The Frontal Cortex

Solitary Commuting

If people were rational creatures, you might expect them to respond to rising gas prices by doing less solitary commuting. The cost of filling up the tank would provide an incentive to either carpool or use a heavily subsidized mass transit system. But that hasn’t happened:

Despite high gasoline prices, the share of commuters driving alone has increased slightly since 2000 while the proportion in car pools dropped and those using mass transit remained about the same, according to a Census Bureau analysis released yesterday.

Nationally, the share of people car pooling dipped, to 10.7 percent from 12.2 percent. Over all, people driving to work accounted for 88 percent of commuters. Those driving alone inched up to 77 percent, from 75.7 percent, with the highest proportions in the Midwest.

There’s another reason why rational commuters should, at least in theory, figure out a way to stop driving alone. While people can adapt to just about anything – we learn to cope with all sorts of permanent tragedies – we can’t adapt to unpredictable situations. And the morning traffic is certainly unpredictable. Because we never know how long it will take us to get to work – it all depends on the state of the highway – our nervous system can’t habituate to the commute. The end result is that commuting remains one of those annoyances that never stops being annoying.

You’d think a rational creature would be better at avoiding activities that make it miserable.

Comments

  1. #1 erik
    June 14, 2007

    Sweet, I am rational. Just so happens that I started up a car pool yesterday. I recently had to move from walking distance to the office to 15 miles away, so I got one together. I hope it works out.

  2. #2 Markk
    June 14, 2007

    Your argument isn’t rational. You are only focusing on gas prices and time. There are a lot of other factors that go into determining how people commute. Gas prices have to be on the low end except for the very poor and very long. Time can be a factor and bus companies in areas like DC are booming because of the the crush. But the problem with car pooling and time is that you are taking an erratic problem and not removing it, but rather adding whatever time it takes to pool. Plus you can’t decompress on the drive like a lot of people I know do. I think busses, rail, bikes and such are better, carpooling isn’t going to provide the benefits.

  3. #3 ebohlman
    June 14, 2007

    I agree with Markk; there are several assumptions that have to be met in order for carpooling to be a viable way of commuting for a particular person, and many people’s circumstances don’t meet those assumptions. First of all, you need a group of people who all live quite close to each other and all work quite close to each other. If this condition isn’t met, carpooling can involve more driving than individual commutes.

    Secondly, everyone needs to arrive at and leave work at roughly the same time, and the schedule has to be predictable. That’s not much of a problem when it comes to arrivals since those are pretty likely to be constant, but it is a problem with departures; if someone needs to work late, then either everybody else is held up or he needs to find some other way to get home. If there’s no public transportation he can use, his only option might be a very expensive cab ride (and even that might not be an option if he lives or works in a neighborhood that cabbies consider dangerous, or if he’s blind and has a guide dog). You could argue that everyone else having to wait is an “inconvenience” but if one of everyone else is a single mother who needs to pick her kids up from daycare before it closes, she’s not going to think very highly of that choice of word.

    So carpooling is only rational if you have a group of neighbors who all work in the same place you do and work the same hours you do. The way Americans typically live (poor geographical correlation between home and workplace; work not done according to a strictly-defined shift system) makes that quite short of a certainty.

  4. #4 Brian
    June 14, 2007

    As time goes on, the more I really think it’ll take a major economic recession (the Great Depression II?) to wake people up…unfortunately.

    The other day on the local news, the report went something like – “Due to high gas prices, commuters are forced to come up with other undesired alternatives”, and then they go to a shot of a guy on a street saying “I had to organize a carpool with neighbors and co-workers”.

    Gasp! What a horrible thing!
    C’mon local news…you make it sound like not driving your car alone is the worst thing that can happen. If our collective rationality is a function of that kind of sentiment, then we are indeed in trouble.

  5. #5 Mark P
    June 14, 2007

    This is another example of begging the question. The unstated assumption is that gas prices are high (or unbearably high). In fact, the behavior of drivers indicates just the opposite. Although gas prices are higher in simple dollar terms than they used to be, American drivers do not consider gasoline expensive.

  6. #6 Ed T
    June 18, 2007

    As other people have pointed out, carpooling is really a pretty bad option for a lot of people due to geographical or scheduling issues. I think for many people what is going to end up happening is telecommuting.

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