Thinking (Differently) About Transit

Post by Steven Dale

Image by stephcarter.

I think it fair to say that most North Americans are conditioned to believe there are only a handful of transit modes in the world: Car, Bus and Train.

And I’m not so sure most transit planners are any different.

It’s not intentional conditioning. There’s no one brainwashing us, it’s just what we’ve grown up with, know and see on a daily basis.

It’s no one’s fault, no grand conspiracy, it’s just the way it is.

But what if there was a way to open our minds up to other possibilities? Could simply thinking about transit in a different way change the variety of solutions we arrive at?

Apparently so:

Over at Wired, contributing editor Jonah Lehrer writes about a fascinating study by Indiana University psychologist Lile Jia that suggests minor changes in the way we pose questions yields dramatically different results:

(Jia) randomly divided a few dozen undergraduates into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that this activity was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece, while the other group was told that it was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana. At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant distinction would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?

Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: When students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t just list buses, trains and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles and Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana, they thought about getting around all over the world.

I don’t think most planners and policy-makers would be too pleased to read Mr. Jia’s study. Planners are wont to believe they’re objective and impartial and are unlikely to welcome the idea that their own neurochemistry is actively working against their attempts at rationality and comprehensiveness.

After all, it’s rather disconcerting to know you’ve got a saboteur between your own two ears.

But if such a simple act can fundamentally change how one thinks about a question, maybe planners need to contemplate how to apply this knowledge in their daily practice.

Or let’s go one step further: Don’t we have a responsibility to contemplate this?

For those interested in some extra credit, Jia’s study is called Lessons from a Faraway land: The effect of spatial distance on creative cognition and you can find it here.

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  1. I see the opportunities in such form of thinking. But those ideas may turn out to give a chance for something incredibly wrong. In architecture things like that happen all the time. It's just: some things only work for your own mind or others, which are in the same position. But that early seed in someones brain can fall into the wrong hands. The Springfield Monorail is a good example. I can tell you: I know plenty more - real ones. So on the one hand we got very nice cities all over Europe which have an overall good design and their own form of architecture. Because those old cities were a product of regional planners and manufacturers and else. On the other hand we now got a lot of architectural offices which plan in cities they don't know anything about. And they are building the strangest things in there - because they won a competition which is similar to the way the second group for Greece was behaving. Completely free. Anyway: I like that way of thinking as an option for pooling ideas and brainstorming. Great post!

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