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!

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.

On the Rational and the Emotional in Transport Analysis

Yesterday a PhD student posted a series of questions regarding the analysis of the choice of acquiring and using a car on the mailing list of the UTSG (universities’ transport studies group). He had spoken with experts in marketing and psychology who claimed (a) that this choice is both rational (travel utility – price, time, etc) and emotive (symbolism of a brand for an individual and their self image), and (b) that transport analysis — and more specifically analysis using discrete choice models — only considered the rational side of things, ignoring the emotive. With his post he wanted to canvass the views of transport academics on these matters, and asked three questions:

  1. Is (b) above true and discrete choice modelling deficient in the way it approaches matters such as ‘symbolism of a brand’ or ‘aversion to a mode’?
  2. If it isn’t, how does discrete choice modelling account for such things?
  3. Has any work actually quantified the % split between the ‘rational’ and the ’emotive’ when choosing to acquire and/or use a car.  Could this percentage vary by culture?

These are interesting questions and I couldn’t resist responding. This is (and edited version of) what I wrote:

I am afraid that the experts you have spoken to are not aware of recent developments in discrete choice modelling in transport studies. There is a growing number of empirical studies using discrete choice models to account for what you term ’emotive’ factors (more on this below). These studies tend to adopt one of the following approaches:

  1. Include measures of people’s attitudes, beliefs and values directly into the utility function — a good example of this line of work is provided by the work of Pat Mokhtarian at UC Davis. For an example of a study of vehicle choice, see her co-authored paper ‘What type of vehicle do people drive?‘ published in 2004 in Transportation Research A.
  2. Use a latent class model whereby people are endogenously classified into groups with similar preferences/attitudes as part of the choice model. I don’t have an example of this approach in the context of vehicle type choice at hand, but this approach is increasingly used (see e.g. Walker and Li’s 2007 paper ‘Latent lifestyle preferences and household location decisions‘ in Journal of Geographical Systems) and is directly applicable to decisions about what sort of vehicle people drive.

However, there is also a problem with the way the three questions are framed. There is a long history of dualistically opposing the ‘rational’ and the ’emotional’ in mainstream western thought, but evidence from a wide variety of sources suggests that this opposition is in itself very problematic: it is not possible to separate the two. In the neurosciences, for instance, it is now increasingly accepted that emotions are indispensable to good, or at least effective, decision-making — the work of Antonio Damasio is a key source here. In fact, one could argue that the opposition of the rational and the emotional is a somewhat curious particularity of the vagaries of mainstream western philosophy, and certainly not shared by all the mainstream philosophers of the past centuries. David Hume and some of the utilitarians, for instance, already acknowledged that the rational and the emotional were entangled in complex ways in (good) decision-making. These arguments imply that your third question is very problematic from a philosophical point of view — the question cannot be addressed in a meaningful way if one also wants to incorporate non-Western countries/cultures.

At the same time, there is much to say in favour of the criticisms articulated by the experts from marketing and psychology, but the key here is to distinguish between the ‘rational’ and the ‘instrumental’. In mainstream discrete choice modelling of travel behaviour, decisions regarding vehicle ownership, and so on, there has long been a tendency to privilege the instrumental aspects of behaviour — e.g. how can I get to X the quickest, at the lowest monetary costs and with the highest level of comfort? This one-sided focus on the instrumental has a long and complex genealogy and derives in part from theoretical considerations but also reflects data availability issues and the difficulty of constructing reliable measurements of the more-than-instrumental factors that mediate people’s decision-making.

The ‘expressive’ dimensions of behaviour and decisions about vehicle ownership have long been side-lined in transport modelling, and until fairly recently there has been little attention for the links between transport and identity (and symbolism) and for the links between transport/movement, sensory experience, affects and feelings. The most powerful work on those expressive dimensions can nonetheless be found outside the body of research drawing on discrete choice models; two strands of work would be particularly useful to consider:

  1. Research informed by thinking from behavioural psychology — see e.g. the work of Linda Steg (among others her 2005 paper ‘Car use: lust and must‘ in Transportation Research Part A)
  2. Research belonging to what John Urry and Mimi Sheller have called the ‘new mobilities paradigm’ — the best place to start here would be the work of Peter Merriman (his 2009 paper ‘Automobility and the geographies of the car‘ in Geography Compass provides an excellent introduction to this line of thinking)

Considering the more-than-instrumental is important in choice modelling; models that only consider the instrumental dimensions of individuals’ decision-making — e.g. travel time, travel cost, comfort, reliability — seem to systematically over-predict the extent to which people will change their behaviour or choices compared to what happens in the real world. The more-than-instrumental must be given much more attention if we want to move towards more sustainable transport systems.

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.

Independence in later life

In ths post I would like to plug an article on independence in later life by David Banister, Ann Bowling and myself that has recently been published in the ‘in press’ section of the journal Geoforum. In this article we interrogate independence — what it means to community dwelling older people and how they practice it.

The paper starts with a review of the conceptualisations of independence in the academic literature. We juxtapose individualist-liberal understandings that circulate through the medical realm and/or are inspired by the thinking of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill with non-modernist understandings in post-structuralist social theory. We then continue with an analysis of in-depth interviews with people aged 70 and over from across England (and Scotland).

The paper argues that independence is much more than not being dependent on others — next of kin, friends, neighbours, and so forth. But what exactly its meanings are, is difficult to ascertain. For these are fuzzy, fluid and shifting, and cannot be pinpointed or arrested through language. It is therefore important to also consider how independence is ‘done’, how it is practised. To this end, we draw on actor-network theory (among others) and argue that independence is an unstable outcome of attachments to, and dependencies on, bodies, technologies, infrastructures and so forth. The upshot of this is that dependence is primordial to independence: without dependencies no independence.

This has political import: It puts the positioning of independence in later life as natural or a necessary ingredient of successful or healthy ageing in a different light, and helps in resisting the widespread tendency of considering forms of dependency in later life as undesirable. Our point is of course not to celebrate dependencies as such. That would amount to making the same mistake as the naïve positioning of independence in later life as inherently good and desirable. That would also mean treating all dependencies as equal and being oblivious to the complex power asymmetries that mediate (and are constituted by) dependencies. The point is rather to criticise understandings of dependency in later life in terms of passivity, burden and undesirability — understandings that work to disadvantage older people (and others) who cannot act and behave in line with the (socially produced) ideal of independence.

In the paper we illustrate and elaborate our arguments with reference to everyday mobility — i.e. trips to places outside the house. We also elaborate an alternative conceptualisation of independence and independent mobility that, we feel, does more justice to the myriad dependencies that make possible independence and autonomy in relation to movement through space.

Further conceptual and empirical work remains to be done with regard to independence in later life, both in relation to out-of-home mobility and with regard to other domains of everyday life. I hope, however, that this paper helps people to use the term independence with more care and circumspection.

Social capital and mobility

Since one and a half week or so a student from the University of Concepcion in Chile, Diego Solsona, has been with us — my colleague Karen Lucas and myself — at the Transport Studies Unit. Diego will be with us for three months in the context of the project ‘Transport and Social Exclusion: New Directions and National Comparisons’ (Transendance), in which we collaborate with the University of Concepcion, Chile (Juan-Antonio Carrasco) and Ghent University, Belgium (Tijs Neutens) and which is financed by the Marie Curie International Research Exchange Scheme under the Seventh Framework Programme of the EU.

Diego is the first student to come to us and he is working on a literature review about the concept of social capital. He is currently focusing on the question how social capital is conceptualised, understood and defined across a range of disciplines, including geography, social, public health and urban studies. The idea behind this exercise is that the concept is used (and abused?) in a wide variety of ways, and that this has made the concept even more fuzzy and elusive — in much the same way as has happened with wellbeing. It may seem, then, that people are talking about one and the same thing but in practice are talking about a range of different things. This obviously has significant ramifications for researchers interested in mobilities and transport who want to understand who mobility is related to social capital. The overarching goal of the work Diego is currently undertaking, therefore, is to arrive to at:

  • A robust definition or set of definitions of social capital (which goes beyond the obvious ones propounded by Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam); and
  • A deeper understanding of, and a series of hypotheses regarding, how social capital is related to the everyday mobility of people across geographical space.

After just a week’s work we already see some interesting patterns in how the concept of social capital is used and developed within human geography. I am sure Diego’s work will result in many very interesting insights and I will report on these on this blog in due course.

Analysing leisure trips

Dick Ettema and myself have written a conceptual paper on leisure travel and activities that will shortly be published in Journal of Transport Geography. In the paper we contend that the conceptual and methodological approaches currently used to examine leisure travel are problematic in a number of ways — one of these being that the relational nature of leisure trips is not adequately taken into consideration. Yes, there is increasing attention for social relations and social networks in travel behaviour analysis but this, we argue, does not go far enough. What is more, the linking of information on a person’s social networks to indicators of his/her travel behaviour in econometric models is conceptually unsatisfactory: it fails to consider how (a) social networks are just one of the space and time specific sets of relations leisure trips are situated in, and (b) how social relations are both medium and outcome of leisure activities and associated trips. We argue that there are complex recursive relationships between leisure activities and trips on the one hand and social relations and ‘place’ on the other. We use the concept of place to capture the more comprehensive sets of relationalities (over and beyond social networks) — think, for instance, of affordances, affects, norms, identities and power — in which leisure activities need to be positioned. We also outline how various theoretical frameworks — such as theories of social practices (a.k.a. practice theory) from sociology and geography and self-determination theory from psychology — can help us to advance the study of leisure activities and trips within travel behaviour and mobility analysis.

The paper is available here.