CFP AAG 2017: Advances in Analyzing Contextual Effects on Behavior, Practice and Experience

2017 AAG Annual Meeting, Boston (5-9 April, 2017)

Organizers: Mei-Po Kwan (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) & Tim Schwanen (University of Oxford)

Much of geographic and social science research is concerned with the influence of various contextual factors on human behavior, practice, and experience. Widely understood as the neighborhood effect in urban and health research, contextual influences on people’s behavior and experience were often analyzed using arbitrary and static enumeration units (e.g., census tracts or post-code areas), which may deviate significantly from the “true causally relevant “ geographic contexts and lack sufficient consideration of past contexts.

The spatial dimension of this problem has been recognized and recently articulated as the uncertain geographic context problem (UGCoP): the problem that findings about the effects of area-based attributes (e.g., neighborhood walkability, access to health food outlets, or social deprivation) may be affected by how contextual units (e.g., neighborhoods) are geographically delineated and the extent to which these areal units deviate from the “true causally relevant” geographic context at a given moment ( It is a significant methodological problem because it means that analytical results can be different for different delineations of contextual units (e.g., census tract, circular buffers, network-based buffers, or perceived neighborhood) even if everything else is the same.

There is also a temporal dimension to the problem of contextual causation: contexts from earlier times may still exert influence at later moments (e.g., during the day or during the life course) when physical proximity has been replaced by connectivity. Such relational effects have been described in many different ways (e.g., historical dependence, spill-over or life-course effects), but they remain poorly understood and their evaluation presents major methodological challenges. It is difficult to identify which, when, where and how past context(s) matters. Spatially uncertain contextual effects are mediated and often amplified by temporal uncertainties.

We seek to organize several sessions to further explore and deepen understanding of various spatiotemporal uncertainties in the analysis of contextual effects on human behavior, practice, and experience. We welcome papers from all geographic subfields and perspectives. Topics may include but are not limited to: (1) more accurate representation and assessment of the space-time configurations of environmental risk factors, individual daily mobility, and their interactions (e.g., capturing situational contingencies and real-time context with ecological momentary assessment; reconstructing the daily paths and activity spaces of individuals of different social groups using means like GPS, mixed methods, and qualitative GIS; and collecting and using high resolution space-time data of environmental influences and individual mobility); (2) examination of the differences between the UGCoP and the modifiable areal unit problem (MAUP); (3) exploration of means for mitigating the UGCoP; (4) conceptualizations of temporally extended and spatiotemporally uncertain contextual effects; (5) realistic representations of such effects using quantitative and mixed methods approaches; and (6) empirical examination of temporally extended as well as spatiotemporally uncertain contextual effects.

If you are interested in participating in the sessions, please send a short abstract of no more than 250 words to Mei-Po Kwan ( and Tim Schwanen ( by October 14, 2016. Please follow AAG guidelines for preparing and submitting abstracts at:

Brexit and Energy Efficiency

What seems to be a neck-and-neck race between ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ has been dominating the news in the UK for a few weeks new, and will no doubt continue to do so until the end of the month. Those who get tired of the narrowly framed arguments about immigration and the economy may be interested in an excellent piece on what leaving the EU might mean for energy efficiency policy in the UK. The text has been written by Jan Rosenow — senior researcher in our RCUK funded Centre on Innovation on Energy Demand and based at SPRU in the University of Sussex.

Geographies of Mobility Special Issue

A while ago the annual special issue of the Annals of the American Association of Geographers has been published, and this year’s edition is on the Geographies of Mobility and edited by Mei-Po Kwan and myself.

The special issue consists of 26 articles, plus an introductory piece by Mei-Po and myself, that seeks to bring together the multiple ways in which geographers examine the everyday mobilities of people. It consists of five thematic sections – conceptualizing and analysing mobility, inequalities of mobility, politics of mobility, decentering mobility, and qualifying abstraction. Empirically the focus is on mobility in various regions of the world, and not only in North America and Europe. The papers discuss issues as diverse as the everyday mobilities of young people, migrants and refugees, and sex workers; the relationships between citizenship and mobility; and the potential and pitfalls of big data for understanding mobility.

Struggling to understand objects

One of the most exciting developments in social theory and philosophy in recent years has been the articulation of object oriented ontologies, and a range of geographers (e.g. Katharine Meehan, James Ash) have been actively involved in this development. One of the most influential thinkers in this nascent body of work is Graham Harman, one of the leading Speculative Realists who has taken the phenomenological philosophies of Heidegger and Husserl into completely new directions, along the way adding elements from Latour, Whitehead and others.

Fascinated by Harman’s writings I have over the last two years been thinking about if and how his ideas can be used to enrich our thinking about everyday mobilities in cities. The (first) results of this have now been published in EJTIR. It is fair to say that working with Harman’s philosophy proved less straightforward than I had anticipated. This was not just because of high level of abstraction that characterises his thinking about objects compared to the particularities and context-specificity of everyday mobility that one encounters in empirical research. It was especially so because his work — or at least those parts I have engaged — have often little to say about change, dynamics and process. It would appear that geographers seeking to work with his ideas need to combine them with other philosophies or perspectives if they want to study mobilities, cities, landscape, nature or whatever it is they are interested in.

Cities and Transition towards Low Energy Mobility

The first paper from my research on Innovations in Urban Transport has recently been published in the open access journal Sustainability. It summarises some of the analyses on the emergence and early development of low energy innovations in the everyday mobility of two UK cities, Brighton and Oxford. In many ways these cities are ahead of the curve in transitioning towards urban mobility systems characterised by lower energy consumption and greater energy efficiency compared to systems that are strongly dominated by private car use. And the empirical analysis confirms that many innovations related to cycling, bus and rail transport, shared mobility and clean cars are developing in both cities.

The paper argues that geography matters to transition processes in various ways. Innovation trajectories with regard to low energy mobility are differentiated geographically: where Oxford has a stronger orientation towards electric mobility (hybrid buses, electric vehicle charging, a car club with electric vehicles), Brighton tends to stand out in its attempts to create a cycling friendly infrastructure and the rapid expansion of car clubs. But the analysis also shows that cities should not be seen as independent and discrete spatial units in which innovation processes unfold. This is because most of the financial resources for those innovations come from elsewhere, notably the national government but also the EU. Thus, like technology and expertise do (as the literature on policy mobilities suggests), the finance of innovations in low energy mobility ties cities into wider uneven and networked constellations that encompass cities, states and EU institutions.

From this perspective, the budget cuts that local authorities across the UK will be experiencing due to changes to national level policy are not good news: they are likely to threaten the much needed continuity in support — finance, expertise, officers’ social capital, etc. — for innovations in low energy mobility in the early stages of their development. Indeed, a discourse of localism cannot prevent that significant reductions in national funding for local transport are likely to slow down of the rate change towards lower energy consumption in everyday mobility in many UK cities.

Special issue ‘Geographies of the Urban Night’

Our guest edited special issue of Urban Studies on ‘Geographies of the Urban Night’ is now available online and in paper copy. Urban Studies have posted a nice blog post written by Ilse van Liempt and Phil Hadfield on the issue — it is available here: (you may have to scroll down to ‘Friday, 30 January 2015’)

The Table of Contents is available here:

First ‘Progress Report’ online

It has been far too long ago since I last posted a blog. But the last months have been very busy (of course, they all are, but this time …). Anyway, today is a good time to write again as the first of three ‘Progress Reports’ on the analysis of transport in geography has just been published online. I have been asked to write three of such reports for Progress in Human Geography, which is arguably the leading journal when it comes to documenting the latest developments in the discipline.

In this first review of recent work on transport in geography I argue that the resurgence of interest in geography that previous commentaries have identifies continues unabatedly, not least because transport is widely seen or constructed as critically important to economic regeneration, the reduction of global carbon emissions and energy consumption, and reducing obesity. What is more, and perhaps most distinctive of the latest work on transport in geography, many geographers who would not identify as specialists in transport or even mobilities are now examining transport in one way or another (albeit usually not as their main interest).

Has transport returned to the core of the discipline as it once — read: during the heydays of the Quantitative Revolution — was? I seriously doubt it, but it is undeniable that ‘transport’ is more significant than it has long since been. And (a substantial) part of that renewed elan is independent from Urry and Sheller’s ‘new mobilities paradigm‘ or the mobilities turn in geography and sociology. But that is a topic for a future post.

The Progress Report can be accessed here.

Do Bike Sharing Schemes Reduce Energy Consumption?

Even though they have been around for some 50 years, bike sharing schemes (BSSs) have in recent years witnessed a dramatic growth in cities in the UK, elsewhere in Europe, North America, East Asia and to some extent Latin America and Australia (for overview of the current spatial distribution, see and Recent schemes differ enormously in terms of size, governance and business models. Compare, for instance, Hangzhou‘s mammoth scheme which is initiated, provided and run by the local state with Oxford‘s recent BSS experiment with 30 bikes and 6 docking stations that has been initiated by the county council but provided and run by a private company.

Intuition would suggest that BSS help to reduce energy consumption in urban transport, but I don’t think we really know much about their energy implications, for various reasons. First, on top of the existing diversity in schemes, the growth in both the number of schemes and size of individual schemes means that the social practices in which shared bikes are enrolled and hence the energy implications are diversifying rapidly. This increases uncertainty about energy implications. Second, there is a lack of appropriate data. This claim may appear counterintuitive given that most 3G and 4G schemes are hailed for the unique data they generate. But these data suffer from similar limitations as many other ‘big data’ on transport in being extensive but also thin on actual content. They either show which bikes are docked at (many) specific moments at particular stations, or where in physical space a given bike is at particular times. At best, we can reconstruct high-resolution space-time trajectories of individual bikes, but learn little about how bikes become coupled to and enrolled in the space-time paths (time-geography) and activity/travel patterns (activity-based travel behaviour analysis) of individuals, or in social practices (practice theory). Neither do we currently know much about how the space-time trajectories of shared bikes are related to those of other, motorised modes of transport. Consequently, as far as I am aware, there is little or no robust evidence that BSS usage actually substitutes for more energy-intensive ways of moving around the city, or about the extent to which schemes generate new demand for mobility. The nascent, and often rather celebratory, academic literature on BSS usage tends to examine trip patterns in isolation from wider urban transport systems. What is known on substitution comes either from modelling studies, in which all kinds of often strong assumptions about modal choice and substitution are made, or from studies using questionnaires with general questions about mode use that often lack the required precision, validity and reliability.

That said, there are good reasons why BSSs might help reduce energy consumption. Not only are the embedded energy and greenhouse gas emissions likely to be much lower for a BSS than for a bus, light rail or car system of the same spatial extension (a life cycle analysis examining this conjecture would be useful!);  by reducing the ‘last mile’ problem of ‘egress’ transport from a public transport stop to one’s final destination, a BSS can – if integrated adequately into a multimodal transport system – increase the attractiveness of public transport for people who might otherwise be using a private vehicle. BSS usage in a city context also generates all kinds of indirect effects, which might even exceed direct modal substitution effects. Use of shared bikes for utilitarian trips, for instance by people commuting into London by train seeking to reach their final destination, may increase those people’s inclination to cycle in other situations, for instance around the home for non-work trips. Widespread use of shared bikes in cities may also increase skills and competency among a range of road users: cyclists may begin to feel more confident in using bikes in other contexts, including those where conditions (infrastructure, actions of other road users) are less conducive to cycling, and drivers of cars and goods vehicles become more attuned to sharing the road with cyclists, possibly to the extent that subconsciously reckoning with cycling at left turns and other risk traffic situations becomes second nature. This reasoning obviously is a variant of the more widely known ‘safety in numbers‘ argument.

The question of energy consumption should not only be looked at through a lens of instrumental rationality and effectiveness; issues of social justice should be considered as well. Few studies have so far examined the social distribution of benefits, but the limited work that is available suggests that white, middle-class men are most likely to regularly use a BSS (e.g. Goodman and Cheshire 2014). It would appear that BSSs do little to address inequalities in access to transport that exist in most cities. Perhaps this is not surprising if the proactive approach of many local governments regarding BSS is placed in a wider context of urban entrepreneurialism and government-led, pro-growth oriented gentrification and regeneration. Having a BSS in a city is then not merely about environmental or social sustainability (air quality, GHG emissions, redistribution) but – and perhaps primarily – about creating an environment capable of attracting the mobile capital of firms, tourists and prospective residents by offering a transport scheme that is both fast and congestion-free, and fashionable and fun. There are also opportunity costs: pouring public money into a BSS probably means that less funds are available for more socio-spatially inclusive initiatives that can promote cycling as an energy-efficient means of urban mobility, such as bike co-ops, maintenance workshops or cycling competency training. Community-led, grassroots initiatives should not be romanticised and many in UK cities are to some extent supported by councils, but it would appear that these activities have greater potential than BSSs to reach migrant communities, the elderly and the urban poor and thus to link energy efficiency aims with progressive public health and social agendas.

BSSs have potential to reduce energy consumption in urban transport, if adequately integrated in a wider multi-modal transport system and as long as they do not constitute the mainstay of cycling policy and local governments’ financial support for cycling. It is a cliché to say that more research is needed, but we really need to know much more about how BSS usage is shaping and shaped by social practices in the city, what its energy implications are, and how BSSs link in with pro-growth agendas that do little to redress the soaring inequalities in mobility, life chances and health in contemporary British cities.

New paper on well-being

Last week a paper I co-authored with Donggen Wang at Hong Kong Baptist University has appeared in the Annals of American Geographers. In this paper we argue that the Day Reconstruction Method devised by Daniel Kahneman and colleagues can be usefully linked to time-geography. One benefit of doing this is that what Mei-Po Kwan calls the Uncertain Geographical Context Problem (UGCoP) — spatiotemporal uncertainty in the actual areas or places that exert influence on the behaviour and experiences of individuals — that has characterised past studies of the geographical context on individuals’ subjectively experienced well-being. Another benefit is that the effect of spending time together with others (family members or friends) on one’s subjectively experienced well-being can be measured and examined more precisely.

Using data from Hong Kong we found that the influence of the actual location where people spend time for daily activities other than paid work is very limited (at least as far as we were able to measure characteristics of that location); the effect of where individuals live on their overall life satisfaction was much stronger. Further work is therefore required to better measure and examine how the places where people spend time affects their subjective experience of well-being.

We did find that doing things together with others makes them happier than doing the same things alone, and it also appears that the relationship between the duration of a daily activity and people’s subjectively experienced well-being depends on with how they have undertaken that activity. One implication of this finding is that the relationships between social capital and subjectively experienced well-being cannot be examined or understood properly without due attention for individuals’ everyday life — i.e. their actual time-use and space-time path.

A limited number of free copies of the article is now available from here.

International time-geography days

A while has past since the last post, and a lot has happened. This includes not least the annual conference of the Association of American Geographers in Tampa (FL) in April during which Mei-Po Kwan and myself convened seven inspiring sessions on the ‘Geographies of Mobility’, in which geographers from many different hues — i.e. working from a wide range of theoretical and methodological perspectives and focusing on a vast array of topics — come together and learned about each other’s work.

More recently, 14-16 May, I attended the International Time-Geography Days at Linköping University, organised by Torsten Hägerstrand’s former student, professor Kajsa Ellegård, and her former student, Elin Wihlborg. They did a wonderful job in organising an excellent conference, and took us to the rural area around Åsby parish where Hägerstrand conducted the fieldwork for his PhD thesis (together with his wife). Nowadays Åsby is a peaceful — if ageing and still shrinking — community. It is quite hard to imagine now that this is the setting in which Hägerstrand began to develop his ideas about budget-space, Rum, and the competition between projects for space and time as scarce resources, all of which are at the heart of time-geography. Life in the Åsby area must have been much harsher some 50-60 years ago. Obviously, the fact that we as casual visitors — tourists almost — were visiting the area on a very sunny day must have formatted my perceptions as well.

Tucked away in boxes and on shelves in a back office somewhere in Linköping University can Hägerstrand’s books and notes be found. It was here that I made the following picture:








In a way the quote from Goethe typed up by Hägerstrand sums up time-geography quite nicely: “Everything that comes into being searches for space and will last, thereby crowding out something else from its place and shortening its duration“. Competition for space and time — the essence of time-geography as envisaged by Hägerstrand in the 1970s — articulated at its best.