Delayed gratification and our roads

Delayed gratification and our roads


It won’t benefit you now, but it will benefit you later. You may not like it now, but you’ll be glad for it later. In this world, it is an individual of rare circumstances that can succeed by making every decision based on their most immediate desires. These people are insulated from reality, either born into excess, or happy living in an unending cycle of temporary satisfaction and deprivation.

The rest of us are required to think about our actions and decide which of the various consequences we value the most, while considering the cost of the effort required. This is, of course, when we think about it at all. Even then, our gut reactions are based, at least in part, on various fundamental beliefs, just as are the things we value. Our beliefs are based largely on what we are taught (passively or actively), and the rest, of course, is nature.

So, these choices. What do we make of them? How can we work to ensure that the best choices are made? With that in mind, we have the following:

Now, I’d like to make an attempt at starting to apply this general theory to something specific: our roads. More specifically, those on them. I suppose the real question is, how can we change what people value? I don’t have anything worked out, so consider this a conversation starter…

I’m going on first-hand experience and general knowledge, but I suspect that few decisions while driving are made without considering anything but their immediate situation. Likewise, I suspect that few people in Australia, generally speaking, think outside the box when it comes to their preference for how our communities are designed. It may very well be that most people aren’t all that concerned that our cities and ever-expanding suburbs are laid out with the assumption that everyone will drive, because most people will automatically assume that driving is the only way to get around.

To be fair, a general inability to favour delayed gratification applies to everyone no matter how they choose to get around, but, the cost-benefit ratio swings in favour of the instant gratification the further up the food-chain you go on the streets. Pedestrians tend to think about their actions more, because they are more vulnerable (though the spell that smart-phones have on us seems to be changing that). Cyclists are in a similar position, yet those cycling in traffic will likely feel even more vulnerable than pedestrians, and, of course, those in cars are generously insulated from any personal harm and often any humanizing interaction when it comes to the lesser road-users. “I feel like passing that cyclist right now” results in immediate gratification with no cost to the driver, though waiting even for a few seconds or having to change lanes represents a disadvantage. That’s just how it is. I’m not suggesting that most people behave that way all the time, but the math adds up.

We’ve done it to ourselves. We did it because we could, and even though we can all see that more cars and more roads and more parking spaces is not sustainable, we still prefer to continue to design our communities with that as a priority. Most people drive, and therefore, accommodating that suits most people. This is a choice, just like eating the marsh mellow, that will result in a less than ideal result, but one which gives us what we can have right now.

So in many cases, we have designed a system where instant gratification is favoured for one group at the cost of the others, but also at the cost of the group it is designed for (with delay, death, pollution, poor health, and huge financial costs).

On the other hand, building infrastructure for walking and cycling will require some time during which people will need to exercise their delayed-gratification muscles. People want instant results, but we know that this will result in stronger communities and happier people, as has been happening the world-over for many decades.

Applying delayed-gratification to safely passing cyclists and cyclists safely passing others is a little more difficult. All I can think of is the positive reward of feeling good because you’re being good, and the negative consequence of being penalized for the offence. Compared to urban design, the rewards for safe passing are less abstract and the benefits clearer, so it’s more difficult to generate wide-spread self-control and good-will amongst the general population when it comes to driving safely around cyclists and pedestrians.

I haven’t quite worked out how to bend everyone to my will and so I don’t have a convenient solution for any of that today, so for now, here are a few thoughts from Wikipedia, because I don’t have time to delay the gratification of researching this in any real depth…

“It is important to note that for a behavior modification regimen to succeed, the reward must have some value to the participant.[11] Without a reward that is meaningful, providing delayed or immediate gratification serves little purpose, as the reward is not a strong reinforcer of the desired behavior.[11]”

More people on bikes, fewer people in cars? Faster travel times? More parking spaces? Ultimately, I don’t think this will sell, mostly because where cities are making strides in active and public transport, parking and car lanes are being removed to make room for it. I think we need to somehow make cycling/walking/public transport itself valuable.

“As prospect theory states, people are heavily loss-averse.[26] People tend to value a commodity more when it is considered to be something that can be lost or given up than when it is evaluated as a potential gain.[26]”

That just sounds like the ability to drive, or money. Not popular, but effective? Longer-term or permanent loss of license for various offenses? Congestion charges? More expensive parking? Fewer parking spaces? More pedestrianized streets? Do an Oslo and aim to keep cars out of the city full-stop?

“Delayed gratification has its limits, and a delay can only be so long before it is judged to be not worth the effort it takes to wait.”

None of this is instant. Cycle networks need to be well-connected to be popular, motorists will need time to adjust to any change, etc, etc. Here we simply need brave people to make brave, but exceedingly sensible, decisions, based on best practice from elsewhere, rather than trying to come up with something novel just for the sake of it, and finding out that it actually doesn’t work.

“A growing body of research suggests that self-control is akin to a muscle that can be strengthened through practice.[42] In other words, self-control abilities are malleable,[19] a fact that can be a source of hope for those who struggle with this skill. In psychotherapy, treatment for impulse-control issues often involves teaching individuals to realize the downsides of acting on immediate urges and in turn to practice delaying gratification.”

We can do it. That should give us all hope. The question is, can we make someone do it even if they don’t want to, or know that they want to? Can we design policies and infrastructure that naturally re-wires how people think and behave? Sure we can. Other places have done it.  How we go about it is another matter altogether…


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