How Windshield Perspective Shapes the Way We See the World

Via Shane Phillips at Planetizen: A new study published in the Transportation Research Record confirms that windshield perspective is all-too real. Observing the world from behind the wheel, it turns out, has a powerful influence on our judgments about places and even people.

Drivers are exposed to less information about the places they travel through than walkers and bikers. Image: ## Food Truck Road Trip##
Driving cuts people off from information about their surroundings, unlike walking and biking. Image: ## Truck Road Trip##

Researchers found that people driving a car tend to view unfamiliar, less-affluent neighborhoods more negatively than people who were walking, biking or taking transit. In affluent neighborhoods, the inverse effect took hold, and drivers had a more positive view of the surrounding area than other people did.

The study found drivers, pedestrians, transit riders, and cyclists even perceived the same event — two children fighting over a piece of paper — differently, reports Eric Horowitz in the Pacific Standard:

The researchers found that participants who saw the video from the perspective of a car rated the actors higher on negative characteristics (threatening, unpleasant) than participants in the other three conditions. Participants who saw the video from the perspective of the pedestrian rated the actors higher on positive characteristics (considerate, well-educated) than those in the car condition.

The research team, from the University of Surrey, also found that, compared to people who aren’t driving, motorists tend to have more negative attitudes toward young people.

Researchers speculate that the gap in perception stems from the fact that drivers are exposed to less information than walkers, bikers, and transit riders. Because they are insulated from the environment around them, they are more likely to make snap judgements that confirm superficial biases.

Horowitz says the findings could help explain why people who live in cities for a while tend to remain in them. Meanwhile, Phillips sees it as a potential factor in negative attitudes toward cities among rural or suburban dwellers.

18 thoughts on How Windshield Perspective Shapes the Way We See the World

  1. Armoring oneself in three thousand pounds of steel and strapping one’s body into near immobility (as riding in a car requires) severs those in cars not only from human-scale interaction and empathy, but from connection/interaction with their community, with nature, and with even their own bodies. And that’s just the harm they do to themselves. The harm they do to the environment and the people in the neighborhoods they drive through is even greater.

  2. I’ll agree that the windshield perspective is a huge barrier to street reform – not the least of which is due to the media’s windshield perspective and how it distorts coverage on these issues -but can we stop with the moralizing? It’s just red meat for the echo chamber, so to speak, and shuts down dialogue with people who we need to get on our side.

  3. 99%+ of the time I am in my neighborhood I am on feet or on a bike. There have been a few times a friend has come to pick me up to go somewhere else and I see it behind the windows of the car. It does feel different. I can’t really put my finger on it, but it doesn’t feel the same.

  4. @ JamesR:
    I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think we’ve had nearly enough moralizing yet. Really, we’ve not even begun, as a society, except perhaps on this blog in particular.

    But I actually really like what they do because I don’t see that sort of moralizing anywhere else. This stuff reminds me that I’m not nuts, not completely alone. Cars totally f*cking suck and someone, everyone needs to say that so loud you can’t miss it. Only once that’s fully, properly, utterly said can we seek a middle ground.

  5. For every person crushed and killed by car drivers, over three times as many are poisoned and killed. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to these lethal cancer-causing poisons.

    I do not understand how anyone can be so viciously violent and depraved as to choose to be a car driver and launch a lethal cancer poison attack against innocent children. But I do know that I have zero tolerance of such lethal poison attacks against myself and my children.

    Here is a report by Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health about how car drivers poison and kill people in that city. Where is New York’s report?


  6. A big part of the perception while driving is how easily they can drive. The more open the space and typically faster they can drive, reflects positively. This is more typically found in expensive areas whereas poorer areas are more typically associated with narrow streets, cars parked haphazardly on sidewalks, in driveways, and double parked in the streets.

    Driving and walking are definitely different beasts, but regardless, some well placed trees help in either case, along with good lighting.

  7. This also explains why drivers do not care about pedestrians and bicyclists to the point they casually injure and kill them on a regular basis.

  8. Yes, blame it on the poor! Have you been to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York on park avenue? With limos double parked everywhere? Have you been to Greenwich village with its narrow streets and exorbitant real estate? The speed limit is the same in poor and rich areas by the way….

  9. It may very well be that drivers choose to drive because they do not want to be close to other humans. I suspect that the windshield perspective maybe a pre existing pathology amplified by the car usage.

  10. This is hardly surprising, that the medium should change how we view the world. No one would say that sitting on top of a mountain and enjoying the view is the same as seeing a five minute video of the view from a mountain. The former is sublime the second is boring. The choice of medium always creates distortions.

  11. This is just over the top and you need to get a grip on yourself. Maybe spending too much time of my time in the realpolitik of actually trying to get concrete pro-livable streets results accomplished has made me allergic to this keyboard warrior stuff I keep seeing in this threads.

  12. @JamesR – There will always be tension between reformists and radicals; the only question is how to handle that gracefully. Consider that our terrible, terrible extreme viewpoints (such as daring to mention some objective truth about the impacts of cars) make yours look more palatable to the parties you seek favor with.

    Also, don’t fool yourself that your approach is the only one with concrete results. Real progress tends to involve people inside and outside of the system.

  13. Great piece, though this summary could be taken a step further because the report has other crucial implications for urbanism that Angie and commenters have not mentioned.

    The findings can further law enforcement reformists’ efforts in and out of police departments to get officers out of patrol cars. NYPD and other urban police departments MUST get large proportions of their officers back out on foot on sidewalks and on bicycles in bike paths, to effectively build strong/positive relationships with and protect vulnerable community members, especially low-income and of color. If SB environmentalists and new urbanists can further build coalitions with those clamoring for safer neighborhoods then this movement will get stronger. I’d be happy to see this issue integrated into some of the content in pieces like this.

  14. I do know this. My daughter lived in Savannah GA for four years. In that time I visited her probably a cumulative amount of time of 4 months. I cycled, walked or ran nearly everywhere in Savannah. She and her husband would constantly warn me to “stay away” from this neighborhood or that and I ignored them and ran or rode wherever I pleased. The people of Savannah are beautiful everywhere I went. During my last visit, I had an early-morning “gun” for a marathon. It was still dark as my son-in-law drove me downtown doing his best to avoid the pre-race traffic. I sat in the back seat giving him directions that were spot on. “How did you know that.”

    “Because I know Savannah at street level. You only know it from the car.”

  15. christania’s “Rent a Bike Copenhagen” bikes are rolling across the city. The system, less than a year old, is funded by christania’s municipal government. It is currently only in one of christania’s 22 administrative districts. Although a 2nd generation system, there are 12 “Houses” in this district, each with around 40 bikes. The yearly subscription cost is the equivalent of $2 US, and allows the use of a bike for up to four hours at a time. In less than a year, there have been 6,000 subscriptions sold. There are larger 3rd generation systems in the world, which do not have a subscription to bike ratio as big as that.

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