Los Angeles: The “Psychology of the Place”?

Responding to my post on Los Angeles as a transit metropolis, Atrios on the Eschaton blog speculates that the fate of transport in Los Angeles depends on three things, two of which are matters of “the psychology of the place.”

Contrary to popular perception, much of LA is quite dense and a hell of a lot of people use mass transit. And if the mayor gets his way, more better transit is coming. I think two things make it difficult for LA to be a great transit city. The first is simply the psychology of the place. People really don’t think anything about driving an hour in any direction. It makes the set if potential places – retail, friends, whatever – one might visit quite large. The second is that while LA is actually quite dense, in much of the city it’s a very even density. Light rail and subway systems are more useful if things are clustered around stations. …

I guess there is a third thing, that despite having all that lovely weather people are strangely allergic to walking.

The first and third things should look familiar to regular readers.  They’re examples of the fundamental attribution error (FAE), the psychological observation that humans tend to overestimate the rationality of their own behavior and underestimate the rationality of other people’s.  It’s most obvious in Atrios’s last point:

“… despite having all that lovely weather people are strangely allergic to walking.”

Atrios is suggesting that the lack of walking must be something about “the psychology of the place,” because it doesn’t make rational sense given the nice weather.  But the lesson of the FAE is that whenever we’re about to judge someone’s behavior to be nonrational, we should ask:  “Wait, what if these people’s strange behavior is actually an entirely rational response to a situation that I don’t fully understand?”

DSCN2380 A lot of Los Angeles is still not pleasant to walk in.  Places that are, such as the more successful commercial strips, do have lots of people walking.  So a shortage of pedestrians reflects rational responses to the situation.  People do walk where pedestrians are welcome and where there’s enough density that people can get things done within walking distance.  But much of LA is still not like that.

And what about the weather?  Why don’t people walk in Los Angeles when their weather looks so lovely to a blogger shivering in the northeast?  Because if you know Los Angeles you know how brutal desert sun can be.  Notice that the only pedestrians in this photo are huddling in the only patch of shade.  In fact, they’re sheltering exactly the way groups of pedestrians shelter under an awning in the rain.  So if you’re a shivering northeasterner, you may not understand the Los Angeles situation until you see that sun there is something like rain is for you, an uncomfortable sensation that you want some protection from.  (Los Angeles is planting a lot of trees, but unsheltered desert landscapes like the one above are still common.)

Ultimately, that kind of analogy — “this person’s situation is kind of like how I would feel if …” — is one of the key tools for moving beyond FAE and actually building understanding of the situations that other people are in.  That, and just holding open the idea that their situation may be different from how you imagine it would be for you.

14 Responses to Los Angeles: The “Psychology of the Place”?

  1. Chris April 1, 2010 at 6:39 am #

    Jarret – Your criticism of the third point is certainly fair but I’m not sure that your criticism of the first is.
    Think about what the term ‘psychology of the place’ really means. It’s not suggesting that some magical invisible force is influencing Angelenos’ decision making regarding transport. Instead it could be proposing that socialised attitudes commonly held by many individuals in the region (relative to other regions) favour driving. This fits quite nicely with what we know about human decision making; that it is largely intuitive rather than strictly rational (i.e. most decisions, especially familiar ones are not based on a conscious decision making process but on heuristics).
    If we are raised in a society where anti-transit/pro-car sentiments are widely aired, and if that rhetoric is supported by personal experience of transit being inconvenient compared to cars, then it is quite likely that we will develop anti-transit behavioural schemas that will influence our decision making even if the situation changes. Unless another experience forces us to reevaluate those attitudes (e.g. losing our jobs and cars and being forced to use transit, or moving to another city where car use is much less practical) then these beliefs will remain long after the situation that gave rise to them has changed.
    That doesn’t of course mean that LA will never be a transit city, but it is possible that even with a better transit system/pedestrian environment many who would rationally shift to public transport won’t, or at least will lag behind what would be expected.

  2. Danny April 1, 2010 at 8:13 am #

    I think a more important distinction to be made about psychology is that it is something that is segmented. LA is not one monolithic block of like-minded individuals.
    Even given the case that a majority of Angelinos love cars and don’t mind sitting in them 4 hours a day (an assertion I do not accept, but am willing to roll with for a little bit), that does not mean that there aren’t any Angelinos that would love, use, and support transit if the options were made available to them.
    Transit doesn’t need support from 100% of the population for it to be successful and sustainable. It just needs “enough”. Depending on the size, population, and modal choices, “enough” could be 50%, or it could be 5%, or it could even be 0.5%.
    Los Angeles may be a place that overall loves their cars, but I can guarantee you that a significant chunk of the population hates them, wishes they could get somewhere faster than they currently do waiting at stoplights and in freeway/parking lots all day long, and would leave the city in an instant if their family/friends/work didn’t tie them down to it.
    The success of the red/purple line as well as the orange line BRT show that there are at least enough people in a few slivers of the city that hate the status quo to be able to support some high quality transit options. The rational thing to do is to keep expanding until the extra ridership you gain does not compensate for the extra cost you incur building it.

  3. Winston April 1, 2010 at 9:06 am #

    With all this talk of people from L.A. being willing to tolerate very long commutes I feel compelled to point out that it just ain’t so. The average person in L.A. commutes 29 minutes each way – less than the average resident of New York (34 mins), Chicago (31 mins), D.C. (33 mins) or Atlanta (31 mins). L.A.’s transportation network actually works fairly well when it comes to getting people to work. I’m also not sure that it’s all that much more energy intensive or polluting than cities other than NYC because of the very high rate of carpooling in L.A.
    Expanding transit in L.A. probably makes sense because the city has reached the point where road improvements are very expensive and politically difficult, but the idea that L.A. is a transportation basket case or that people are irrationally addicted to driving there just doesn’t make sense.

  4. anonymouse April 1, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    What makes this worse is that so many of the street trees in LA are palms, generally the five-story-tall variety with a small clump of leaves at the top, which provide exactly zero shade, but may occasionally drop a (five-foot) leaf onto anyone standing below. Fortunately, the palms are getting sick and dying out, and LA has committed to planting a million new trees, none of which will be palms.

  5. Scott Mercer April 1, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    Because L.A. is so decentralized, there are actually people who drive two hours each way to work every day, BUT, there are also people who drive five minutes each way to work every day.
    I am one of those people. I live three miles from my work, never get on a freeway during my commute, and stay in the San Fernando Valley the whole time (though I hate it and would like to move back to the LA basin if I could, but what ya gonna do, in this economy you take what jobs you can get). Hell, I even took buses to work before I got a car about 1 month ago (45 minute trip time, including 15 minute wait for one bus transfer, versus 8 minutes in a car, if you were curious
    That’s why the average commute time is shorter, and yet the freeways are still packed. If you have 5 million people taking local streets to their jobs and have commutes less than 10 miles, and 5 million people driving 50 miles to their jobs and 2 hour drive times (average out to 30 minutes commute times total), then you STILL have packed freeways because the freeways were designed to handle only 3 million drivers, not 5 million (I am just making those numbers up, but I am sure they are in the ball park, at least proprtionally). Never mind the 5 million people packing onto surface streets, mainly in areas with fewer freeways (like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, etc.) and the surface streets are ALSO packed to the bursting.
    We just have too many damn people, full stop.

  6. Alon Levy April 1, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    The perception I’ve read in LA is that on any route, the bus takes three times longer than the car. Even then, Greater LA’s transit mode share is about the same as Greater Portland’s.
    It’s not culture. It’s not density, not when the urban area’s perceived density ranks third nationwide. It’s just that the transit options suck.

  7. Ted King April 1, 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    FYI – Large chunks of California are near-deserts. The expeditions that explored California often ran short of water. Today’s greenness is the result of decades of hydrological engineering that included fraud, theft, and environmental rape (e.g. Owens Valley, Mono Lake).
    Personally, I hate walking in high summer in areas like Walnut Creek or South S.F. The air temperature reminds me of an oven. And within a block or two my feet are on fire from the cooktop-like pavement. And this is well NORTH of L.A. ! So I suspect that geographic bowl turns into a wok during the summer months.

  8. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org April 1, 2010 at 3:59 pm #

     @ Scott Mercer.  No, LA does't have too many people.  It has too many cars.

  9. matt April 1, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    I think you look at LA and you see the aggregate of our decisions over the past 100 years. When you look at the decisions we are making now you see something different than over the last 50: that we are developing transit and more livable cities. But Rome was not built in a day, nor can LA be rebuilt in a day. The best we can do is make the right decisions today, and eventually the city will change into what we think it could be.

  10. calwatch April 1, 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    LA is a very park starved community. The management of the City of Los Angeles is incompetent, and mayors from Tony Villar all the way back to Sam Yorty have promised too much and can’t deliver. The library system is pretty good, and the fire service is better than average, but in terms of other public amenities, LA falls short of other major cities. Not enough parkland and community centers, fewest cops of any major city per capita, a 100 year backlog to fix sidewalk and roadways that are roller coasters (try riding the Metro Rapid 720 and you won’t have to go to Disneyland to ride a rollercoaster), small business unfriendly atmosphere (not just taxes, but in terms of the multiple layers of approval to run a business), etc.
    The other advantage of driving in LA is the grid system, which allows for an infinite amount (well, almost) of routes, and very few natural barriers – going back to the post on natural barriers. Yes, most of the time all of the streets headed between the Westside and Downtown are saturated (because there’s too many damn cars) but in less dense areas like the San Fernando Valley or the San Gabriel Valley, surface street traffic works well. My commute daily takes me across one of the big bottlenecks – the San Gabriel River – but even that is minor compared to, say, the hills ringing Seattle or San Francisco Bay. With traffic speeds on my phone and electronic traffic time meters, I can usually guess where I need to get off to avoid traffic, and jump back on past the bottleneck. The travel time may be similar but I prefer sitting at a red light for thirty seconds every 3-5 minutes than the agony of stop and go 10-15 mph traffic.

  11. Art Busman April 2, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

    Having lived in LA, there is no better climate for walking except perhaps San Diego. Only on a few days is it too hot to walk. In LA, people love to walk – on the beaches. The reason they don’t walk is not the heat but the inability of getting around on feet. If you live in LA, you have to drive to the grocery store, drug store, mall, etc.
    Also, while some people underestimate the rationality of others, I would argue, some people overestimate it. Our decisions actually are a blend of rational and irrational, analysis and biases. Deciding whether to take transit is not a fully rational decision. If you’re used to driving and suddenly a rail station opens in your neighborhood, it takes effort to change old habits despite new benefits. Decisions are also based on image and needs. Why else do we spend trillions on advertising? Taking the bus has an image problem in America, like it or not, but I would say that it’s getting better.
    We also only assume others are irrational when they disagree with us. If you’re a liberal, you think conservatives are irrational and liberals are more rational and vice versa. If we keep fooling ourselves into believing people are overly rational and will choose transit because it makes sense and takes less time and costs less money, we’re fooling ourselves. We need to invest in improving the image and aesthetics of transit as well.

  12. anonymouse April 3, 2010 at 1:07 am #

    Did you happen to notice that Santa Monica can be a good 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Pasadena on any given day (and 5-10 degrees warmer the same night)? There’s many reasons for people not to walk, but heat and a complete lack of protection from it is definitely one of them. Others include the fact that things are far apart, and the scenery is very dull at walking pace, plus there are few other people walking, so a walk feels even longer and more boring than it would be in a better walking environment.

  13. Joseph E April 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    Scott Mercer, have you considered riding a bike to work? If your commute is 8 minutes by car and 3 miles one way, it should only take 20 to 25 minutes each way by bike, if you ride slowly.
    If you currently spend an hour on aerobic activity at the gym every other day, you will actually save a half hour every week by biking to work for your exercise. If you are not currently exercising that much, you should be, according to current medical science.
    I have been biking 3.5 miles each way to work (in Long Beach) for the past few months. It is 10 minutes faster than bus/train, best case, and more reliable on the days when I might need to stay late. With a rear rack and wire baskets I can carry 2 gallons of milk and a couple bags of groceries, and I am saving money every month compared to buying a transit pass.

  14. Joseph E April 3, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    I agree that the lack of shade in summer can discourage walking in many parts of Los Angeles. The coastline remains pleasant on most days, but beyond 5 or 10 miles inland the summer can be painfully hot and sunny. The San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys might as well be Phoenix or Las Vegas on a hot summer day.
    Those spindly palm trees need hardly any irrigation, but I agree that we need more shade trees in Los Angeles. From a transit perspective, we need to build more shade into light rail stations and bus stops. The new Expo line has chosen artistic station canopies, but could use some more shade, for example.