Joy of Driving

The often overlooked fact about transportation choices, from Mobility Lab.

An excerpt.

I’ll admit it: I drove a U-haul cargo van last week and I liked it.

It was stressful maneuvering the van through the city (I dented another car and got a ticket in two separate instances), but when we drove down Virginian highways, it was so much fun. The speed, the scenery, and jamming out to the radio with my best friend in the passenger seat – it was awesome.

But I work at Mobility Lab, an organization whose mission is, quite simply, to reduce the amount of cars on the road. How could I enjoy driving?

We know that people often choose driving over more convenient modes for irrational reasons, like perceiving that public transportation will take more time or be more expensive than it actually is. But that’s only part of it: people might choose driving simply because they like driving, even if they know it’s more expensive and slower than other options.

Researchers have split the motives for driving into three camps: instrumental, affective, and symbolic.

Instrumental  is when driving makes more logistic sense or is a habit, like it is for people living in car-centric suburbs. (Since most of the talk about transportation behavior assumes people are rational actors whose sole motivation is practicality, we’re going to focus on the other two motives.)

Affective  is the feeling of driving itself – the speed, the “freedom,” and the comfort of being in a car. Symbolic is pretty obvious: your car is a status symbol that says something about you to the world.

“[T]he car is much more than a means of transport,” Dutch researcher Linda Steg writes. “The way people talk about their cars, and the ways cars are advertised makes it perfectly clear that the car fulfills many of such symbolic and affective functions.”

Steg and her team at the University of Groningen surveyed car commuters in Rotterdam to find out how much of driving was motivated by feeling and status, not practicality. It’s a lot, it turns out. “People more often commute by car when they judge its symbolic and affective functions more favorably,” Steg writes. “Even commuter traffic, which may be considered highly functional, is most strongly-related to non-instrumental motives.”

Interestingly, Steg found that men are more strongly motivated by feeling and status in their decision to drive than women are. (Perhaps this explains why men own luxury sports cars in much higher rates than women.)

Steg isn’t the only researcher in this space, however. A study from the journal Innovation found that people who enjoy driving recreationally – like on a road trip – are also subconsciously motivated to drive for non-recreation trips because of the intrinsic joy of driving. This causes “excess travel,” which is either driving for longer distances or driving when it’s a bad modal choice.

Retrieved July 9, 2018 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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