The desire to drive, and how we must counter it

I am discovering that there’s some powerful psychology going on when you get a new car.

Playing into this for me is that my old car was wearing out, and was getting difficult to drive, plus the change from manual to automatic.

This means the new car seems like a breeze to drive.

The “new car smell” is real, and somehow makes it seem pleasurable to sit in the driver’s seat.

The extra features – even on this model which was as cheap as I could buy in the size I wanted – are (I’m guessing) designed to appeal, to make you want to be in the car (and thus to drive it).

Some designers have identified cupholders specifically as desirable, with some perhaps unlikely explanations:

Rapaille says women love cup holders because โ€” and this is really what he told her โ€” cup holders mean coffee, and coffee means safety, because of the memories we all have of our mothers preparing coffee with breakfast.

And this: Anthony Prozzi, design manager for Ford in Michigan, explains that “part of a designers job is to play psychologist, anthropologist and sociologist, and knowing those things helps you read consumers and know what puts a smile on their faces.”

Lancer manual: cup and bottle holders

My new car has a spot to put a bottle in the door (like my old car did) plus cupholders in the centre between the front two seats. So I can have two drinks within easy reach if I want… while the manual warns you not to actually use them while driving. Plus it’s got a spot for a packet of tissues, in case I have a spill.

I suppose car manufacturers have been at this game for a long time. You’ve bought their product for thousands of dollars – they want you to feel good about it, so that in time you’ll want to upgrade to another one.

The net result is that – even for someone like me, who understands the consequences of driving, and doesn’t like driving – I feel like I want to drive it.

I’d never drive it to work. Parking is too expensive, traffic is too soul-destroying, and (usually) the train is too good.

But it’s tempting to drive it other places where PT options are fewer – and I can understand why some people would be tempted to drive every day, even into horrible traffic. Combined with (Australian) governments who keep building big roads, even though it doesn’t solve congestion (it expands it), the desire to drive is powerful.

Just get in, turn the key and go. It’s so easy. Mostly the noise, air quality and traffic impacts are Somebody Else’s Problem. The motorist doesn’t pay for them; society does.

Governments are complicit in this, especially in Australia, where they build ever more roads as cities get bigger – despite this being not how the world’s biggest cities solve their mobility problems.

So the desire to drive is powerful.

CBD traffic, Lonsdale and William Streets

Fighting back

All this means that those of us who believe in the importance of solving those impacts through alternative transport modes have to make sure that they improve enough to fight back. If everybody who could afford to and was able to was on the roads, it’d be a disaster.

Perhaps to an extent cars are self-defeating. The more crowded the roads become, the better the alternatives look.

I also associate the car with first escapes, driving nowhere in particular in the middle of the night with a friend, movement being a goal in its own right. … Countless trips have been made by car since then, and we (still) own a small car today. However, trains became our favorite transport mode a long time ago, and as a family, we nowadays associate highways with congestion and stress, places to avoid.Stefan Gossling

Ultimately to fight back against the car, the other options need to improve.

Gossling again: There are powerful interests at work to psychologically engineer car addictionโ€”addicts, conveniently, never question their behavior. Other insights pertain to the role of cars with regard to emotions, sociality, sex and gender, speed, authority, and death. We need to understand these interrelationships to unlock the possibility of alternative transport futures.

Caulfield station, inbound passengers during evening peak

Can public transport improve?

One could focus on the psychological aspects of public transport, but what about the basics – making the system easy and pleasant to use?

Cleanliness, crowding, information, security and easy to use ticketing all come into it. But seamless connections and cutting waiting times to reduce door-to-door journey times are fundamental requirements.

It would be easy enough to despair. Progress is so damn slow.

Most suburban buses are still running to frequencies from cuts 25 years ago. The last tranche of the better quality orbital Smartbus routes were implemented in 2010, almost a decade ago.

Trams have seen capacity expansion (big trams replacing smaller trams) but few route extensions, and remain slow due to a lack of progress on traffic priority.

The noises about public transport expansion are positive, but the actual progress isn’t.

Particularly frustrating is that literally billions are being spent on new rail tunnels to fix peak hour (great!) but most suburban train lines continue to run only every 20 minutes at most times of day, 30 minutes evenings. There are still gaps of 40 minutes on some lines on Sunday mornings.

A few have improved, but on most lines at most times they are much the same now as they have been for 30 years.

Let’s face it, with some exceptions, outside peak, most of the public transport system remains pathetically infrequent and slow, especially for a city of nearly five million people — despite increasing all-day demand.

Really, it’s no surprise that most people continue to drive.

The car industry is doing its best to coax us in, and on the other side, every signal from authorities, every pathetic half-baked public transport upgrade, every poorly-programmed pedestrian crossing, every non-existent bike path tells people to drive.

To curb the many problems of the car, they have to do better.

The number became a brand

Back when I worked at Hattams (mid 80s to early 90s), we stocked Levi’s jeans, primarily the 555 “red tabs”, but also the 517 “boot cut”.

The numbers were Levi’s product codes. The first digit 5 signified they were for adult men’s — my recollection is that the “student” (kids/young men up to a size 81 cm/32″) sizes in red tabs were 855.

We didn’t stock women’s jeans, but they seemed to be all numbered in the 700s.

And while the sizing was multiples of inches, like most things in the trouser-world (in Australia at least), it was measured in centimetres.

Levi's jeans

At some stage in the last couple of decades, the product codes have become marketing tools. 501s in particular have been catapulted into a fully-fledged brand of their own. They used to be a specific type of button-fly men’s jeans; now they seem to be a catch-all for anything Levi’s feels like calling “501s” for marketing purposes, not to mention thrown onto promotional T-shirts and hoodies.

I think the women’s equivalent used to be 701s, but now they too go by the 501 branding, as I noted recently when Marita was out jeans-shopping.

They’ve also reverted the measurements from centimetres to those archaic inches, to give themselves some genuine American-ness. At least, I assume that’s the reason, as everybody else has switched to metric — well, apart from Burma and Liberia.

This page doesn’t claim to be authoritative, but talks about the numbering of Levi’s jeans — in particular it seems to be a list from after some of the numbers got mixed up a bit. I know I have two pairs of 504s (bought at Hattams in the last couple of years) which that list reckons are “slouch straight for women”, which I’d dispute.

Presumably internally Levi’s now have a completely different numbering system, so they can tell all the myriad of “501” products apart.