because the AC is too strong? To, excuse me for being gross, but to be able to fart or burp if you have to?

As for the neuroscientists, meh, I guess they have to find ways to spend all that grant money! You don’t need to wire folks up to some sort of Dr. Frankenstein brain machine to know why they prefer to drive. Just ask them. Ask them to explain the real cost/benefit analysis, in detail, considering ALL of the factors, including the ones the train fan boys and the overgrown boy professors overlook.


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