If you believe the commercials, zipping around in the right kind of car should make you feel like a sexy master of the universe. What commercials don’t mention is that experiencing the world behind a windshield may also warp your perspective of what’s outside.
According to recent research from the U.K.’s University of Surrey, compared to people who walk places, car drivers make more negative judgments about their environment with the least information about them.
To come to this conclusion, first the researchers surveyed two neighborhoods along the same stretch of road in northern England, one affluent and predominantly white, and the other low-income and diverse. Each person surveyed was asked to rate both neighborhoods, and answer questions about their own transportation patterns and interactions with neighbors.
Walkers and drivers had very different reactions. Walkers from the affluent neighborhood had positive things to say about the low-income neighborhood, while drivers held negative views. In general, the affluent neighborhood reacted the most strongly (both positively and negatively) to the low-income neighborhood, while those in the low-income neighborhood rated both areas similarly.
The differences partially confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis, explains Birgitta Gatersleben, an environmental psychology professor and lead author of the study. Generally, humans are pretty good at judging threats or a situation’s trustworthiness in just a few seconds. This is called “thin slicing,” referring to the thin slices of reality we can consume and digest quickly. It comes in handy in the wild, say, if you’re trying to decide whether to approach a pack of lions, or, more realistically, a very angry Apple Care customer.
Still, it’s much easier (and much faster) to judge something negatively than develop a positive association: Researchers have found that judging negatively only takes a mere five seconds, whereas a positive affect requires 20 seconds or more. Out of biking, walking, and driving, cars travel the quickest. Drivers, then, spend the least amount of time speculating on what’s outside the car, and may unconsciously jump to the worst conclusions.
Two follow-up studies in the same paper, which was published in Transportation Research, backed up this idea. First, the researchers filmed two teenage actors playfully fighting over a piece of paper on a park bench from the perspective of a pedestrian, someone on a bus, and someone in a car. When they then showed those videos to test subjects later, those who viewed the driver’s perspective judged the actors the most harshly, and rated their own feelings with the highest levels of annoyance and fear.
“Those who traveled fastest in a car developed the most negative judgments, or responded with the most negative emotions,” Gatersleben says. “I didn’t think [the hypothesis] would be working so well as it did.”
So is there a way to change these perceptions? Well, better walking, bicycle, and mass transportation infrastructure would make it safer and easier to go car-free. Another idea, the researchers say, is for urban planners to develop more shared spaces, also known as “naked streets” and “home zones.” By removing all traffic signs and markers separating the different types of transportation (hence, the nakedness), ideally, shared spaces would make drivers more conscious of those around them.
“Some studies suggest this can increase traffic safety and improve traffic flow, because [shared spaces] makes people more aware of other traffic users,” Gatersleben says. “If you’re driving, you stop because there’s a red light, but if there is no red light you’re forced to pay attention to those around you. If you separate the different modes, you almost maximize the difference between them.”
There’s some evidence to suggest the idea isn’t as counterintuitive as it sounds, as European countries began implementing them years ago. After the Dutch town of Drachten took out its traffic lights, residents actually found that road deaths decreased.