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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bus

 In recent  years, there’s been a dawning awareness that the decisions people make about how to travel are determined to a far greater degree by psychological criteria than by simple, rational calculations of cost and travel time. Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic Cities, for example, points to new research that suggests that some travelers will prefer using cars even when using the bus or the subway triumphs in rational comparison of costs.

The money quote from the journal article is this: “Our key experimental result is that travel mode is significantly affected by heuristics and biases leading to robust deviations from rational behaviour.”

In other words, people choose to drive, in part, just because they like it.

But, what happens if those “heuristics and biases” that are so determinative of transportation behavior change? In Transportation and the New Generation, we hypothesized – based on some scattershot but fairly consistent survey data – that attitudes toward driving were indeed changing, particularly among the young.

The answer to the question of “what happens” is that you get something that looks like the experience in Boston over the past year. Metro Boston’s transit agency, the MBTA, just reported that ridership in 2012 hit a new record, eclipsing last year’s record ridership by 2.3 percent. Incredibly, that increase in ridership came despite a substantial round of fare hikes and service cuts in July that analysts had projected would cause ridership to fall by as much as 5.5 percent.

While there may be other factors at play that are keeping people on buses and trains – a pick-up in the economy, high gas prices, and the arrival of new tools such as mobile ticketing for commuter rail – the fact is that a fairly significant increase of the cost, in time and money, of transit use in Boston last year has thus far had limited effect on ridership.

All of which suggests, yet again, that the way we understand transportation behaviors – particularly in an age of rapid technological advances – and model transportation choices need a thorough re-think if we are really going to do an effective job of making the right transportation policy choices for the future.