Messing with modal mindsets and travel brains

It strikes me that a lot of human behaviour involves adopting a default mindset for particular activities. For example, I notice people attending a regular meeting tend to sit in the same chair, and assume the same mindset for that meeting. So I often make a point of sitting in a different seat each meeting, just to notice how that changes up the vibe of the group, usually for the better because it creates some new perspectives by shaking people out of their mindset. I’ve done that when chairing the meetings – it does freak some people out a bit that the chair is not always sitting in the same chair…

So,  I reckon people adopt default mindsets when using different modes of travel too. I call them travel brains – there’s the car brain, the cycling brain, the transit brain and the walking brain. Of course, as my brother often says thinking he’s funny, “one should never make sweeping generalisations”. Even so, I’m going to – here’s a slightly light-hearted view of how I reckon these brains behave:



This brain is usually pretty mean spirited, frustrated, and feels entitled to the road. It says “my purpose in life at this moment is to get to my destination as quickly as possible, and I am entitled to do that even if I push the edge of the law. And woe betide anyone who does something that might occupy my space or slow me down.” It is also a devotee of the old saying “never give a sucker an even break”.

So the car brain usually likes to speed as quickly as it can, and feels entitled to do the speed limit and gets frustrated by anyone who doesn’t.  Its sense of entitlement says “don’t try to push in to my space in the queue in this lane”,  “don’t merge into that space, it’s mine” etc. In Australia, the car brain gets especially annoyed when people on bikes have the temerity to take up their lane and go slowly. It thinks “it’s as though they think they own the road, damn cyclists”, with the subtext that it is actually my lane because roads belong to cars.

The car brain sees the car as a safe cocoon that means you can be rude to people outside it, and behave in ways you would never do face to face with strangers. Like make rude gestures or swear loudly as you speed past. And even better, cars have a horn, so you can loudly express your displeasure at someone else’s stupity. We are all very good at using them expressively too. A “toot, toot” is usually a greeting or warning, but an extended blast usually means something like (the polite version, anyway) “watch what you are going, you idiot” or “get out of my way, fool”. My theory is that although horns are often used under the guise of preventing collisions, in real danger situations you don’t get time to use them as you are too busy avoiding danger; so really they are used when you have readily avoided a possible danger and you just want to to let the other party involved that it was all their fault and you were in the right.

The cocoon aspect of the car brain also  treats the space inside the car as an extension of a room in your house. Which room depends on what you are doing – the lounge room if you’re listening to music in air conditioned comfort, the kitchen if you are eating or drinking, the bathroom if you are putting your makeup on or checking your hair in the mirror etc….

The car brain has occasional outbreaks of niceness, letting others onto the road, and waving to one another, but more often it is expressed as a mild frown of frustration at not being where you want to be because of the other fools on the road; or of resignation to your lot, being forced to suffer all these other people in cars who stop you getting to your destination as quickly as you could if you had the road to yourself.



This brain has stages. The pre-trip stage is about anxiety – will I get to the stop in time to catch the 7.22? Will it be early, or late, or even worse, not show up? What if I don’t get a seat? So a lot of nervous energy characterises this stage of this brain.

Once on board, you enter stage two of the transit brain. This is more relaxed, particularly if you did get a seat. You travel in companiable silence with your fellow commuters, look at your smart phone, listen to music, read a book or just gaze out the window, knowing someone else is driving and all you have to do is kill time till you get off. Mind you, this stage is also prone to petty meanness too, if someone near you doesn’t smell in a way you find acceptable, or talks too much or too loudly, or someone puts their bag on the seat next to them presumably because they want a full seat to themselves. The seasoned commuter can also get annoyed that someone is actually paying cash for their ticket or asks the driver for advice. “Get a travel card and do us all a favour” – familiarity breeds contempt!

Stage three involves a “switch into action” because you are getting to your stop and it’s all systems go to get off and get to your destination. 

The transit brain is, though, often relatively polite and considerate of fellow travellers. People often allow others to get on or off ahead of them, offer their seat to others, and  thank the bus driver as they get off. And most of the time, the transit brain travels in amiable silence with its fellow commuters.



This is the nicest brain of all. Probably because, first of all, those involved are getting some exercise and that releases endorphins that make us feel good. It’s also because you are out there enjoying the world at your own pace, and doing something that our particular species of animal is designed to do.

The walking brain is seldom aggressive, and more likely to be very polite when avoiding potential conflict points with other walkers. When mixing with other modes, though, it can be a little unpredictable and prone to scurrying across roads and bike paths that suit the walker’s intent. Like wandering across a road when the walk signs red, crossing among traffic mid street, or meandering along bike paths without being aware of bikes.

The typical demeanour of the walking brain is relaxed, purposeful and, mostly, polite. Walkers seem to smile a lot and often greet each other. They often walk in couples or groups so they talk while they walk. It’s a form of herding attractive to the social animal we are, although the single minded exercise walker tends to have more of a “forced march” look about them.


This brain differs depending on how advanced a city is in its cycling development. In Australian cities, it often switches between the car brain and walking brain. Particularly for people new at it, the bike brain thinks like the car brain sometimes on roads, weaving through traffic to get to it’s destination quickly, although it also has some anxiety because of feeling unsafe at being around fast moving big machines on roads. This brain can sometimes be a little aggressive too, if it feels a car or walker is acting in a way that doesn’t accord with the law or its version of who is entitled to the space it wants.

But the bicycle brain sometimes thinks like a walking brain, because it thinks sometimes it can slip through red lights when it’s safe to do so, and jump onto footpaths to avoid traffic on roads. People riding bikes often do it as a group activity like walkers too.

In more advanced cycling cities in Europe, the bike brain closely resembles the walking brain.

And so to summarise:

There you have them. If we could all take our walking brain for all travel, the world might be a more enjoyable place.  And that is another good reason why desiging our commutinies for walking as the first priority makes sense!

Greg Vann

March 2015

PS: A small prize is on offer for anyone picking the four cities where the pictures above are taken.


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  1. Andrew says:

    My only comment about ‘Car Brain’ is this …

    Have you ever noticed that everyone who drives faster than you is a crazy hoon, and everyone who drives slower than you is a doddery old pensioner who should get off the road?

    As you say, it’s only when I’m in my car that I think like that!

  2. otto K says:

    And there are those who drive Priuses … who drive with their heart and not brain.