Approaches to Time in Transport Studies

This week I have been to the wonderful Forge Network summer school in York organised by Greg Marsden and Elizabeth Shove on ‘Time, Travel and Everyday Life‘ and attended by young researchers in a range of disciplines (transport, geography, sociology, etc.) from the UK and a number of European countries.

I gave one of the talks, and mine was on different theoretical understandings of time in transport and mobilities research and how understandings of time can be used to change current transport research and planning practice. I used the works of Barbara Adam, David Harvey and Henry Lefebvre to highlight how time (a) is a multi-faceted construct intimately tied to space and matter, and (b) understood in very partial ways in mainstream transport research and practice.

With regard to the first point, I discussed Harvey’s distinction between absolute time (a Newtonian, linear and immovable grid), relative space-time (dependent on the frame of the observer as proposed by Einstein) and relational spacetime (emergent from the relations between entities as suggested by Leibniz, quantum mechanism and complexity theory, among others) and criticised Harvey’s idea that time is all three, arguing that (space)time is ultimately relational. I also discussed Lefebvre’s distinction between linear and cycles rhythms and times, whereby the former pertain to a man-made pure repitition as epitomised in clock-time and the latter to nature and the cosmos where each re-occurence differs from a previous manifestion. And I drew on Adam’s timescapes framework to argue that mainstream transport research and practice are deeply commited to her five ‘C’s. That is, in transport research, planning and practice time is commonly and continually:

a) constructed, through the privileging of clock time to the exclusion of almost any other form of time;

b) commodified and monetarised, among others through the widespread use of values of time;

c) compressed, primarily through the valorisation of acceleration (i.e. the assumption that travel time is a waste and disutility) in transport appraisal (cost-benefit analysis) and basically all micro-economic theory inflected thinking about transport;

d) colonising the future, among others because of the failure to reduce transport’s extreme dependence on oil and its contribution to anthropogenic climate change; and

e) considered something that must be controlled in that the different features of time (such as the duration, timing, etc. of travel time) must be shaped and steered in some way or another, and this perhaps best exemplified with the preoccupation in some circles of research and planning with the reliability and travel times and transport networks.

I do believe, however, that the deep commitment to Adam’s five ‘C’s and the privileging of absolute and linear understandings of time in mainstream transport research and planning are ultimately a barrier to making transport more environmentally sustainable and socially just and to more effective transport policies. As the privileging of these understandings is one of the factors that got us where we are at the present (i.e. transport as a major contributor to both carbon consumption and social inequalities), we — researchers and practitioners in transport, urban planning and cognate fields — need to reconsider how we ‘think’ time (and space) in relation to transport and travel behaviour. So, in the end my talk was a plea for (a) more sophistated understandings of time (and space) in transport research and planning, and (b) greater attention being paid to relational and cyclical understandings of time in connection to transport as these allow us to better understand how the users of transport systems act and respond to the situations they face whilst travelling. I sought to illustrate the latter point by contrasting mainstream transport studies of how travellers respond to travel time variability and my own research on this topic and on what arriving late at a destination is and means (as summarised here and here).

I do realise of course that talk about the nature of time (and space) and how it relates to transport & mobility is rather abstract and philosophical, and in many ways challenges common-sense understandings of how the world is. But those common-sense understandings are partly responsible for the non-sustainable nature of contemporary transport systems, and bringing the typically taken-for-granted understandings of time (and space) into focus and challenging them is one way in which social scientists can make a major contribution to transport policy and practice.

I would be very happy to share the slides of my talk with anyone who is interested. Just drop me an e-mail.

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