Sociologist: phone call or text like “catnip” for humans

Amidst a larger conversation about using cell phones in vehicles, a sociologist gets at an interesting question: why can’t people resist the allure of cell phones?

The lure of multitasking may be, in at least one respect, more powerful for drivers than for other people, said Clifford Nass, a sociology professor at Stanford University who studies electronic distraction. Drivers are typically isolated and alone, he said, and humans are fundamentally social animals.

The ring of a phone or the ping of a text becomes a promise of human connection, which is “like catnip for humans,” Nass said.

“When you tap into a totally fundamental, universal human impulse,” he added, “it’s very hard to stop.”

Humans are indeed social animals and driving is uniquely isolating. On one hand, it is an oddly social activity as drivers must interact with other drivers and there is an interesting set of non-verbal interactions. On the other hand, one is in a sealed, moving vehicle and it may be one of the few regular moments people have where they are not near enough to talk to other people. Couldn’t someone examine this hypothesis by looking at how many cell phone caused or influenced car accidents took place when there was a solo driver?

It would be interesting to see how people respond to cell phones differently when alone opposed to in more social settings where they have opportunities to interact with people.

I imagine this could easily become a marketing campaign for cell phones: your phone is “a promise of human connection.” Indeed, a number of cell phone campaigns have stressed how they bring people together. The commercials might not add this but here is the kicker: sometimes this urge to make a human connection might be be problematic…

An office park that successfully created a “culture of public transit”

A lot of people would want more Americans to consistently use public transit. But one writer suggests a San Ramon, California office park where “33 percent of the park’s 30,000 workers leave their cars at home” might hold some answers. Here is a look at how this office park’s transportation center tackles logistics, focus on the multiple benefits of using public transit, and has “evangelistic zeal”:

1. Logistics: the office park was built in 1978 and needed to competed with other office parks. The office park purchased a fleet of buses, found ways to subsidize costs, and coordinated bus schedules with other nearby mass transit options. Today: “There are now 13 different bus routes running to the park, and the connections to BART and various local train and express bus services are coordinated. On its website, the Ranch now pitches its transit program as a competitive advantage.”

2. Pitching the multiple benefits of public transit: it’s not just about money but improving health and reducing stress. Today:

Marci says that once riders begin leaving their cars at home they go through a stressful period of two weeks or so where they feel that they’ve lost the control they had in the car. But within three weeks they notice their overall stress levels are lower. “Transit requires that you go at a different pace. You have to wait. If there were roses, we’d smell them,” she says, “There’s not much of that in our lives.” She says HR people have called her saying some of their meaner workers have become pleasant people after switching to transit.

3. The office, particularly its program manager, aggressively push the program and look to engage people in conversations.

Overall, this sounds interesting. But I am a bit skeptical about whether this is a possible solution to energy and transportation issues:

1. Even with all of this work, 67% of the workers still use their cars on a regular basis. (This is based on data the story provides.) Is this the best we can hope for outside of really dense urban areas like New York City? It really is difficult to fight a culture that prizes individuals being able to drive themselves.

2. There is no mention in this article about the cost of this program. It could be cheaper in the long run (if all the possible costs are accounted for) but I imagine some money might need to be spent up front for similar programs with the reduced costs coming down the road. The article suggests this program helped this office park compete – how much did it help?

3. Is this three-pronged strategy viable on a larger scale? Or does it only work under certain conditions?

Has America reached a saturation point for driving?

The Infrastructurist sums up some recent arguments that suggest “America has reached a “saturation point for vehicle ownership and travel.”

If this is all true and it ends up being a sustained trend, what does this mean for American culture? From the advent of the mass-market automobile in the 1920s, Americans have spent much time and resources with their vehicles. Getting a driver’s license was a rite of passage, perhaps the main one our culture has for teenagers (though perhaps it is being replaced by going to college for some). Car companies advertise incessantly and tie their products to American values (this recent Dodge Challenger commercial featuring rebel Americans dispersing the British redcoats with their vehicles is quite appropriate here). Fast food restaurants depend on drive-thrus. Could this all change? Perhaps this all depends on whether driving behavior has plateaued or is actually decreasing. If the younger generation doesn’t drive as much, it will take time for them to replace the figures from older Americans who do drive more.

And the other interesting question is whether this is the beginning of the end of suburbs: if new generations don’t want to drive as much, what does this mean for low-density development? Is this really going to lead to a new urban era with a movement to large cities or simply denser suburbs where the amount of driving is reduced but never disappears completely?

The appeal of Google and its driverless cars

It was recently revealed that Google has been testing automated cars for some time now:

With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

Autonomous cars are years from mass production, but technologists who have long dreamed of them believe that they can transform society as profoundly as the Internet has.

Why does this story have as much as appeal as it seems to have on the Internet? A quick argument:

This is a dream dating back decades. The futuristic exhibits of the mid 20th century had visions of this: people blissfully enjoying their trips while the cars took care of the driving. To see the dream come to fruition is satisfying and fulfilling. On a broader scale, this is part of the bigger narrative of technological progress. Although it has been delayed longer than some imagined, it demonstrates ingenuity and the progress of Americans. Since Americans have a well-established love affair with the automobile, driverless cars offers the best of all worlds: personal freedom in transportation without the need to actually do any work. And if we soon get cars that run on electricity or hydrogen, it can be completely guilt-free transportation!

What matters in a hybrid: financial value or something else?

A recent study compared hybrid models to their traditional counterpart models and found that the hybrids are not a very good value:

Everyone knows hybrids get better fuel economy and emit less CO2 than their conventional counterparts, but they also cost more because of the added technology. And that makes them a lousy value because you won’t recoup that added cost in fuel savings.

So say the car gurus at, who repeat a common argument against hybrids but back it up with some stats. They examined the purchase price and operating costs of 45 popular hybrid models and discovered the average gas-electric automobiles costs 25 percent more to own and operate than its gasoline-only sibling.

This may help explain why hybrids still are only a small part of the market – just under 3% according to this study.

But for those who currently drive hybrids, is financial value the primary reason? While this seems to be key to the larger market, I would guess there are a lot of current hybrid drivers who drive them for other reasons like being (or perhaps appearing) green. If more people truly wanted to be green or were worried about pollution from cars as opposed to saving money, then they would probably purchase more hybrids.

How Hollywood portrays those without cars

There is little doubt that the automobile is an important part of the American cultural ethos. So what about people who don’t have cars?

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the fascinating Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), argues at Slate that Hollywood tends to portray those without cars as losers. In different ways, Vanderbilt claims that the fact that characters do not have cars is often made to be symbolic of other failings in their lives.