Street Light Effect

We are creatures of habit. The book The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz explains that we develop rules of thumb to lighten the cognitive load of making decisions. Habits, too, lighten the cognitive load, as they provide the reassurance that the way we have always thought about doing things is somehow the best.

Have you heard of the old joke about a drunk that lost his keys and looking for them under the light?

A police officer sees a drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him the goal of his quest. The inebriate replies that he is looking for his car keys, and the officer helps for a few minutes without success then he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost.

“No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Why look here?” asks the surprised and irritated officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds with aplomb.

“Did You Lose the Keys Here?” “No, But the Light Is Much Better Here”, The Quote Investigator, accessed 31 July 2021

This joke describes a way of thinking that is also called the Street Light Effect. It describes the way in which we tend to look for solutions where it is convenient, rather than where they are likely to be found. Habits are figuratively well lit, they feel safe and familiar and we feel comfortable with them. The street light shines on the familiar, even though the solution is not to be found there.

So too, road duplications are a practice from an old and familiar paradigm with which TCCS feels comfortable. They do not need to rethink things or do things differently. It is part of a pattern of behaviour which goes back decades. Another road duplication feels natural, even though it does nothing to improve the cycling network. A road network is not a product of a cycling network thinking.

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