The financial viability of public bicycle hiring schemes

At the Journal of Transport Geography we are currently preparing a special section on the spatial analysis of public bicycle hiring schemes. The section will be guest edited by Jonathan Corcoran at the University of Queensland, Australia and Teibei (Terry) Li at Griffith University, Australia and is due to be published later this year.

The section will make a useful contribution to the now burgeoning literature on bike sharing schemes in transport studies and geography. Many of the recent studies are fairly positive about the potential of these schemes to expand and help making urban transport more sustainable. But there are some more critical voices as well, and my attention was drawn to a recent piece by Matthew Christensen and Susan Shaheen — a leading researcher when it comes to the sharing of bikes and cars.

Their argument is that the financial future of many of urban bike sharing schemes are not as bright as some of the celebratory accounts of bike sharing suggest. This is partly because corporate sponsors may be quite interested in supporting schemes in the start up phase but less so in keeping established schemes running (as is currently happening in London). Furthermore, at the current time of financial austerity at the local level across large swaths of the Global North, the local state may not be very willing to keep bike sharing system with ailing finances afloat. On the other hand, there is the question whether local governments really have a choice: when push comes to shove, will they really withdraw support for schemes whose start up has attracted lots of attention in the (local) media? As often in transport governance, political discourse and reality may go their separate ways.

A series of risks can nonetheless be identified. If it turns out that ailing systems will indeed be kept running with public subsidy, we will see that local governments — keen to follow ‘best practice’ and set up their own bike sharing scheme — have locked themselves into (financially) supporting another public transport system in an era when extra funds for transprt policy are unlikely to become available (at least in the Global North). Given that public bicycle sharing system are often socially selective — they are often patronized much less by poorer households, migrants from non-western backgrounds, women — ethical questions regarding justice in the city will be raised as well.

Urban and suburban geographies of ageing

Call for papers for two papers sessions at the RGS/IBG Conference, sponsored by the Urban Geography Research Group and the Geography of Health Research Group.

Convenors

  • Bettina van Hoven (Cultural Geography Department; Faculty of Spatial Sciences; University of Groningen; The Netherlands)
  • Debbie Lager (Cultural Geography Department; Faculty of Spatial Sciences; University of Groningen; The Netherlands)
  • Chiara Negrini (School of Geography, Geology and the Environment; Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing; Kingston University; Kingston upon Thames)
  • Tim Schwanen (School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford)

We seek to organise two sessions to explore the relationships of older people and ageing with place, with a particular focus on urban and suburban environments. Up till now, research in the field of ageing and place has been dominated by social and environmental gerontologists. Recently, Schwanen et al. (2012) advocated a more ‘sustained engagement’ with ageing from geographers in order to draw attention to the different spatial configurations of old age and the socio-spatial inequalities in later life. These socio-spatial inequalities stem from a complex interplay of the social and material environment and the biological and psychological aspects of the ageing body (see e.g. Ziegler, 2012). Research on ageing in urban environments has highlighted the exclusionary processes to which older adults can be subjected, such as the obstacles for everyday mobility and the challenges of everyday life in deprived urban neighbourhoods (see e.g. Smith, 2009; Buffel, 2013). However, it has also been acknowledged that older people can make active and important contributions to their community and can make their (urban) neighbourhood and home into a place that evokes positive experiences and attachments.

Arguably, however, the vast majority of older people in the near future will age-in-place in suburban areas rather than live in densely populated urban centres. Whilst historically not developed for older people, suburban areas are now being (re)designed and (re)organised to meet the material and social needs of their older residents (e.g., through the implementation of integrated service areas – ISAs). Given the policy relevance of this trend, further research is needed with regard to how ageing-in-place in suburban neighbourhoods is experienced and what the socio-spatial implications of these environments are for its older population.

We encourage papers that investigate the multiple relationships between ageing and the urban and suburban environment, with particular attention to:

  • Intersections of age with gender, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation and other forms of social identification and exclusionary processes related to these intersections;
  • Theoretical advancement within the field of ‘geographies of ageing’;
  • Participatory methodologies and ethical considerations relating to this type of research;
  • Contributions of older people to their local community;
  • Meanings, experiences and emotions related to ageing-in-place; and
  • Planning processes that make cities and suburbs more age-friendly and the role of older people herein.

Abstracts (max. 200 words) should be submitted by 10th February 2014 to Chiara Negrini (c.negrini@kingston.ac.uk) and Debbie Lager (d.r.lager@rug.nl).

Happy New Year

Happy 2014! It has been a while since my last post, which is largely because I have been in Hong Kong for most of December to work on some joint research with Prof Donggen Wang on well-being and to attend two conferences. I gave a plenary during the 18th Conference of the Hong Kong Society for Transportation Studies on the insights that can be derived from Whitehead’s philosophy for the analysis of processes of change in transport (see picture).

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And on the day prior to the main conference I gave a keynote on how I believe activity analysis in transport studies should be reconfigured so that we can better understand how socio-technical innovations in urban transport (e.g. car sharing schemes or electric vehicles) change, develop and diffuse over time in particular places. I will probably discuss this work in a later post.

Apart from working and attending conferences, I have also had the opportunity to experience the fantastic city that is Hong Kong — a paradise for urban geographers interested in processes of urban expansion, growing sociospatial inequality and low carbon urban mobility. I visited Hong Kong in 1998, just after the hand-over, but the city has changed almost unrecognisably since: it has grown in terms of population size, ‘neoliberal’ urban (re)development projects are now much more common, social inequalities have increased markedly, and the city has become much more Chinese than it was in my memory. It has not, however, lost any of its positive energy. If anything, its vitality has only increased and easily surpasses that of Europe’s major cities. It is now truly a global city where East and West mingle in all kinds of innovative and inspiring ways!

Living in enclave cities: Towards mobility-based perspectives on urban segregation

Call for papers for a seminar in Utrecht, the Netherlands, 21-22 March 2014

Organisers: Ronald van Kempen (Utrecht University), Tim Schwanen (University of Oxford), Bart Wissink (City University Hong Kong)

We are inviting abstracts for contributions to the upcoming two-day expert workshop on “Living in Enclave Cities: Towards Mobility-Based Perspectives on Urban Segregation”. An exciting list of confirmed speakers can be found below, and we are looking to accept abstracts from some 10 additional speakers. Upon selection, participants are expected to submit an unpublished original full paper by 3 March 2014. There is no registration fee for the workshop and lunch and drinks will be provided but we are unable to reimburse expenses for travel and subsistence. Please send abstracts of 200-250 words to b.wissink@cityu.edu.hk no later than 3 November.

Topic

Urban spatial segregation has long been a core concern in urban studies research. Recently, it has received new impetus through the emergence of a new form of enclave urbanism with cities restructuring into patchworks of separate enclaves that are each of home to a selected group or activity. While premium enclaves are well connected by new privatised infrastructures, enclaves for the underprivileged are increasingly cut-off. ‘Enclave urbanism’ thus radicalises segregation. Critics stress that ‘enclave urbanism’ prevents social interaction. Well-off people can go about their daily life in premium enclaves without confrontations with others. While we agree with critical questions regarding the social effects of ‘enclave urbanism’, we also observe a strong bias in this argument: research one-sidedly focuses on the effects of residential segregation. It is assumed that segregated living will automatically have social effects. However, with increased ‘mobilities’, people easily can and will meet in other places – on-line and off-line – than residential neighbourhoods; and ‘outsiders’ might also visit urban amenities in residential enclaves.

Objective of the seminar

The usefulness of place-based perspectives on residential segregation seems to have diminished considerably in today’s world of mobilities, where living in the same neighbourhood does not necessarily imply face-to-face contact and living in different neighbourhoods does not prevent such contact. This seminar aims to develop a mobility-based perspective on segregation, bringing together world-class researchers on segregation, mobilities, transport, and infrastructure.

Nature of the event

This objective will be realised through a 2-day intensive seminar hosted by Utrecht University on 21-22 March 2014. The seminar will cover theoretical discussions on ‘enclave urbanism’, segregation and mobility, and empirical studies on these issues in global city-regions.

Confirmed participants

The confirmed participants include five keynote speakers: Susan K. Brown (UCI), Mei-Po Kwan (UIUC/Utrecht University), Karen Lucas (University of Leeds), John Urry (Lancaster University), and Donggen Wang (Hong Kong Baptist University).

Additionally, the following group of experts have confirmed their participation: Rowland Atkinson (University of York), Willem Boterman (University of Amsterdam), Martin Dijst (Utrecht University), John Dixon (Open University),  Maarten van Ham (TU Delft), Markus Hesse (University Luxembourg), Christa Hubers (TU Delft), Lucia Lo (University of York), Thomas Maloutas (Harokopio University), Sako Musterd (University of Amsterdam), Antonio Paez (McMaster University), Deborah Phillips (University of Oxford), Gill Valentine (University of Sheffield), Helen Wilson (University of Manchester), David Wong (George Mason University), and Ngai-ming Yip (City University Hong Kong).

The timeliness of A N Whitehead: uncertainty

I have just finalized a book chapter in which I have argued that the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead can inform contemporary transport research in a number of ways. That may come as a surprise, given that this mathematician-philosopher published his major philosophical works in the 1920s and 30s — a time when scholars were trying to come to terms with the consequences of Darwin’s work, Einstein’s theories and Quantum theory for how life and the world were to be re-imagined.

But it is not, for a variety of reasons. One of these is that Whitehead’s offers an interesting perspective on questions of indeterminacy and uncertainty with regard to how transport systems evolve over time. In a way his philosophy anticipated contemporary concerns over ‘deep uncertainties’ — situations in which analysts cannot enumerate which futures are more likely to unfold because they do not fully understand, or cannot agree on, the causal mechanisms and functional relationships between the phenomena or processes being studied. It is no secret that transport planning is ill-equipped to deal with such uncertainties and often ignores these — even most forms of scenario analysis used in transport research fail to come to terms with fundamental uncertainty about the nature of causal mechanisms. Relatively recently, however, Walker and colleagues have begun to tailor and apply their adaptive policy making approach to transport planning.

This is not the place to fully review this approach. Suffice it to say that Walker c.s. build a range of steps and practices in the policy development process in which policy-makers have to appreciate vulnerabilities — factors that may complicate or compromise a policy’s success. Some of these can be anticipated (certain vulnerabilities) and other cannot be anticipated (uncertain vulnerabilities). A central idea of the approach is that policy-makers hedge themselves to the effects of those uncertainties and monitor whether some form of adaptation of the original policy is required.

Walker et al.’s approach has many strengths, and it would be great to see it applied in transport planning practice. But perhaps its central premises are also are also a weakness. For the approach assumes first of all that uncertainty over the nature of causal mechanisms will be reduced over time as event unfold and second that, as things will become clearer and more information becomes available, policy-makers can respond to those and adapt policy action if and when needed. But what if uncertainty is more profound? What if the nature of causality is such that it only can be understood with hindsight, when the tables have turned? In that case adaptation can only be reactive rather than proactive.

It might be argued that situations like these resemble Taleb’s black swans but they may occur more often and with (much) more limited ramifications. It seems to me that Whitehead’s philosophy offers one way to think about these situations. Now, his philosophy is notoriously difficult and technical, and I won’t be able to do any justice to it here. Readers would need to turn to Process or Reality or alternative the Adventures of Ideas.

Let me therefore say this: According to Whitehead’s philosophy the world consists completely of events, and these can be broken down in ever smaller events until one arrives at the smallest possible ‘unit’ of event (which he called ‘actual occasion’). Crucially, how these actual occasions unfold can never be known fully in advance. There is always an immanent possibility that something new or unexpected will happen, however dim this possibility may be. Indeterminacy can never be ruled out completely. Uncertainty is not epistemic — a consequence of lack of knowledge — but ontological and hence an irreducible part of the world itself. The question then is under what circumstances it is more or less problematic to make (reasonable) assumptions about the nature of causal mechanisms.

The full consequences of a Whiteheadian perspective on uncertainty for transport research and planning obviously need much more thought, and I would expect that they will make many researchers profoundly uneasy. As an example consider the following: if one can never be fully sure about the character of causal mechanisms of (future) events, then all research into such matters is by definition speculative. There can be no — and arguably should not be any — separation between the practices of the researchers and research outcomes. Whilst ideas such as these may be rather common to many scholars with a background in science studies, I suspect they will be difficult to accept for quite a few transport researchers and planners.

Even so, I believe that transport planning and research can benefit immensely from sustained engagement with Whiteheadian perspectives on uncertainty and causality.

Popular papers on transport

Elsevier — the academic publisher which publishes the most and the most highly ranked journals in transport research — has published a list of transport papers from its journals that have been downloaded the most over the first half of 2013. The list is available here and all papers on it can be downloaded for free until 31st October 2013.

One obviously has to be careful with attributing significance to lists of download frequency, for they don’t tell much about the reasons for the downloads — papers may, for instance, have been used for university courses with many students, or one or two individuals may have downloaded a paper repeatedly whilst working on a particular piece of research. Still, the list contains a number of papers one would expect to be there (e.g. Chapman’s paper on #2 and Banister’s on #7), and this tells us something about popularity and influence.

I wish to highlight two aspects of the list.

First, and to my delight, the Journal of Transport Geography has two papers in the top 5 — the aforementioned review on climate change and transport by Chapman and the position paper by Hesse and Rodrigue on the transport geography of logistics and freight distribution.

Second, there are some differences between Elsevier’s transport journals with the highest impact factor and the ones that feature most prominently on the list of most downloaded articles. For there are comparatively few papers from Transportation Research Part B and Part A. The journal that dominates the list of most frequently downloaded papers and particularly its higher echelons is Transport Policy, the impact factor of which is with 1.51 significantly lower than for Transportation Research Part B (2.94) or Part A (2.75). At the same time, the list confirms the position of Transportation Research Part E (IF=2.27) as a leading journal in the field.

Nonetheless, as a whole the list goes to show that the use of a single metric to rank journals is quite problematic. Insofar as journals are to be ranked — the usefulness of which I, like many others, have strong doubts about — multiple indicators should be used. No single indicator is perfect but if a broad range of different indicators is employed, it is possible to create a richer and more realistic picture of the position of any given journal in the wider field than with the current narrow focus on journal impact factors.

Seminar on Social Theory, Transport and Energy Modelling

I will be speaking at one of the seminars organised by Rachel Aldred (University of Westminster) in the context of the ESRC-funded seminar series Modelling on the Move: Towards Transport System Transitions? on 13th September in London.

This particular event focuses on the relevance of social theory for transport and energy modelling, and my talk will offer reflections on the way transport researchers have conceptualised, understood and ‘done’ process and change over the past decades. It will problematise conventional ways in which change has been examined and argue that insights from ‘process philosophies’ can usefully inform standard practice in transport research. Process philosophies are a heterogeneous collection of philosophical thinking, including amongst others the work of authors as diverse as Henri Bergson, William James, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour and also Alfred North Whithead. IN the presentation and accompanying paper I will be drawing on the latter and show how his philosophical ideas and metaphysics can be used to think about change in a transport research context.

More information on the seminar, including an abstract of my talk, is available here, and registration for the seminar can be done here.

Slack time?

It has been a while since I last wrote on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I have been idle over the past two months. I have just returned from a visit to Chile and more specifically the University of Concepcion, where I have worked with our great host Juan-Antonio Carrasco as well as Karen Lucas and colleagues from Ghent and Concepcion on a collaborative project about the relationships between social exclusion and transport disadvantage in different geographical contexts. This three-year project — funded by the EU’s Marie Curie programme – has been under way for quite a while now, but our visit to Concepcion has been important in taking the project to a new level. I am really excited about the empirical work with data from Chile and Belgium (and the UK at a later stage) that we have set out to undertake.

Since June the Research Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand, in which the Universities of Sussex, Manchester and Oxford collaborate and which is funded by the UK research councils (primarily the EPSRC), has officially been in existence. We are currently in the starting-up phase and our website is still under construction. However, a summary of what the Centre is about is available here. As part of the Centre we are currently developing a project about what drives the emergence and success of low-energy initiatives in energy consumption reduction in urban transport, in which we will be comparing different city-regions in the UK: Greater London, Merseyside (Liverpool), Brighton and Hove, and Oxford. The idea of the project is to more fully integrate understandings of niche developments in sociotechical transitions thinking in innovation studies with thinking on the role of space and place from economic, urban and cultural geography.

There is no doubt I will report on the development of the project and the Centre on this blog in the (near) future!

Moving towards low carbon mobility

Moving Towards Low Carbon Mobility

A few weeks ago the Moving towards Low Carbon Mobility book edited by Moshe Givoni and David Banister came out. This is a book with chapters written by researchers of the Transport Studies Unit on different dimensions of low-carbon mobility, including technology, governance, infrastructure finance and pathways to a low-carbon future.

My contribution to the book consists of a chapter that reviews the latest thinking on socio-technical transitions in transport. It covers key theories — the multi-level perspective advanced by Frank Geels and others, social practice theories advocated by Elizabeth Shove and colleagues and the complex systems approach that John Urry has elaborated over the past decade — and seeks to outline how these strands of social science research can inform thinking about how to effectuate the step change towards low carbon transport.

I have also contributed to the final chapter of the book on how transport policy should be reconfigured for a low-carbon transport future to become a more realistic prospect. Here Moshe, David, James Macmillan and myself argue that what I tend to call the ‘logic of provision’ — the idea that providing alternative, better, speedier, more fashionable, etc infrastructure is the primary means for bring about change in the transport system — and prevailing understandings of travel time as a cost to be minimised are more of a hindrance to step change than that they will really help to bring a transition about. We also begin to outline a list of guiding principles for alternative transport policy but it must be said that this is only the beginning. Much more thought needs to go into answering the question what policies should look like if they are to help to bring about fundamental change in transport.

Rethinking behaviour change with Dewey

The annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers ended two weeks ago but I have not been able to write about my experiences during the conference so far. This post will address the presentation I gave at the conference, where I was part of a very interesting panel on what pragmatism — the philosophical movement that emerged from the work of RW Emerson, CS Peirce, W James and J Dewey around the turn of the 20th century in the USA — has to contribute to contemporary human geography. I gave a paper on how the work of Dewey (and James) on habits can be used to rethinking existing conceptualisations of behaviour change in academia and policy with regard to mobility, energy consumption and in other domains.

The thrust of my argument was that Dewey in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) offers a useful perspective on behaviour change that can function as a corrective for prevailing conceptualisations in behavioural economics, social and behavioural psychology, and thinking on habits in sociology and geography. This is because Dewey strikes, perhaps more successfully than other thinkers, a genuine balance between body and mind: he refrains from privileging one over the other and avoids the risk of making too much (economics, psychology) or too little (non-representational thinking in geography) of reflective thought.

More specifically, Human Nature and Conduct understands habits as forceful predispositions to act and interact with one’s environment, and not as actual behaviour. As such habits are socially constructed, ecological (they are not attributes of an individual but distributed across individual and environment) and generative. For Dewey repetition is not the essence of habits; what is important is that they propel individuals into action. The key distinction is not between habit and (reflective) thought, but between routine habits and intelligent habits. Both entail mechanism but in quite different ways. Routine habits reflect the often inert and maladapted mechanism of the ‘mere technician’; it amounts to ‘enslavement to old ruts’. In contrast, intelligent habits  amount to the mechanisms of the artist which are infused with thought and feeling and which afford mastery of emergent conditions; the archetypal example would be the piano virtuoso. The implications of this way of thinking are that  habit and reflective thought are non-exclusive of each other, and that thought itself is habitual.

Dewey also offers an interesting perspective on how habits and thought emerge. Discussing this is beyond the scope of this post but suffice to say that, on a Deweyian view, an always changing configuration of habits allow people to move through the situations of everyday life in a more or less unthinking manner. However, the working of those configurations can be disrupted by problems thrown up by the ‘on-flow’ of situations of which individuals as bundles of habit become part. Habits of movement , for instance, are impeded when suddenly confronted with a forked road. It is at such moments that, triggered by ‘impulse’ or instinctive and biologically driven action, emotions surge and reflective thought (as a function of mental habits) emerges in a person. So, as in recent perspectives in the life sciences, the philosophies of AN Whitehead and M Merleau-Ponty and contemporary social theories of affect, reflective thought is not primordial to action but a consequence of how individuals interact with their environment.

The point of reflective thought, for Dewey, is to transform (disrupted) action, impulse and emotions into a new course of action and so create a new meta-stable equilibrium between individual and his/her environment. This may imply that previously created habits need to be updated or revised. And for Dewey the role of reflective thought in habit change is crucial as it alone makes durable change possible. Impulse and emotion are crucially important to behaviour change but their surge wears off over time in ways that does not (always) happen with reflective thought. At the same time, Dewey was adamant that emotion and thought are continuous. They are not to be thought of in dualistic terms, but as mutually reinforcing: thought powered by feeling is likely to be more effective in bringing about change.

What does all of this mean for thinking about behaviour change with regard to mobility and energy consumption? I believe there are two key lessons here. One pertains to education — a topic on which Dewey has written extensively throughout his academic career and for which he is arguably most well known; the other to change of the environment which gets incorporated in habits.

Dewey was clear that changes to the ‘objective environment’ were the only way to influence habit formation through policy and governance. On the face of it, this reasoning appears to support such initiatives as New Urbanism or road pricing policies to trigger behaviour change in everyday mobility. However, a Deweyian perspective moves us beyond  this. It is not enough to increase densities, walkability and public transport accessibility in general; the challenge is to start from the situations of ongoing activity: what were people doing before taking a trip? where do they want to go? what/whom do they need to travel with? etcetera. This means that the lessons from activity-based approaches to passenger transport and time-geography need to be taken serious and to the extreme. The focus should really be on how each individual trip is embedded in the lived experience of everyday life and on all the problematisations (where problem is defined in the Deweyian sense outlined above) one may encounter along the way.

With regard to education, a Deweyian perspective foregrounds the importance of helping the younger generations — society’s future — to learn mental habits and habits of overt action that differ from ours. They, first of all, need to develop the skills to low-carbon mobility. So cycling training where children learn-by-doing how to navigate complex traffic situations should be a key part of primary education across the Global North: today’s practical skills are tomorrow’s mental habits. All generations — but especially the younger for whom mental habits are easier to change — should also be stimulated to develop new mental habits. Educating them about the ‘unfreedoms’ and socio-environmental costs of automobiles would be one part of this; another would be to learn them to resist to think in silo’s about energy use. This would hopefully prevent the pattern of what behavioural economists call mental accounting and that can be observed in many users of transport systems (myself included) who walk and cycle extensively to access everyday activities and hence consider themselves to be environmentally conscious but who also treat themselves to one or more long-distance trips by airplane for holiday or leisure purposes and so increase their emissions of greenhouse gases far beyond those of people who use the car much more often and only make short-distance holiday and leisure trips by surface modes of transport. Clearly, then, the forms of education that can be derived from a Deweyian perspective on habit and behaviour change are quite different from the social marketing and attitude oriented approaches that would result from a behavioural psychology account.

Exploring all details of Dewey’s account of habits is beyond this post, and the same applies to all the lessons for policy and governance. However, I hope to have made clear that a Deweyian vision can usually complement existing thinking on behaviour change. I am sure I will be writing more on this theme in the future.