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.

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: http://urbanstudiesjnl.blogspot.nl/ (you may have to scroll down to ‘Friday, 30 January 2015’)

The Table of Contents is available here: http://usj.sagepub.com/content/52/3.toc

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  http://bikes.oobrien.com/global.php and  http://bike-sharing.blogspot.co.uk). 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.

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.

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.

JTRG call for papers: Transport and Logistics in China

As of 1st January I have taken over as editor-in-chief of Journal of Transport Geography (JTRG) — a job I have been looking forward to since last last summer.

I use this post to plug a call for papers for a special issue of JTRG on The Changing Landscapes of Transport and Logistics in China, which will be guest edited by Becky Loo and Donggen Wang. The blurb for the special issue reads as follows:

Since the Open Policy, the Chinese economy has undergone very remarkable growth and transformation. Rapid industrialization has intensified the demand for faster and more reliable circulation of goods. Moreover, the rapid income growth has spurred people’s demand for higher mobility, especially by aviation and automobiles. Accordingly, there have been a drastic expansion of transport infrastructure, the introduction of institutional reforms, and an unprecedented increase in transport externalities (such as carbon dioxide emissions and road traffic crashes). This Special Issue seeks to provide a broad overview of changes in the key aspects of transport (that is, including all modes of transport) and logistics in China, especially after 2000. Both modeling and analytical papers are welcome but the main issues tackled should be of national significance.

The tentative time schedule is:

  • Deadline for submission of abstracts: 15th March 2013
  • Invitations to submit full paper: 13th April 2013
  • Deadline for full paper: 1st October 2013
  • Publication: Summer/Autumn 2014

Abstracts should be submitted directly to  Becky Loo at bpyloo@hku.hk <mailto:bpyloo@hku.hk>.

 

At last …

… I am also entering the blogosphere. I want to use this space to share my thinking, writing and other activities and so bridge the inevitable time interval between what occupies me and the moment that my writings are finally published (or not).

I plan to write my (short) posts at least once a week, and hope you will return regularly. Do get in touch with questions, requests for papers, or whatever you think of this blog.