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may still exert influence at later moments (e.g., during the day or during the life course) when physical proximity has been replaced by connectivity.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:

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).


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!

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.

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.

Does Slime Mould Help Us to Rethink Land-based Transport Networks?

Today I read a fascinating piece on the Guardian‘s website about a study conducted by Andrew Adamatzky. He and his colleagues have conducted a series of great experiments on slime mould and the way in which this one-celled organism grows and builds a network or system linking different food resources. Its relative simplicity in evolutionary terms notwithstanding, this organism is known to behave ‘smartly’ and build its networks more or less rationally.

Adamatzky and colleagues poured agar on a globe and cut out the seas and oceans, so that the agar configuration resembled Earth’s land masses. They also placed oat flakes on the positions of the world’s megacities and other urban concentrations. They placed the slime mould on the flake representing Beijing and then observed how it built its network. Details are available here or here. They have previously used this methodology in a study of Australia’s major population concentrations and the road networks connecting them, available here.

A key finding of the study on the globe as a whole is that the slime mould’s network “approximates over 76% of the Silk Road routes and the Asian Highway routes”. The implication being that these historically emerged transport networks are quite rational — if not optimal — in terms of their structure. Indeed, Adamatzky writes that his research and findings “will help to design future transcontinental pathways”.

For a long time I have been fascinating by the idea of optimality in transport networks and the specific way in which optimal travel behaviour has been defined in travel behaviour studies (i.e. either in terms of minimising travel times or in terms of the optimisation of the ‘costs’ of travel and the ‘benefits’ to be reaped at the destination). So I very much welcome work such as Adamatzky’s because it sheds new light on the ‘trick’ by neo-classical economists to transpose the principle of least effort from physics to human behaviour. Perhaps there is an evolutionary edge to this principle, which the neo-classical economists grasped intuitively but were unable to prove? There must be literature on addressing this question and I would grateful for any references! Anyway, I mention neo-classical economics here because this body of thought has had such a profound influence on the history of transport and travel behaviour modelling.

At the same time, I am rather sceptical about Adamatzki’s claim that slime mould behaviour can really help us understand the configuration of surface transport networks. For there is a big difference between slime moulds’ quest for food and transport-land use interactions. At least in Adamatzki’s oat flaked world, the location and size of food sources are given (as an inevitable if understandable consequence of his experimental set-up). Though I clearly am no expert on slime mould, I would think that its spatial behaviour is essentially responsive: it reacts to a given state of affairs. And this differs fundamentally from ‘real world’ developments: as decades of transport geography research tell us, urban developments and transport infrastructure development co-evolve. There is no given and static world of cities; their size and growth is very much a consequence of how they are positioned and articulated in major transport networks (not only land-based transport but also maritime and aviation networks, and increasingly internet backbone networks).

So, to really help us understand the evolution of land-based transport networks, Adamatzki should re-design his experiment and add flakes at nodes in the networks built by the slime mould (and a set of rules would need to be deviced regarding how much the extra flakes would need to be added, although deriving those rules would be a less than straightforward task!). In this way feedback effects and positive reinforcement and ultimately the co-evolution of urban development and transport networks could be mimicked.

My hunch is that the slime mould’s networks would develop rather differently if that co-evolution were taken into account.