Ditch your car, learn some behavioral economics

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Like most of us, the Sightline Institute's Alan Durning is more fun when he's reflecting on his experience rather than preaching. These days his main experience is not owning a car.

"Two weeks ago, my family was at a friend’s 50th birthday picnic. My wife Amy had arrived in a loaner car [from a friend], 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. . . .

"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."

It's not that cars are exceptionally seductive. Durning's onto a general fact about the way we do things. He links to an article on behavioral economics, of which the oversimplified gist is that 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." Even when there's money to be made or time to be saved, we're busy elsewhere as long as nothing is overtly broken. The default is not to cost everything out every time, because then we'd never get anything done.

It's wrong to assume that just because everyone drives everywhere, that driving is the best option every time.  It may just be the path of least resistance.

 

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