Parking Meters and the Psychology of Driving



I got supremely irritated yesterday upon reading an essay by a successful professional Chicagoan (a Bucktown resident! not a suburbanite!) who is apparently less willing to get out of her car now that the parking meter kiosk system means walking half a block to pay for parking.

It's perplexing, but after thinking about it I suspect it has to do with the psychology of driving. Tom Vanderbilt, a Baffler contributor back in the day, has a wonderful book called Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, a recent entry in the booming field of analytical histories of everyday things, and it's chock full of useful information like this (pp. 138-139):

A study of Seattle grocery stores found that in 1940 the average store was .46 miles from a person's house, while in 1990, it was .79 miles. That small change in distance was basically the death knell for any thought of not driving to the store, for a half mile is as long as planners believe the average person is willing to walk.

A couple things Vanderbilt mentions in his book explain, I think, a lot about why someone would drive around looking for another coffee shop or store rather than walk a short distance, when, efficiency-wise, trading a parking space in the hand for two in the urban bush seems misguided (the same goes for another pet peeve of mine, people who circle mall parking lots instead of immediately heading for the end of the row where parking is usually abundant).

The first is that we perceive time differently between driving and walking. As Vanderbilt notes, we perceive a minute of driving on the highway as shorter than a minute of walking (p. 142), and, as it logically follows, we underestimate the time it will take to get somewhere by driving, and overestimate the time it will take to get somewhere by walking (p. 144). In other words, walking seems more onerous to someone in a car, and I suspect the aforementioned driver would perceive a similar distance differently if she was going somewhere from her house by foot. (Vanderbilt also cites a psychologist, Andrew Velkey of Christopher Newport University, who found that men tend to underestimate how long it takes to walk a distance, and women overestimate it (p. 144).)

Why? That doesn't come up, although my guess for the main reason would be that the amount of information we deal with when driving is so much greater than that when we're walking that time seems to move slower in the car. Think of how you perceive time when playing a video game, vs. watching a movie in a movie theater, vs. watching a movie at home, vs. reading a book, vs. reading a three-month-old issue of Time in the doctor's office.

Mind you, I'm guilty of the same distorted perceptions. Before I started biking to work regularly, I assumed that it would be slower than taking the bus. But it's not, at least not always. I live about 2.5 miles from work. If I happen to catch the bus right away or after a short wait, it's a couple minutes faster. If I have to wait for the bus, it's almost always faster by bike (since I ride the bus route to work, I try to pay attention to whether I get passed by the bus on the way). The math is a bit complicated: the bus goes about twice as fast as me (I ride a heavy steel mountain/cruiser), minus traffic stops and an obviously variable number of passenger stops, so it depends day to day. I suspect that, over a long period of time, I'd save more time by taking the bus - and sometimes I take it just because I want to read or listen to music - but even if I did it wouldn't be much, certainly less than I assumed before I started paying attention to it.

The second comes from Andrew Velkey's experience researching the foraging behavior of animals, which led him to traffic and parking research (p. 145):

The way humans hunt for parking and the way animals hunt for food are not as different as you might think. Many scientists believe that animals' foraging habits can be explained by a model known as "optimal foraging" - animals seek to gather the most food with the least effort (thus leaving them with more time an energy to, say, reproduce). These strategies evolve in response to the myriad numbers of life-or-death decisions that are made in each successive generation....

In sum, if you combine the distortion of time vs. distance that driving causes, plus the gender difference, plus the evolutionary angle, I think it's a reasonable explanation for the driver's hesitance to walk half a block. It's still dumb, I think, but there are things that make us dumb out there.

PS Special bonus excerpt mostly for Steven Vance, proprietor of the wonderful bike-centric urban planning blog Steven Can Plan (p. 148):

When the city of Copenhagen was looking to reduce the number of cars entering the central city in favor of bicycles and other modes of transportation, it had a very crafty strategy, according to Steffen Rasmussen of the city's Traffic and Planning Office: Get rid of parking, but without anyone noticing. From 1994 to 2005, Copenhagen cut parking spaces in the city center from 14,000 to 11,500, replacing the spaces with things like parks and bicycle lanes. Over that same time, not accidentally, bicycle traffic rose by some 40 percent - a third of people commuting to work now go by bike - and Copenhagen has become one of the few places in the world where one can read, in a report, a sentence that would seem like a comical misprint almost anywhere else: "Cycle traffic is now so extensive that congestion on certain cycle tracks has become a problem, as has cycle parking space."

And one more, on why the best way to increase bicycle safety is to bike more (pp. 85-86):

[A]s the number of pedestrians or cyclists increases, the fatality rates per capita begin to drop. The reason, as [public-health consultant Peter Lyndon] Jacobsen points out, is not that pedestrians begin to act more safely when surrounded by more fellow pedestrians - in fact, in New York City, as a stroll down Fifth Avenue will reveal [ed. note: or, for that matter, Milwaukee/Damen/North] the opposite is true. It is the behavior of drivers that changes. They are suddenly seeing pedestrians everywhere. The more they see, typically, the slower they drive; and, in a neatly perpetuating cycle, the more slowly they drive, the more pedestrians they effectually see because those pedestrians stay within sight for a longer period.

Vanderbilt goes on to theorize that the reason the Netherlands has a much lower fatality rate for cyclists is not because they're better cyclists, or more safety-conscious (helmet-wearing is not de rigueur there); it's just that there are way more of them.

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