In Defence of the Unthinking Passenger

April 30, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

I work at home most Fridays and pick my (almost) 3 year old son up from nursery around 3.30. This usually involves a pleasant 15 walk home in which he typically falls asleep in his pram, but on Friday it was windy, raining heavily and I was ill-prepared. There was no rain cover for the pram, and I had a hole in the sole of my right shoe.

That much was my fault, but we were both eager to get home quickly, and I think my decision to swiftly walk to the closest bus stop was a good one. I was relieved when, through the rain, I saw the 93 was coming down Putney hill.

Like most passengers, I associate bus numbers with standardises bus routes. The 93 connects North Cheam with Putney Bridge station and I have taken it literally hundreds of times. So what happens at a cognitive level is that I search and acquire the information I need. ’93′ was that information, but ’85′, ’14′ or ’39′ would have done just as well.

You look for a number, because the number is the proxy symbol for a complex piece of information, namely the bus route, which looks silly on the front of the bus. I rarely look at where the bus is going, and when I do it’s typically a clear day were I have lots of time on my hands.

On Friday, I was cold, wet, my son was grizzly, and I stopped at ’93′- to the automatic system that number meant fastest way home and I got on the bus, swiped my card for £1.35 and expected to be taken to the bottom of Putney high street, which would leave us with a two minute walk home.

After one stop, however, there was a machine announcement: ‘this bus terminates here’.    The bus had taken an un-typical route and stopped about three stops before its usual terminus, approximately 3/4 of a mile away. A fellow passenger got to the driver before me to complain, asking that he should at least scribble a note or give a ticket so she could complete her journey for free, rather than having to pay twice for the same journey. I had the same request, so backed her up but the driver argued: “Did you not see, before you got on the bus, where the bus was going?”

“Did you not see, before you got on the bus, where the bus was going?”

I loved that question because although it sounds fair and innocent, it highlights that there may be a lack of insight into how automatic most passenger behaviour in London has become. Perhaps Oyster cards are partly the cause of this (and the reason you have to pay twice if you take two busses instead of one to complete the same journey) but more generally we tend to take in as little information as possible while making transport decisions.

My fellow passenger responded: “Are you joking or what? I don’t want to pay twice for the same journey.” 

My answer of course, was ‘no’, and my fellow passenger said the same. We both just saw 93 and assumed it was following the normal route. The driver was pleasant enough, but his attitude was that if we didn’t read where the bus was going, it was our own fault. My fellow passenger responded: “Are you joking or what? I don’t want to pay twice for the same journey.”

He said the policy of giving discretionary fares only applies when the bus doesn’t say where it is going at the point at which you board the bus(in this case it said Putney Station, which could also easily be misread where you expect to see Putney Bridge). In the wet heat of the moment, I asked for his bus number (#17) and said, calmly, that I would report this incident because I felt he had discretion he wasn’t willing to use.

(Also, why do they stop early in any case? Is it just for driver convenience at getting on and off, or are the deeper reasons why buses don’t complete their routes?)

It is just wrong to assume that passengers are conscious information processors. Most of the time we are goal-seeking on auto-pilot, and will make many ‘mistakes’ as a result. 

Thankfully, by the time this conversation ended, the worst of the rain had subsided and I pushed the pram home for ten minutes, enduring little more than a soggy sock, my son fell asleep as planned…and soon all was well.

It was a minor incident, but interesting for what it indicates about the assumptions behind transport policy. Thinking through related assumptions may have implications for the massive campaign to improve transport behaviour during and after the Olympics.

It is just wrong to assume that passengers are conscious information processors. Most of the time we are goal-seeking on auto-pilot, and will make many ‘mistakes’ as a result. (Indeed, ‘expect error’ was one of the main pieces of advice from Thaler and Sunstein in Nudge).

My practical point is that lots of passengers rightly make the assumption that the bus is following its normal route. So when the bus is going less than all the way, it is incumbent on TFL to make that irregularity clearer than merely having it on the front of the bus(which few will read). This might mean a notice by the oyster card machine before you swipe, or, perhaps better, a dotted line around the bus number to indicate that although it is the same bus, it is not going ‘all the way’.

 

 

 


Comments

  • E Gecius

    Good point. Similar principles apply thinking about many more daily decisions that we make, such as buying food. It takes quite a lot of knowledge and effortful computational power to make the righ buying decisions that will make sure your diet is well-balanced and includes all necessary nutrients. Merely providing information does not do as much as one would expect from a homus economicus.

  • Grs3101

    Maybe its an age thing but i remember the 403 and 408 always stopping at different places. There were different loops at the end. Same with trains. Lots of examples where we need to be aware but programme behaviour takes over.
    On transport the biggest example of trance like behaviour is at airports. Because its unfamiliar we herd and follow others. But then again the airports don’t help. Calm, pastel colours, limited signage, etc don’t help us to recognise we have moved from check in to passport control to security.  Perhaps this is behind the apparent frustration of the authorities when we don’t remove our liquids, dont remove our laptops, boots, etc before security. There is no excuse though when they resort to teams of hecklers shouting in louder louder voices at us “Guys” in the queue.