Notice any suspicious people while you were driving today?

By Bill Holloway

A recent study by researchers at the University of Surrey, England, finds that people traveling through urban areas by car have more extreme positive and negative perceptions of their surroundings and people in the area than those traveling by foot, with the views of transit riders and cyclists falling in between.

Previous social psychological research has found that people given small amounts, or “thin slices,” of information about something tend to have more extreme perceptions of both positive and negative attributes—bad seems worse, while good seems better. The recent study found that drivers, who move through space rapidly, rated a poorer area more negatively and a richer area more positively than transit riders, cyclists, or walkers, who travel more slowly. Similarly, drivers rated a group of young people in a park as more threatening than travelers using other modes.

The researchers also found that travel mode had a greater impact on negative than positive perceptions. They speculated this could be due to an evolutionary need to quickly identify potential threats.

The research has important implications for city staff and elected officials. Promoting alternatives to driving can help to build a shared sense of community and reduce the barriers between neighborhoods. A more pressing concern, however, may be the study’s implications for community policing in poorer neighborhoods. If regular patrols are conducted in cars, rather than by bicycle or on foot, officers may be more likely to view law-abiding citizens with suspicion. Foot or bicycle patrols could potentially improve relations between residents and police by giving police a more nuanced view of neighborhood activity and reducing the frequency of negative interactions with citizens.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.