If you sit back and reflect on your own experiences for a moment, this is probably no surprise. When we’re driving through a new place, people on the street are easily seen as potential obstructions or sources of difficulty. When we are walking or biking along, that perception is much less so. A couple of new studies confirm this. “Two experimental studies (n = 245 and n = 91) demonstrated that explicit (but not implicit) attitudes towards a group of young people in an ambiguous social situation are more negative when they are viewed from the perspective of a car user in particular in relation to a pedestrian perspective,” the study authors briefly summarize.
Another summary of the research notes, “The researchers found that participants who saw the video from the perspective of a car rated the actors higher on negative characteristics (threatening, unpleasant) than participants in the other three conditions. Participants who saw the video from the perspective of the pedestrian rated the actors higher on positive characteristics (considerate, well-educated) than those in the car condition.” (Other than the bicyclist and driver, the other two “conditions” are from a transit or pedestrian perspective.)
The main conclusion from a blogger on Planetizen is something I’ve stated more times than I can count: “Cars and Cities Just Don’t Mix.” That was from the title of his piece. His intro is also good: “cities aren’t meant to be experienced from behind the wheel of a car. Researchers at the University of Surrey found that drivers perceive exactly the same things more negatively than those who walk, bike, or take transit, confirming the anecdotal experience of literally every person that’s ever tried to find parking in an urban downtown.”
Indeed, cities and cars don’t mix. A city, by definition, is a relatively small geographic space where a lot of people live. Moving people around in their own large vehicles in such a dense space simply doesn’t make sense.
The Planetizen blogger, Shane Phillips, had a few other interesting reflections from this study. “These findings have a few interesting implications. For example, they may help explain the “war on cars” furor of the past several years. It’s easy to imagine how some individuals, so married to their windshield perspective, could see any attempt to improve active or public transportation as a direct attack on their person. Those people on the street are so threatening and unpleasant, after all. Why should the city cater to people like that?”
Phillips also brought in another study and a city planning classic:
A related study compares perceptions of crime between urban and rural residents, and finds that although urban residents perceive their neighborhoods as less safe they nonetheless feel more comfortable within them. This reflects a few realities, I think, including the relative comfort that comes from dense populations — the “eyes on the street,” described by Jane Jacobs, that help deter crime and the perception of personal threat. It also aligns with the message of an earlier article I wrote about cul-de-sacs, and how suburban and rural neighborhoods often seem to derive their sense of community from a kind of turf mentality, where strangers are unwelcome and invariably threatening. The diversity of cities necessitates an openness to and acceptance of others; this, in turn, allows residents to respond more flexibly to new experiences and uncertain circumstances. Those experiences can be recognized as interesting — a part of the unique appeal to urban life — rather than intimidating or scary.
These studies, taken together, indicate that cities working to emphasize walkable, transit-oriented communities are laying a strong foundation for continued growth. Improvements that focus on how people interact with cities at a human level, rather than the driving experience, are likely to be the changes that produce the most positive experiences for visitors and new residents. And the more alternatives residents and visitors have for getting around without a car, the fewer negative impressions they’re likely to form of the city.
Image: angry driver via Shutterstock