One of the most interesting transportation programs around these days is TravelSmart. It’s not interesting because of what it does but simply because it works. You see, in theory, TravelSmart should be a dismal failure. That it performs minor miracles is proof of the flaws of economic theory. And understanding those flaws sheds light on a fascinating paradox of car-less living. It also hints at a massive opportunity to help northwesterners better meet their desires, by driving less.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins with a battery charger.

  • This summer of my family’s car-less year, friends have sometimes loaned us their cars while they have been on vacation. It’s been interesting to observe how our behavior has changed during the loaner-car weeks. When there’s a car parked out front, we drive more. We don’t drive as much as when we were owners, because we’ve learned better options for some trips and because we don’t like to be responsible for friends’ cars. But for some trips that we’d otherwise skip, we climb in and go.

    An example: two weeks ago, my family was at a friend’s fiftieth birthday picnic. My wife Amy had arrived in a loaner car, which was parked nearby. During the party, she and I were taking photos of the guests, at the birthday host’s prompting. Unfortunately, our camera ran out of juice and I had left the charger at home, three miles away. I drove the loaner home and got it.

    Now, if we hadn’t had a car there, I never would have gone. I would have been more resourceful. I would have asked around for a camera. That’s what I should have done. By the time I returned, another guest had fired up her Nikon and taken over our shutterbug duties. If I’d given the situation a bit more thought, I could have avoided a trip. It wasn’t a big deal—maybe 40 minutes round trip. But for mortal beings like us, time is a nonrenewable resource. And such trips are, in my experience, quite common when there’s a car at the ready. The minutes add up.

    What the loaner cars have reminded us of is that when there are car keys in our pockets, our default decision is to drive. It’s not that we do a quick weighting of options and probabilities and choose driving as the best alternative. It’s that we choose not to do such a weighting. We avoid thinking that hard. It’s as if the mere presence of car keys turns down the problem-solving center in our brains.

    I don’t want to overstate the car/no-car difference. It’s a matter of degrees. Loaner cars increase the number of our car trips by two or three a week. What’s notable about these added trips is that they’re rarely essential. With or without a loaner, the kids go to practice and friends’ houses; we do our errands; we go to work. It’s nonessential trips, like picking up the charger, that we add when a car is on hand.

    Let me formalize this mundane observation into an axiom, call it The First Law of Cars: When you have a car, you drive it.

    (I know: brilliant.)

    I don’t just mean that in a definitional sense. I mean that when you have a car at your disposal, driving it is your reflexive response to most mobility needs. And I mean this in a specific, cognitive sense. I mean that when a need that involves distance or travel comes up, you immediately think of driving the car and your brain avoids thinking about alternatives.

    This may sound like a stretch. Surely, it’s a matter of convenience, not cognition. Surely, it’s an intuitive economic calculation: a weighing of costs.

    What if it’s not? What if northwesterners, like the residents of other automobilized places, are actually not making rational, economic choices to drive? What if, at least some of the times that we turn the keys, we’re making irrational choices? What if our minds, repulsed by the complexity of considering alternatives to the simple path of driving, are actually making decisions that don’t best reflect our wants and needs? What if some share—say one tenth—of the trips we drive are actually a waste of our lives that, if something could compel us to carefully consider the alternatives, we would voluntary choose to skip or do by some other means. And what if being carless served to compel such rational choices? Well, that would mean that, at least where some share of trips is concerned, having a car actually diminishes our ability to make good decisions. And being car-less actually improves the congruence between our enduring preferences and our actions.

    What started me thinking about all this was the battery charger, and what clinched it was this fascinating article on “behavioral economics” by Craig Lambert. Behavioral economics is the science of what people actually do when confronted with trade-offs (aka, economic choices). Both in controlled tests and in the real world, people break the laws of neo-liberal economic theory. They are predictably irrational in several ways. For example, they—we—don’t treat gains and losses equally. Losing a $20 bill is a much bigger deal to us than finding one. (This asymmetry of losses and gains has enormous implications for both politics and sustainability. For example, it explains something about why “takings” are a political issue while “givings” are not.)

    The particular irrationality that’s in play where driving is concerned, I believe, has to do with decision avoidance. People intend to make good, informed decisions about important matters—like retirement savings and mortgages and insurance—but they really dislike complexity. So they procrastinate and go along with the default option.

    Take the example of investing for retirement. Even though enrolling promptly in 401k retirement saving plans can yield employees tens of thousands of dollars, a very large share of workers postpone action for years. Even when they’re required to attend staff briefings on these plans, they still sign up in a trickle, not a drove. As behavioral economist David Laibson told the author Lambert, “People find these kinds of financial transactions unpleasant and confusing, and they are happier with the idea of doing it tomorrow.”

    Thus, people avoid making a decision. They stick with no retirement savings. Or they leave unexamined their insurance plan or telephone company or bank. They leave alone what’s “not broken,” despite sometimes enormous opportunities to gain financially from changing. As Laibson says, “People want to be prudent, they just don’t want to do it right now.”

    To me, many transport choices seem analogous. We northwesterners want to walk more, get on our bikes, carpool, and try transit and car sharing. We dislike driving as much as we do, though we occasionally enjoy it. We just postpone the quest for alternatives. Alternatives require reflection and sometimes-complicated planning, and our minds shy away from such things. We also shy away from the exercise involved in not driving: breaking a sweat is something that most of us are quite eager to do, uh, tomorrow. Most of the time, therefore, we go with the default: When you have a car, you drive it.

    The First Law’s corollary—call it the First Law of Car-lessness—is actually more interesting than the law itself: When you don’t have a car, you are forced to consider your options for each trip. You have to think more. And that is often a good thing, because often there are better alternatives than driving. Just as few people regret having acted promptly to save for retirement, few people regret finding a better alternative
    to time behind the wheel.

    Which brings us, finally, to TravelSmart—remember TravelSmart? TravelSmart is a modest remedy for default driving invented by German researcher Werner Brog, and implemented worldwide by his company Socialdata.

    TravelSmart is a personalized marketing program for not driving. Typically funded by a local transit or transportation department, TravelSmart does a detailed baseline transportation survey of residents in a neighborhood. Those residents who express interest in making greater use of transit, bicycles, or shoe leather—often one third of all residents—receive additional information, customized to their needs. For example, if you said you wouldn’t mind knowing more about your transit options, TravelSmart might hand-deliver a single, integrated schedule that covers all buses leaving from all stops within easy walking distance of your home. Later, you might receive a personal visit from a transit agency representative. If you’re curious about walking more, you might receive a local walking map on your doorstep, followed by a visit from a TravelSmart employee who is knowledgeable about local topography, shops, and foot paths.

    That’s about all TravelSmart does—oh, except that it also does a detailed post-survey. What’s so surprising is that people who receive TravelSmart’s customized information typically reduce their car travel by 10 percent. In the transportation world, that’s a big shift—comparable to what happens when a major new rail line goes into your neighborhood, for example. Or comparable to the immediate change in behavior you’d expect from a doubling of gasoline prices.

    Is it a fluke? No. That proportion, or something close to it, has proved itself consistent in ten cities worldwide, including walking cities such as Paris, France and auto-oriented ones such as Perth, Australia. And it’s proved up in Cascadian cities including Bellingham and Portland (phase 1 in 2003 here; more recent examples here). (Greater Vancouver, BC, is doing a TravelSmart pilot in six neighborhoods this year. In Washington, TravelSmart-like programs are underway in my own neighborhood of Ballard and in downtown Bellevue.)

    These results make TravelSmart a fascinating anomaly in conventional economic theory, which presumes that people are good calculators of their own self interest. The fact that an intervention as simple as TravelSmart can induce a 10 percent drop in driving puts the lie to that notion—unless there’s an information problem at work. In economy theory, absence of information can cloud consumers’ decisionmaking and the cost of gathering missing information can be high enough to make it rational not to bother. For the latter case to hold, however, information about nondriving must be hard to get or the cost of driving must be very low. Obviously, the cost of driving is very high. And information about walking or riding buses is quite easy to get in most cities.

    TravelSmart works, I believe, because it’s a mild antidote to default driving. It converts nondriving from an abstract and complicated option—the kind of alternative that we intend to consider but find easier to ignore until some indefinite future date—to a straight-forward choice that we can quickly and intuitively weigh against driving. When a local expert has talked us through the basics about local stations and stops, transit ceases to seem as complicated and confusing. Then, when a mobility need comes up, our minds don’t simply shut off and point us toward the car. TravelSmart lets us consider options.

    A few weeks ago, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat asked what it would take for Americans to trim their oil consumption by 3 percent, to adapt to the temporary loss of oil from Prudhoe Bay. (In the same piece, he teasingly called me a “carless freak.”) Well, if TravelSmart is any guide, many Americans would likely choose to use around 10 percent less fuel—if they could be induced to consider their options more of the time.

    There are two implications of this line of reasoning that warrant a quick mention, in closing.

    1. At a personal level, car-lessness is the ultimate TravelSmart. It eliminates the driving default—as loaner cars have reminded my family this summer—forcing us to actually choose the best uses of our time and money each time we’re inclined to head out the door. In this sense, car-lessness is less a sacrifice than a means of aligning our actions with our lasting intentions. It’s in the same category of self-coercion as enrolling in a weight reduction program or putting the alarm clock out of arm’s reach. It’s a way to make ourselves knuckle under and do some things, like exercise more, that we have a hard time staying disciplined about.

    2. At a policy level, countering the inertial power of the driving default is a legitimate, even an important public goal. The driving default is a market failure, and one with enormous implications not only for individuals’ ability to achieve what they want out of life but also for strong communities, fair markets, and responsible stewardship. TravelSmart has proven itself one effective means of countering the default. Car-lessness is another. Recruiting a growing share of vehicle owners to car-lessness would have far-larger than proportional impacts on consumption of fuel and road space. Perhaps a piece of Cascadia’s response to climate change should be to offer bounties on gas guzzlers, and pay the bounties in credits at car-sharing programs such as FlexCar.

    When you don’t own a car, you still can choose to drive. My family makes that choice several times a week (even when we don’t have a loaner). But it’s no longer a quasi-automatic decision—an unthinking default. When we drive these days, it’s because we thought about it first.