Even commuters who have abundant options can sometimes feel like there’s really no choice at all when it comes to getting to and from work – we do what we’re used to, which for most people means getting in a car by themselves.
“We have very fixed travel habits,” writes Eric Jaffe, a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. “The habit of car dependency, in particular, poses a major problem for sustainable cities. As transportation experts push for mobility “carrots” and “sticks” — making alternative modes more attractive while making driving less attractive — they can’t forget they’re also battling certain aspects of the human brain that nudge us away from considering any changes to our lives at all.”
A group of researchers led by Yavor Yalachkov write in Trends in Cognitive Science that when it comes to routines, there’s a shift in brain activity. Rather than use the parts of our brain that evaluate a decision — in short, rather than engage in a true “choice” — our brains fall back on patterns without thinking of outcomes. This shift in cognitive domain makes the power of habits “so great that a behavioral change may be difficult,” explain Yalachkov and the researchers.
They’re suggesting many people are addicted to their car.
And that means simply providing alternative choices for the individual can be a disappointingly unsuccessful method for reshaping particular behavioral patterns.
Also significant is the role that stress plays: as we become more overwhelmed by life, we become more reliant on habit. That may explain why so many more people are willing to use travel options while on vacation!
“This helps explain why choosing to travel by a certain mode in the morning often doesn’t feel like a choice at all,” Jaffe writes. “Getting ready to leave the house has always been a stressful time when we’re confronted with an annoying commute and a new day at the office, and the stress only increases with the urge to get a head start on work on our phones…In light of this overload, conserving brain power with regard to travel choice is actually the wise move.
“So the prognosis is negative, but recognizing why people don’t always take a rational approach to travel choice can be instructive, too. It can help sharpen programs that promote trip alternatives and can help target interventions to those moments when travel habits become especially vulnerable to disruption — after major life events, for instance, or significant construction projects. Knowing that people don’t think twice about mode choice makes it all the more important to get other options right the first time.”