Friday, March 2, 2012

Learned Helplessness and Oil "Shocks"


I was checking out this graph produced by Brookings Institute the other day. And like many I suspect, was like "woah. That's a lot of VMT reduction. But is it? Do gas prices really have a huge effect on transportation decisions/patterns? The blue line of per capita VMTs/per year sure drop off a cliff as gas prices have risen.

But let's look closer, particularly at the Y-axis of VMTs. It's not like it runs from 0 to 12,000. Instead, VMTs have only dropped 500 miles per year. And even then, that only happened in 2008 when everybody lost their job. Meanwhile gas prices were rising steadily throughout the decade from 2002-2012.

If we're talking percentages in a more apples to apples way, gas prices have risen about 267% in those ten years. Over the same time period, VMTs dropped 5%. Is that really significant? I'd say it's quite insignificant really. If the Y-axis reads 0-10,000 that line barely moves.

The next question becomes if gas hits 5.00/gallon (basically what it needs to in order for tar sands to start being viable -- in other words, expect it and some unhappy Canadians) will we start changing our commuting patterns?

I like to recite a psychological study about learned helplessness I remember from school days. It goes as pulled from wiki:

In Part 1 of Seligman and Steve Maier's experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of "yoked pairs." A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in parallel with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn't stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently "inescapable." Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

In Part 2 of the Seligman and Maier experiment, these three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus, in which the dogs could escape electric shocks by jumping over a low partition. For the most part, the Group 3 dogs, who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn't try.

Problem numero uno is that we don't have the infrastructure for drastic changes in commuting patterns and relatedly, the built form responds to car-centric infrastructure. In other words, the majority of us (97% of the country) are trapped in car-only living arrangements. We're puppies in a cage with an electrified floor. A fraction will figure it out, maybe move to a more walkable place. And there will be a slight uptick in demand for walkable, infill urban housing, but barely more than enough to register (particularly as transportation agencies continue to want its cake and eat it too).

So when somebody says, "just you wait until gas prices are at such and such price, we'll change then." No, we won't. Will just accept it. We'll get depressed like those poor puppies. It's a captive market. A monopoly. And our government agencies (sideways eyes at TxDOT and NCTCOG) are complicit. The real change to living arrangements doesn't happen until the street patterns and road designs begin to change.