Two Paper Sessions at 2017 RGS/IBG conference

I am co-organising two paper sessions at the upcoming Annual International Conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, which will be held 29 August-1 September in London.

Everyday Mobilities and Climatic Events

Convenors: Anna Plyushteva (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Nihan Akyelken (Oxford), & Tim Schwanen (Oxford)

Deadline: 7 February 2017

Weather and climate shape the everyday mobilities of people worldwide, in both mundane and increasingly disruptive ways. Transportation, on the other hand, is closely linked to climate in at least three ways: as a major contributor to climate change; as a sector progressively more vulnerable to its effects; and as a set of individual and institutional practices which have proven resistant to transformative change. We are interested in bringing together theoretical and empirical contributions which examine the ways in which climatic events play out in the everyday mobilities of different groups and locales.

Topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Everyday mobilities and vulnerability to climatic events;
  • The role of gender, life course and household dynamics in climate and everyday mobility;
  • Social, spatial and environmental inequalities in transport and climate change vulnerability;
  • Examples of transport policies which address the social implications of climatic events for everyday mobility.

We are especially interested in papers which take a comparative approach, and/or focus on the global South.


Exploring the socio-spatialities of urban goods mobility

Convenors: Debbie Hopkins (Oxford) & Tim Schwanen (Oxford)

Deadline: 6 February 2017

As centres of production and consumption, cities rely heavily on the mobility of freight for the provision of goods and services to residents, visitors, firms and organisations. Volumes of freight mobility are increasing and courier, express and parcel (CEP) services are growing rapidly with ongoing urbanisation and changes in consumption and shopping habits and delivery structures. Further change can be expected in light of the ongoing restructuring of logistics and supply chains and the rise of the smart city and vehicle automation. Yet the parcels, distribution centres, vehicles and pipelines that make up the systems of freight delivery often remain invisible in geographical studies of transport and mobilities. Similarly, policies to reduce the negative impacts of road freight transport are seldom focused at the city scale, and urban mobility is rarely prioritised in urban planning. In this session, we seek to address these gaps, through in-depth explorations of the social-spatialities of urban goods mobility.

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to:

  • Innovations in urban freight and logistics — e.g., urban consolidation centres, drone delivery, electric and autonomous vehicles, cargo-bikes;
  • Freight and logistics in the ‘smart city’;
  • The political economy of urban goods mobility;
  • Geographies of new business models for CEP services in cities; and
  • The lived experience of freight mobilities.

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.

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.

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.

Peak car travel?

A topic that is currently attracting considerable attention in transport studies is the slowing down or even decline in the growth of car use across the Global North. The car evidently remains the the dominant mode of transport for everyday activities, but among young adults – and especially young men – holding a driver’s license, car ownership and the per capita distance by car have been decreasing since 1990 or thereabout. This trend has been attributed to a range of factors (see, for instance, Newman and Kenworthy 2012):

  • a revival of public transport in urban areas
  • a slowing down of the pace of urban sprawl
  • (re)emerging cultures of urbanism, implying among others that more younger adults than before remain in the city rather than relocate to the suburbs
  • population ageing
  • the rise in fuel prices since 2000
  • the economic crisis followng the 2007/07 credit crunch
  • the waning influence of the car industry and lobby on public attitudes towards transport
  • possibility that growing number of car users now spend so much time in their cars  that they are unwilling to drive even more

It is beyond doubt that automobility — the practices, institutions and landscapes centred on the private car — is changing in countries like the UK, Germany, Japan and even the USA. But it is far too early to read the end of the car’s dominance into these developments. For one, a stabilising of the growth in car use and ownership is just that: it does not mean that as yet there are fewer people who are actually using or owning a car. And it remains to be seen what the future brings: it is not unlikely that the growth of car use and car ownership picks up again in the near future, for instance when the capitalist economies of the Global North enter a new growth cycle.

More significant, however, is that automobility has gone global over the past decades. At the global scale automobility continues to expand rapidly — think of the rapid growth in China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. We could therefore say that the global system of automobility is in great ‘health’, however undesirable that is from the point of view of environmental degradation, CO2 emissions and social justice. Peak car travel in the Global North is a significant development at the national level but it is also dwarfed at the global level by the developments in the Global South. A narrow focus on the developments in car use in the Global North is therefore a variant of western-centric thinking.

One might argue that the developments in the Global North are still significant as they are countries like Japan or Germany are the front runners and that the patters observed there will eventually be replicated in places that now experience rapid growth in car use. This argument, however, is developmentalist: it assumes that there is a more or less universal development trajectory that all countries will ultimately follow — a form of thinking that is not only Western-centric (as it positions Europe, the USA and Japan as leading by example) but also sidelines the role of spatial multiplicity (see Doreen Massey’s book For Space for further elaboration of this argument).

Peak car travel is a significant development but it must be placed in perspective: it is ultimately a local phenomenon that hardly dampens the global growth of car use. This means that transport’s contribution to global warming remains enormous and that there is no time for complacency: it remains absolutely critical that transport planners and professionals think more seriously and creatively about how step changes away from automobility can be realised. Conventional policies (investment in new public transport infrastructure, urban compaction, mobility management, road pricing) may have facilitated peak car travel in the Global North — though their effects should not be exaggerated as these policies’ public acceptability is partly a result of the same cultural, social and demographic changes that made peak car travel possible — but they appear quite inadequate at fundamentally reducing the growth of automobility across the Global South.

Thinking Climate Change Mitigation in Transport

A few weeks ago the special section of Journal of Transport Geography that David Banister, Jillian Anable and myself guest edited has been published. This special section introduces a range of theoretical approaches that can help (transport) scholars to better understand climate change mitigation and reduced use of carbon-intensive energy sources in transport. The general idea is that new understandings — and especially social science approaches — are needed alongside more mainstream transport studies perspectives emphasising the importance of green infrastructures and technologies and pricing measures, given that transport planning and practice has made little headway in reducing transport’s deep dependence on fossil fuels.

The approaches highlighted in the special section include: the sociotechnical transitions approach and multi-level perspective advanced by Frank Geels and others; theories of social practices a.k.a. practice theory; and behavioural economics. Each approach is introduced by one or a team of leading experts — Frank Geels, Matt Watson, and Paul Dolan & Robert Metcalfe, respectively — and its value and usefulness is then evaluated by a expert in the field of transport or mobility studies — Lorraine Whitmarsh, Thomas Birtchnell, and Erel Avineri. In this way each perspective is discussed from two sides and the views of both the protagonist and the transport/mobility scholar sympathetic to the approach.

The special section also contains the paper about rethinking travel habits I authored with David and Jillian (as discussed previously), and a commentary by John Urry. More details are available here.