“Driverless” cars, aka “robocars”

Just heard an item on the Today programme about this and now I’m fighting hard not to start using tiresome cliches of online comment. I’m exercising stern self control not to say “Driverless cars. Again. Sigh” or “driverless cars are the future. Yeah right”.

So I’ll just remark, mildly, that I find the tone of the reportage (not just the BBC but generally) rather interesting for its lack of awareness of what seems to me rather salient psychological aspects of the act of driving.

“Oh yes” people trill, “I’d just love a driverless car. I could work, I wouldn’t get wound up by the traffic”. I think people who imagine this to be true – that “driverless cars” would be irresistible if they are shown to be technically feasible in all real-world situations – are lacking a basic insight into the psychology of driving.

Part of the psychological hold that automobility has over us – part of the reason it got us in its grip in the first place is not its “practicality”, it is the illusion of power combined with the sensation of autonomy which it creates. It is the psychological delightfulness of driving. In my own brief experiences as a “motorist” (hawk, spit) I experienced this myself. Would I like a “driverless car”? Of course I’d like the fact that it would be less likely to cause an accident than I would, but apart from that, no. I’d rather walk or cycle which both involve the genuine and benign exercise of both skill and will.

My prediction: it could well be made to work technically – it’s a very interesting engineering challenge – but a future where “driverless cars” are the norm is a techno-fantasy which we are collectively indulging as one of many ways of avoiding the real problems we should be looking at.

Another online writing cliche: “nothing to see here, move along”.

[Added a couple of hours later:] Oh, here’s a link to the news item. I just heard on the radio that Bristol is one of the towns interested in piloting this. My response in internet speak: “Groan. Sigh. Rolls eyes.”

Promises

I still intend to finish off this blog properly … but well, whatever, y’know …

In the meantime, here is part of a comment I just left in response to Dave Horton’s latest post:

“People like – no love – bikes for similar reasons to those that create auto-love. Using a bike gives you very direct feelings of power, autonomy and access. Your envisioned Bike Society would have, in terms of happiness, equality and prosperity all the stuff that Motor Society promised, with one exception. The bike doesn’t sell as “progress”. Because the bicycle works by amplifying one’s existing body it reminds us of limits. It enforces acceptance of physical reality (even though being able to amplify one’s own strength is a truly wonderful and clever thing) whereas with the car we can hang on to the fantasy that anything at all is possible.

Perhaps another way of saying this is that, in the immediate personal act of using it, the car makes a very convincing promise to give you everything but that seductive promise cannot be fulfilled. Whereas the bike gives you less but what it does give you is real.”

Behaving like traffic – Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You

I’m cranking myself up to finish this blog, which was always intended to be a sort of year-long “writing exercise”, and I’ll be wrapping it up shortly. But here’s an anecdote I can’t resist.

I’ve talked previously about the idea that there is a sense in which we don’t “behave like drivers” or “cyclists” that we all have underlying psychological mechanicsm that mean we all “behave like traffic” – that is to say, revert to our basic bahaviour as walkers. I like to collect examples of this.

Well yesterday I saw a SMIDSY incident between two swimmers. It was at the Bristol lido which is very small and not really suitable for hyper-purposeful “training” and there are no lanes roped off or marked. Nevertheless, the few times I’ve been there recently, there are always a few people rather sternly ploughing up and down in a distinctly training-ish kind of way. Yesterday I heard a splash and then “words”. Clearly a collision had taken place and the bit of the exchange which I caught went:

First woman: I didn’t see you.

Second woman [mildly]: but you ..

First woman [getting cross]: I didn’t see you!

Second woman: but …

First woman: I DID’NT SEE YOU!

Second woman [giving up and swimming off]: oh all right then …

There is just so much deconstruction one could do with this (why did the first woman get so indignant?) but the key psychobikeological points are:

1. it is quite natural to not look where you’re going, especially when you’ve got some other purpose at the forefront of your mind

2. this doesn’t really matter if you collide with someone of equal physical heft

3. if there is a significant physical mismatch then perhaps you have a greater duty of care.

Shared space and the dangers of thinkivism (John Adams, yet again)

risk coverIn my two previous posts I outlined some of the work the UCL geographer John Adams. I count him as someone who has influenced the way the way I think about things. After reading his book Risk I was conscious of seeing the everyday world in a slightly different way – one of the highest compliments a writer of any sort can be paid.

Having already spent two posts chatting about his work, I feel obliged, for the sake of completeness, to mention that he is also associated with the promotion of the idea of shared space. I have outlined the thinking behind this in my active travel dictionary, but basically, ‘shared space’ is a variety of urban road design which attempts to harness the mechanism of risk compensation in a positive manner.

My personal conclusions about this idea is that we should most certainly think about how good psychology and real behaviour might help us in the design of the urban environment, and not just stop with ‘common sense’ and ‘stands to reason’ and ‘everyone knows’. Therefore shared space is an interesting idea which might have some potential, in certain situations. However, after getting quite excited when I first came across the idea, I now think those situations are very limited indeed. A key practical problem is that it’s all very well for academics (like John Adams) to talk about this sort of idea, and all very well for more humble thinkivists (like myself) to get excited by it, but in practice planners and highway engineers will misunderstand, oversimplify and misapply. Already have oversimplifed and misapplied. One might speculate that, at some level, planners embrace the shared space concept because it seems like a way to have one’s cake and eat it – to avoid restricting motor traffic (and not upset anyone) while at the same time rendering it less toxic (and do what they know in their hearts is right). Plus, of course, it makes them feel clever (ahem). It can’t really be done though. One of the key limitations in considering shared space is the pre-existing flux of car-traffic – attempt to use a shared space treatment where this is above a low level and what you basically have is not a natural way for everyone to get along, but a crude attempt at using pedestrians and cyclists as human traffic-calming.

The wider idea of risk compensation itself requires a certain alertness as regards its practical implications. It’s easy for the whole thing to become crudified into a sort of quietism – what’s the point of trying to make anything safer, people will just find a way round it, and we’ll end up with a load of objectionable legislation and bossiness, nanny state, blah blah blah. If you haven’t already seen it, Joe Dunckley has a recent blogpost where he lambasts Simon Jenkins for doing exactly that (see also the comments left by both myself and Robert Davis). “Quietism” is putting it politely though. Leave aside transport for a moment and consider an activity such as the construction industry: notorious for its bad safety record and mistreatment of employees. It would be very much in the interests of the people with the power to give work to have as little care for the safety of their workers as they could get away with and here’s the perfect justification, there’s nothing we can do anyway! Except that of course there are ‘things that can be done’ – just be aware that behaviour changes in response to changes in the environment (and also be aware of power imbalances).

My own personal line is that it is hubristic to imagine that one can ‘make the world a better place’ (the world will turn out to be ungrateful for your offer) but an entirely practical ambition to ‘make the world a bit less bad than it otherwise would have been’ (the world will accept your helping hand without thinking about it).

Anyway, enough of that, I’m getting silly now.

Inactivity, cost-benefit analysis, risk compensation (more John Adams)

In my previous post I outlined a well-known argument about hypermobility presented by the geographer John Adams. He’s a very readable academic whose work has been in areas that interest me and when I first came across him I read through pretty much all of the
articles
and letters available on his website.

Walking-and-cycling advocates will probably already know of Adams because he was the co-author (with Mayer Hillman and John Whitelegg) of one false move; a study of children’s independent mobility. This substantial bit of research is the origin of the figure that, in 1971 80 per cent of seven and eight year old children were allowed to go to school without adult supervision but by 1990, this figure had fallen to 9 per cent.

But he goes waaaayyy back beyond this. One of the earliest (1970) pieces in his archive discusses ‘london’s third airport’. Yes, this airport capacity business has been going on that long (I was only around eleven at the time but I remember that it was all over the newspapers). Adams produced a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that, never mind Foulness or Cublington, the ideal location – the right size and with links already in place – is Hyde Park. Parody is always a bit of a gamble – even prior to the internet. Adams’ reductio ad absurdam of planning priorities was written about in The Times and the newspaper then received and printed a genuine letter from a retired air-vice marshall which heartily applauded such a logical location for a London airport and pointed out that he himself had made the very same recommendation in 1946. Adams relates this in a later essay about cost benefit analysis which is worth reading because this kind of issue is very much still with us. (He takes another, shorter swing at COBA in the article Vogon economics and the hyperspatial bypass)

None of the above is particularly contentious to anyone of a vaguely green disposition, but when he gets on to road safety things start to heat up because he is a seatbelt sceptic. Now that just sounds like a bit of wilful and ridiculous contrarianism, but hang on because this is interesting.

To begin, let’s be clear about what exactly it is he’s doubting. If you are in a car crash, wearing a seatbelt will increase your chance of surviving. Nobody is sceptical of that – it is supported both by evidence and common sense. So if everything else remained equal – same behaviour, same number of accidents, same kind of accidents – then seatbelt legislation really would save lives. Adams is suggesting that everything else did not (and could not) remain equal; daft as it initially sounds, some safety interventions might increase the likelihood of accidents even as they decrease the severity of their consequences.

The argument has two strands. The first is that the aggregate evidence does not support the almost universal assertion that the introduction of compulsory seatbelts has ‘saved lives’. This is quite astonishing because this claim is frequently made, usually quantified and has itself become part of accepted common sense. This part of the Adams’ argument is fairly detailed and before dismissing it you should perhaps read the full account or a more recent and shorter version, because the statistics are persuasive. Broadly, seatbelt legislation was enacted in almost all countries against a background trend of already decreasing road accidents (see fig. one here).

Now I know what you’re thinking, and to be honest I’m feeling slightly embarrassed about the previous paragraph. I might easily be mistaken for one of those shouties who leave comments on blogs that go: “Evolution/Global warming/Environment. It’s all a scam !!! As proved by this long list of badly informed links!!!”. Or worse, a clever-clever contrarian who will present smart-arse arguments against decent things just for the intellectual fun of it. I’ve just waved my hands and said ‘read this’. There’s no reason you should do so. I mean, what do I know? Not very much I’m happy to admit, but a point to note is that Adams’ argument about seatbelt efficacy is not rocket science and only needs some basic experience of statistical thinking to follow. Anyway, let’s argue about this some other time shall we? If we just provisionally assume that Adams has made a case worth considering, how does he account for this?

The second strand of the argument concerns risk compensation. This is the idea that safety benefits have a tendency to be consumed as performance benefits. The full arguments runs:

  • We all have a preferred level of risk – life has uncertainties built in, some people tolerate or even enjoy a higher risk than others and all risks are taken because of a perceived benefit – even a tiny one such as the slightly greater convenience of crossing the road away from an offical pedestrian crossing.
  • Interventions which are intended to make certain activities safer, can sometimes change how we perceive the riskiness of that activity
  • In order to maintain our preferred level of risk we will change our beahviour – for example it feels safer to drive faster with a seatbelt.

Adams calls this the ‘risk thermostat’. There seems to be gradually accumulating experimental evidence in its faviour.

The overall effect of the seatbelt law, claims Adams, is not to reduce danger but to redistribute it:

“The evidence from Britain, which has been singled out as the only jurisdiction in the world in which it is possible to measure fatality changes directly attributable a seat belt law, suggests that the law produced no net saving of lives, but redistributed the burden of risk from those who were already the best protected inside vehicles to those who were the most vulnerable outside vehicles”

The downward trend in accidents which was already present in all countries before the enactment of a law is interesting for a second reason. Almost by definition, ‘developing’ countries came late to the motorization party, so that when their citizens started to acquire cars, the cars which they bought were advanced – developing countries didn’t have to start afresh with the model-T – and came with various technological safety features. So if it were a question of technology alone, these newcomers should start with an accident rate which is close to the already-developed countries. This doesn’t seem to happen, which suggests that there is an element of learning. To be exact, pedestrians and cyclists have to learn to keep out of the way.

“the long-term decrease in death rates .. is much more plausibly attributable to myriad behavioural adjustments in response to the increases in the threat of traffic”

That suggestion is by no means unique to John Adams, but it is a hard one to swallow. Over the years a great deal of effort and ingenuity have gone into safety devices, and it seems almost insulting to say that they haven’t worked as well as hoped. Not only that, but that ‘road safety’ has increased the amount of unfairness in the world. (And btw, if you’re still reeling at the thought of anyone being a seatbelt sceptic, I will stress that the argument is NOT that you personally will be safer without a seatbelt in a context in which everyone else wears one).

It is this type of argument that sits behind the way that some transport thinkers refer to ‘the road safety industry’. I agree that this seems a very shocking way to talk if you don’t know what lies behind it. It’s not that these people are cavalier about making the roads safer, and the term road danger reduction has been coined (by Robert Davis) to capture the idea that taming and reducing motor traffic is the way to do this. In contrast, ‘road safety’ regards motor traffic as a sort of force of nature that our public policy should accomodate and defer to.

Anyway, dear imaginary reader, make of this what you will, but I thought you might find it interesting because this is not the sort of thing you usually get to hear about – even on BBC4. I have a bit more to say about John Adams but I’ll leave that for the next post.

Hypermobility?

An essay about personal transport that I often recommend to people (but which they only occasionally read) is John Adam’s 1996 essay Can technology save us? (if you do open the link, don’t be deterred that the pdf appears to be 32 pages long – the article is only 16 pages).

It is worth reading the whole thing but in essence it presents an argument that it is possible to have too much of a good thing and in this case the good thing is personal mobility. Not the technology that gives us that mobility but the mobility itself. This idea seems not outrageous but simply unthinkable. Once one has managed to think it, then it seems outrageous – patronising, elitist, anti-progress and just self-evidently bad. Or at least the conclusion seems bad if you haven’t followed the arguments that lead to it. Here is the crux of it: a personal choice made by one ordinary person is negligible. Hurrah for choice, we’re all in favour. The very same choice made by many people is not negligible, yet in the case of transport, this is ignored. Adams argues that we were not (and are not) given the true choice. He puts this is the form of three imaginary opinion polls:

1. Would you like a car, unlimited air-miles, and all the computers and communications facilities presently enjoyed by Bill Gates?

” … at present most people in the world have never flown, and do not own cars or computers. Their answer to this question, everywhere in the world is overwhelmingly yes. In answering, most people probably imagine the world as it is now but with themselves having access to the enlarged range of opportunities that they see present car and computer owners enjoying […] politcians, technologists and transport and communication planners everywhere are encouraging people to believe that everyone’s wish can be granted”

2. Would you like to live in the sort of world you would get if everyone’s wish were granted?

For such an opinion poll to yield meaningful answers there would need to be agreement about what such a world would be like. It would probably be grossly polluted, noisy, congested and anxious about the security of its energy supplies. Let us assume, however … that technology will solve these problems. What else might we expect? [drawing on the previous discussion in this paper] we can can speculate about some of its main features:

  • It will be a polarized world. Not everyone’s wish can be granted. About a third of the world’s population will never be old enough or fit enough to drive … Their disadvantage will increase as [everyone else’s] car dependence increases. they will be second-class citizens, dependent fortheir mobility on the withered remains of public transport or the goodwill of car owners. [universal car ownership will never be possible]
  • The world will become one continuous suburb. The traditional city, built for people not cars, could not exist. The last unspoilt islands and wilderness areas – which travel writers incite us with a sense of urgency to visit before they are spoiled – will be spoiled …
  • Geographical communities in which people know their neighbours will be replaced by aspatial communities of interest. People with similar tastes, interests and life-styles will commune on the internet or meet at conferences and vacation resorts. More high-security enclaves of the wealthy will be developed, but because of the fragmenting force of their inhabitants mobility, they will not function as true communities […]
  • Travel opportunities will be destroyed. The cultural and linguistic diversity in the world – the experience of which provides the motivation for much travel – will be obliterated by the rising tide of tourism […]
  • Fragile ecosystems will be destroyed: wilderness retreats with access to it. The provision for parking and road space for more than ten times as many motor vehicles will require paving much more of the world […]
  • Street life will disappear. The spread out scale will defeat pedestrians, and traffic will make cycling too dangerous. There will be no local shops to walk to. […] A world full of traffic and strangers will require the constant supervision of children who will no longer be alllowed to play in the street. […]
  • Law enforcement will become Orwellian. A world full of highly mobile strangers will require ever more ingenious technology to detect and apprehend wrong doers. As travel becomes easier physically it will become more difficult bureaucratically. […]
  • […]The ease with which one can live one’s life in a community of interest will diminish the contact people have with their geographical neighbours. concern for the local environment and the welfare of one’s geographical neighbours will diminish as people sped more time in cyberspace
  • Political authority will become more remote […] As technology deluges us in information, it leaves us less time for contemplation and reflection, and forces us to employ ever cruder perceptual filters in order to make sense of it all […]
  • Democracy will disappear […] democracies, to function effectively, require common values, and a measure of agreement about societal goals forged out of common experience. If distance is vanquished the requisite minimum level of concensus and trust will be unattainable … “

And what of the third question? The one that we really ought to ask?

3. Would you like to live in a cleaner, quieter, more convivial world in which you know your neighbours, it is safe to walk and cycle, and children are allowed to play in the street?

Transport and communication planning is in the grip of of a linear, backward-looking vision which extrapolates past “progress” indefinitely into the future. The vision is being sold on a false prospectus that invites individuals to imagine the world as it is now but with themselves having acess to the enlarged range of opportunites currently enjoyed by a small elite – an impossible world in which everyone is richer and more mobile than average.

Transport and communications planners alone cannot, of course, create the world described in opinon poll 3. But they can create conditions which will make such a world impossible […]

He therefore argues for priority to be given to policies which:

give absolute priority to those forms of land use and modes of transport – walking, cycling and local bus services – that promote a human scale of living

Well. That seems an extreme dystopian view of everything. It simply cannot be right. I’m sure my selective quotation does not look convincing – clearly Adams has overlooked this, that and the other obvious thing, and of course it was written in 1996. However, I think it is worth reading the whole thing. When I read it myself I found his conclusions chilling.

Ultimately the argument comes to the conclusion that we simply have to travel less – and yet I see no possibility of this happening because I cannot see that there is any limit on our desire for mobility. Obviously, it is better to be able to get about, travel a bit. Obviously, it’s bad to be confined to your village or town all your life and never see the sea or visit a foreign country. And yet, if too much casual travel (and who decides what is “casual”?) is as problematic as Adams argues, where do we draw the line? And who draws it? There is no logical point at which increasing travel passes from “life-enhancing” to “life diminishing”. As with so many sustainability issues, we simply have to engage with this – yet it is almost certain that the more-powerful are going to try and hijack it as a way of maintaining their power.

So don’t expect a simple conclusion from me – this isn’t that sort of blog.

******

See the following other posts:

The problem

How much choice do we really have?

More about choice

Freedom

The problem restated

How’s that national petition doing?

It stays open until mid April next year, but going from the graph below, it doesn’t look as if it will make the magical 100,000:

National petition start Aug

It did pretty well though and the 100,000 doesn’t necessarily matter – they sort of promise that any petititon that gets to that number will be debated in parliament but the get britain cycling report is going to be discussed on September 2nd anyway. There’s going to be another of those big cycling demos on the day.