Changing everyday mobilities in times of covid-19

The covid-19 pandemic and people’s everyday mobilities are closely interrelated. The latter play a key role in the spread of the virus, while they shape the former in profound, diverse and uncertain ways. At this early time in the pandemic’s global evolution, it would be hubristic to make any authoritative claims about what impacts on everyday mobilities the virus is having or might have.

One observation is nonetheless that, on balance, people have rapidly heeded and adapted to the calls for social distances and (partial) lock-downs, even in advanced liberal democracies where state apparatuses are ill equipped for strict policing of implementation and compliance. Now, this relatively rapid and wholesale adjustment is no doubt in part a consequence of the perceived urgency of the threat of transmission of and infection by the virus, topped up in countries like the UK by a discourse promulgated by the state that staying at home can protect the healthcare system and ‘save lives’. Yet, as far as I tell from my specific social and geographical situation, the rapid adaptation also reflects that many of the processes of change in people’s everyday mobilities that we can currently witness were already ongoing and intensifying, at lest in the global North. I use the term intensification here in a specific way that is influenced by the writings of Gilles Deleuze and Manuel Delanda, to suggest that previously ongoing processes are now actualising in different ways with the unfolding of the covid-19 pandemic. In other words, these processes take on new forms and shapes, and sometimes substantially so, rather than being new in and of themselves.

This is perhaps most evident for the rapid shift from physical and bodily to digital mobilities that can be witnessed in the sphere of paid employment. Of course this does not occur for everybody, as much work — especially but by no means exclusively carework — remains bodywork that requires physical co-presence. Also, most ‘key workers’ in domains such as healthcare, logistics and delivery services are still expected to turn up in person at their place(s) of employment. Yet, the shift to digitally enabled remote work from home is a radical intensification of the longstanding trend of increasing telecommuting. Hyped in the 1980s and 1990s by many transport researchers and numerous others, telecommuting took a long time to become institutionally embedded in many professional contexts. Recent research, for instance by Vilhelmson and Thulin whose focus is on Sweden, has indicated that the last decade has seen a substantial increase in the adoption of telecommuting.

What is changing under covid-19 is of course that one of the most significant ‘barriers’ to telecommuting — the need for face-to-face contact and meetings with colleagues, clients, students and so forth — is overcome by the forcefulness of state and employer mandated social distancing measures. Meetings that were until recently perceived to be poorly suited to a digital and remote format are now being conducted using specialised software, and digital ways of (re)establishing trust and rapport are invented and institutionalised along the way. This is, however, not a novel development but exceptionally fast scaling up of pre-existing trends, even if the specific forms and characteristics of those trends are changing as part of their rapid diffusion.

Might there be more novelty in the use of digital communication for social contact with family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and others? After all, events such as ‘virtual coffees’, ‘virtual wine tastings’, virtual sport events and the streaming of cultural events that are seemingly premised on physical co-presence, such as plays or exhibitions, will not have been part of the repertoire of most households and individuals who may now be engaging in them. But that does not make them novel per se. They too can be seen as modifications and variations of things some people, among whom the younger generations were clearly over-represented, were already undertaking. The way people were increasingly maintaining contact with distant others and the increased consumption of streamed films (the netflixification of the cinema) have cultivated the competencies and habits that make virtual coffees and cultural events relatively easy to adopt for significant number of currently housebound people.

All of this is of course not to deny that there are no radically new developments in people’s everyday mobilities. It could, for instance, be argued that the most significant novelty is the ‘resocialisation’ of everyday mobility — the idea that remaining physically immobile by staying at home is a profoundly social act because it protects the national healthcare service and ‘saves lives’. The shifting meanings of mobility in relation to health and the ways these are being mobilised by state and citizens alike is a topic for a separate post. Suffice it to say for now, firstly, that the connotation of health with physical immobility is on a one level indeed a reversal of the habitual (and neoliberal) associating at the level of discourse of physical mobility with physical and mental health, an active social life and with having a purpose in life and a role a society. All of these are supposed to contribute to one’s wellbeing according to the positive psychology and active ageing movements (see here and here for further discussions).

At the same time, and secondly, those discursive associations are not as hegemonic as it would seem. They are also rather specific to the neoliberal era, having emerged and gained in force since 1970 or so, and originate in the North Atlantic Anglo-American world, from which they have travelled across the planet. Alternative discourses do exist. Consider, for instance, the starkly gendered discourses around everyday physical mobility for young people in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. The work of Gina Porter and colleagues has shown how such mobility is often associated with sexual promiscuity for girls and young women in those geographical contexts. By implication, immobility, or at least tightly circumscribed and ‘responsible’ movement, is widely associated with virtuosity. Notice also that in Western Europe the recent rise of the no fly movement movement and the longer-standing interest in transition towns and the localisation of production and consumption have laid the groundwork for a revaluation of the virtues of immobility and tightly constrained mobility.

It is true that these examples of the cultivation of the virtue of immobility and heavily circumscribed mobility have no basis in medical discourse and praxis. But once the net is cast wider, then it is not too difficult to find historical examples from the medical realm. As Michel Foucault has argued in Discipline and Punish‘s chapter on panopticism, strict disciplinarisation of mobilities was an essential strategy in which authorities in medieval cities (in France, or at least Western Europe) sought to manage the plague. Understanding the strict disciplinarisation of people’s everyday mobility as socially and medically beneficial is not as new as it might seem.

Does it matter that the changes to the everyday mobilities of people in response to covid-19 are variations on pre-existing and past processes and tendencies rather than complete and radical novelties? I think it does, for the answer to that question has implications for what lessons that might be learnt for how we should deal with the environmental crises of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that have been caused at least in part by excessive fossil fuel consumption in everyday mobilities.

The covid-19 pandemic does not simply suggest that politicians and other decision-makers are able and willing to order radical and drastic changes, and police their compliance,if and when the threat is perceived to be urgent enough. It also indicates that people are able to adapt fairly quickly to large-scale, radical and drastic interventions in our carbon-intensive and polluting mobility systems when they can build on earlier experimentation with alternative everyday practices.

Perhaps the competencies, habits and understandings that people are currently accruing may constitute fertile ground for the much-needed post-pandemic interventions to enact deep and rapid cuts in the emissions and pollutants produced by our wholly unsustainable and deeply unjust systems for everyday mobility.

Critical Geographies of Mobility Using Digital Data

Call for papers for special sessions at the AAG meeting in Denver, CO, April 6-10.

Organized by Mei-Po Kwan (Chinese University of Hong Kong) and Tim Schwanen, (University of Oxford)

As one of the keywords in Geography (Kwan and Schwanen, 2016), mobility is attracting widespread attention in the discipline with research sprawling in many directions and cutting across epistemic communities. One of the biggest changes in mobility research in recent years has been the emergence and uptake of new digital data about mobility, including the much touted big data assembled from sensors in vehicles, bikes, phones, access gates, payment cards and the like. Such data are increasingly used to understand mobility patterns and urban structures in innovative and productive ways.

We plan to organise one or more paper sessions looking at how the new digital data are used to advance critical analysis of questions of disadvantage, inequality and (in)justice in the everyday mobility of people, goods and information. Topics that might be considered include, but are not limited to, the use of digital data to:

  • Understand transport-related social exclusion
  • Analyze motility (Kaufmann, 2002) or access to employment, education, social networks and/or healthy living
  • Examine socially and spatially differentiated exposure to pollution and harmful substances
  • Investigate the socially and spatially uneven patronage of ride-hailing, bike-sharing and similar mobility services
  • Probe inequalities in carbon emission from motorized transportation
  • Evaluate social and spatial differences in vulnerability to disruption of everyday mobilities
  • Scrutinize social and spatial inequalities in the relationships between mobility and wellbeing
  • Explore potentially exploitative labour relations in the transportation sector

Papers that consider how digital data are used by governments and firms to monitor and discipline ‘unwanted’ mobilities, including the formalization of ‘informal’ transport services by minibus, rickshaw, motor taxi, and so forth, are also very welcome.

Please submit your abstract (250 words max) plus AAG PIN (Personal Identification Number, obtained after registration for the conference at the AAG website) to tim.schwanen@ouce.ox.ac.uk and mpk654@gmail.com by October 23, 2019.

Urban Mobility, Wellbeing and Inequality

On Thursday 6 June I will give a keynote lecture at the 15th NECTAR conference with the theme ‘Towards Human Scale Cities — Open and Happy’ in Helsinki.

I will use this opportunity to reflect on the burgeoning literature on travel behaviour and wellbeing in transport studies and argue that this literature can benefit from broadening its concepts of wellbeing to also consider questions of inequality and justice. I will elaborate an expanded version of Amartya Sen’s capability approach that considers
the relational, emergent and experiential nature of capabilities as they relate everyday mobility. Empirically, the talk will utilise empirical research about cycling and walking in São Paulo and London to illustrate salient aspects of the interrelations between wellbeing and travel behaviour. One insight emerging from this manner of thinking is that wellbeing cannot be understood as inhering in individuals but rather is an always-emergent quality of shifting configurations of humans and all kinds of other urban elements.

The empirical materials on which the talk draws have been collected as part of the ESRC funded DePICT project.

 

Fleming Lecture at upcoming AAG conference

At the upcoming annual conference of the American Association of Geographers in Washington DC (3-7 April), I will give this year’s Fleming Lecture organised by the Transport Geography Specialty Group. The title of my talk will be “Geographies of transport in the new climatic regime”, a title that is directly referring to Bruno Latour’s latest book.

In the lecture, I hope to will reflect on Transport Geography research in the current era in which the earth system — the ‘geo’ — has become an active participant in public life. I will argue for an expansion of substantive concerns, theory, and methodology for geographical research about transport configurations. As an important part of this expanded agenda, geographers should contribute to a shift in the logics that help to organize and shape (transformations in) transport configurations, from a preoccupation with acceleration and efficient, reliable and normal movement to ongoing and just adaptation of such configurations to a variety of pressures and more sudden events. This shift comes with implications for research methodology too and shuld be accompanied by methodological orientations and practices revolving around concreteness, singularities, provincialization and description. In this way it becomes easier to study the necessarily context-dependent geo-social politics of transport. I will illustrate some of those politics using empirical examples from various ongoing research projects in which I am involved.

Day: Thursday 04 April 2019
Start Time: 5:00 pm
Room: Washington 4, Marriott, Exhibition Level

Autonomous transportation seminar at Florida Atlantic University

On 16th April I will be one of the presenters in a seminar about automated vehicles organised by Prof John Renne at Florida Atlantic University and held at the port of Palm Beach. I will talk about expectations and prospects of automated vehicles in freight transport, based on the research that Debbie Hopkins and myself are undertaking as part of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand. This won’t deal directly with the controversy around autonomous driving’s first first death of a fellow road user in Arizona, but I am sure this will come up in the discussion parts of the seminar.

More information about the seminar is available here.

Marking 25 years of the Journal of Transport Geography – past/current/future developments

Call for Papers “Marking 25 years of the Journal of Transport Geography – past/current/future developments”

RGS with IBG Annual International Conference, 28-31 August 2018, Cardiff, UK.
Session sponsored by Transport Geography Research Group.

Convened by Richard Knowles, Frank Witlox and Tim Schwanen

We are inviting abstract submissions from two TGRG sponsored sessions at the 2018 RGS/IBG Annual International Conference, titled “Marking 25 years of the Journal of Transport Geography – past/current/future developments”.

In 2018 the Journal of Transport Geography – the leading interdisciplinary journal focusing on the geographical dimensions of transport, travel and mobility – will celebrate its 25 years of existence. To commemorate this anniversary we invite leading transport geography scholars to put forward their prospective views on the field. This field is very broad in scope, ranging from conceptual innovations, theoretically-informed advances, to empirically-oriented contributions on the movement of people, goods and/or information by any mode and at every geographical scale. We welcome papers that reflect on the field. How has our discipline evolved? What can we learn from the past? What are the new research avenues?

All accepted session papers will be published (after peer-review) in a Special Issue of Journal of Transport Geography.

If you interested in presenting a paper in this session, please submit to the session convenors (r.d.knowles@salford.ac.uk, frank.witlox@ugent.be, tim.schwanen@ouce.ox.ac.uk) the following information by Friday 9 February 2018: Title, authors, affiliations and addresses, presenter and abstract (300 words).

Expanding the debate on transport and mobility justice

CALL FOR PAPERS
AAG Annual Meeting, April 10-14, 2018, New Orleans, LA
Organisers: Ersilia Verlinghieri and Tim Schwanen

Transport and mobility play a critical role in current social and environmental crises and are vital to creating more just societies at different spatial scales. Across various disciplines, including Geography, researchers are now routinely drawing attention to the spatial dimensions of justice. Some have begun to consider the interconnections of transport and mobilities with justice and space (e.g. Soja 2010; Sheller, 2011; Cook and Butz 2016; Verlinghieri and Venturini 2017), but important conceptual and empirical work remains to be undertaken. Cross-fertilisation of the thinking and practice around justice in Urban Geography, and urban studies more widely, with ongoing work on transport and mobility justice seems to be a particularly effectively way forward.

In this session we seek to consider and explore the concepts of transport and mobility justice and their interconnections with the wider frameworks of social, spatial and environmental justice. We welcome both theoretical contributions and case studies from across the globe that focus on procedural and substantive aspects of transport and mobility justice. We are particularly interested in contributions that stage dialogues of transport and mobilities research with urban scholarship and so explore how one can contribute to, and open up new questions for, the other.

Potential topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The nature of transport and mobility justice;
  • The right to mobility;
  • The relationships of transport and urban planning with transport and mobility justice;
  • Urban struggles and transport and mobility justice;
  • The use of participatory and critical social science methods for research on transport and mobility justice; and
  • Research ethics for studies of transport and mobility justice.

Please email enquiries and abstracts (250 words) to Ersilia Verlinghieri (ersilia.verlinghieri@ouce.ox.ac.uk) and Tim Schwanen (tim.schwanen@ouce.ox.ac.uk) by October 20. Authors must register for the conference and submit their abstracts through the AAG website by the October 25 deadline to be added to the paper session. AAG guidelines for preparing and submitting abstracts at: http://www.aag.org/cs/annualmeeting/call_for_papers.

 

Uber in London

Last week Transport for London (TfL) announced in what is widely see as a shock move that Uber’s license in London is not going to be extended for another five years beyond 30 September 2017. The decision and its aftermath have attracted extensive media coverage and propelled the comany once more into the midst of the public debate.

As Geoff Dudley, David Banister and myself have argued, the relation between TfL and Uber has been strenuous for quite some time, so TfL’s move is arguably less surprising than many commentators are making it to be. It is also important to appreciate that this is not (yet) the end of Uber’s presence in London. Uber will contest the decision in the courts, and TfL themselves have suggested that there is some room for negotiation. It will be interesting to see how the sage unfolds over the next couple of weeks, if not months.

I was interviewed by WIRED magazine about the developments in London two days ago. You can read the result here.

Post-Doc position at Utrecht University in serious gaming for encouraging walking and cycling

Job description: The Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning of Utrecht University seeks to appoint a post-doc for the project “DEPICT: DEsigning and Policy Implementation for encouraging Cycling and walking Trips” financed by NWO-ESRC-FAPESP. The project is a close collaboration with the University of Applied Sciences NHTV, University of Oxford and the the University of São Paulo.

Qualifications: For this project, we search for a highly motivated post-doc with a PhD degree in Human Geography or related disciplines, preferably with experience in empirical research methods such stated preference techniques. You will work with the 3D immersive simulation technology Oculus Rift to analyse the impact of manipulations in streetscape and traffic environment design on walking and cycling in the Netherlands as well as in São Paulo.

Offer: The post is available from October first, 2017. You will be offered a temporary position for 15 months as post-doc. Employment conditions are based on the Collective Labour Agreement of the Dutch Universities. Your gross monthly salary is dependent on experience and qualifications and varies between € 2.855,- and €3.908,- (salary scale 10) on a fulltime basis.

Contact: Prof. dr. Martin Dijst: m.j.dijst@uu.nl

Uber in London article available for download

A paper on the introduction and regulation of Uber in London led by Geoff Dudley, with David Banister and myself as co-authors, is now published in The Political Quarterly. It is available for free download until mid-June. You can find the paper here. The article discusses the challenges that Uber’s disruptive innovation strategy has brought to various stakeholders in London, particularly taxi operators and TfL. It also discusses the prospects of Uber’s disruptive innovation strategy now the company is rapidly becoming an established player.

The paper is part of a research project on the governance of urban mobility transitions which focuses on Uber in London as a case.