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What If We Applied the Network Effect to Urban Living?

Feeling Great

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I’ve had a lot of time to think about human behavior the last few days. My car broke down in Deep Creek Lake, MD on Memorial Day. The experience drove home a couple of important lessons:

  • Lesson 1: Never buy a car that you cannot push by yourself.
  • Lesson 2: Lesson 1 does not seem to apply when you’re in the country.

The car literally drifted into the dead zone as I slowed for pedestrians crossing the road from the theater to the convenience store. The engine would kick over, but wouldn’t start. As soon as I hopped out of the car to push it off to the side, a Good Samaritan named Steve in the SUV behind me got out to help. So did the young man in the car behind him. “Hop in the car and steer,” they exclaimed!

The first thing I noticed? People helped! The second thing? No one honked. Huh?

There’s an incline into the theater’s parking lot, so the guys quickly learned just how heavy a Miata truly is. They’re small but built to last and corner like a bat out of hell. Translation: they weigh a lot more than you’d expect. After a quick break to catch their second wind, we managed to crest the rise and pull into the parking lot.

“Pop the hood and let’s see if it starts now,” said one. It did. We let the car idle while they tried to figure out what had happened. Steve called his friend, a retired cop from the area, to ask for a recommendation for the best garage around. (Frankly, finding any garage that could work on foreign cars this far out in the country would make me happy.) Then, he offered to follow me home to make sure I arrived safely. I declined. No need to take up any more of Steve’s time on a holiday.

The next day the car limped to Garrett Automotive. Steve saw me walking along the road afterward and offered a lift to wherever I needed to go. I didn’t actually need a ride, so we wound up chatting at the side of the road.

Steve actually lives in Baltimore and was in the Deep Creek area a few days to do some survey work for his company. We commented that in the Metro DC area (Baltimore included), people would not have stopped to help. As Steve noted, if they did, we’d look upon the Good Samaritan with suspicion.

Why is that?

I only have empirical data from which to work… but lots of it. I spent 15 years in the Midwest, much of that living near a town with only 200 residents. Since then, I’ve lived in LA, Boston, and Metro DC. I also have a very frugal attitude when it comes to cars. Buy the one you like. Take great care of it. Drive the car until it drops. I’m keeping the Miata regardless of what happens because she’s a joy to drive, generally runs really well, and still looks great. Besides, we’re only a few years from achieving ‘classic’ status.

Anyway, every decade or so, I start to have car trouble and wind up on the side of the road. I’ve been stranded in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and several times in the DC area. Not once has anyone stopped to offer help in an urban setting. Fortunately, I have always bought cars that were small enough that I could shove them to the side of the road using my own power.

As a young, independent, professional woman, it never bothered me to rely on myself in times of personal crisis. But this weekend gave me a different perspective. What do the country folk know that we city dwellers don’t? They’ve figured out how to use the network effect to their advantage within the community.

Just think of what would happen if the people in the Metro area pulled together and helped each other regardless of whether we knew the person we helped or not?  It would be enlightening—and transformational. With that cultural bent, we could address a lot of the ills we just sweep under the carpet now.

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So, I hope this gives you food for thought. The next time you see someone stranded along the side of the road (or obviously experiencing some other form of personal crisis) what will you do?

Oh, and maybe there’s another lesson here. Perhaps it’s time to think about getting a new car and stop beating on the Miata. Nah. That’s not possible. She’s got at least another 100,000 miles in her. Besides, my friends might not recognize me without her.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Marcia – Great story – and, always nice to hear about acts of kindness.

    As for the difference between urban and non-urban in your scenario, I believe it has to do with how people see non-victims acting. There are several studies where an obviously suffering individual on a busy urban street corner is ignored by dozens of people. Individuals tend to see what other people are doing in situations like this and their ‘social proof’ is that it’s ok to just keep walking. With more people in an urban setting, social proof seems to over rule an individual’s need to help others.

    Far fetches? 🙂

    dh

    June 21, 2013

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