Why behaviour?

You’ll see from the ‘table of contents’ to the right that I’m intending to write a fair bit about something called ‘behaviour’. Don’t run away with the wrong idea though. I’m not going to suggest that the transport woes of society can be solved by using cunning social psychology to persuade everybody to behave differently.

There is rather a lot of evidence that the direction of causality in social life is not as straightforward as we think. If more people walked and cycled then walking and cycling would become easier. If the built environment were designed better then more people would walk and cycle. If the cultural environment assumed that active travel was the default then more people would travel under their own muscle power. But if enough people decided to walk and cycle then the cultural environment would assume it was the default and a better built environment would be put in place. Oh. We’re back at the start – I thought you knew where you were going? Here is a diagram of this, helpfully provided throughout our towns and cities:

‘Society’ is just the aggregate of individuals making individual choices – what else can there be? Yet when an individual makes a choice, it is not, and cannot be, made on a neutral playing-field, it is made in a social context which contains many cultural and social pressures – some of them almost irresistible. Yet these are created by other individuals … so … what on earth can be done?

This type of system problem is pervasive in environmental discussion and there isn’t a simple answer to the question of “what can I do?”. Here is my current position on the matter.

It is officially recognized that cycling and walking are a Good Thing. But this recognition is patchy and half-hearted, the consequences have not been properly thought through. If there was real political will to favour walking and cycling (backed up by fuss-free public transport), then it could be done – as shown by the Netherlands. And yes, a big part of that is infrastructure. Infrastructure is the primary thing. It won’t work to hope that enough people will stop driving and start using their legs because we persuade them to do so – we cannot persuade enough people to make enough difference. Persuasion is too slow a process and the current road conditions militate too strongly against it. At present, Cycletopia is a nice place to visit but seriously now, you couldn’t possibly live there.

But it might work to persuade enough people to start making a fuss about walking and cycling that sufficient political will starts to develop – you’d need fewer people to get this one moving. So ‘spreading the word’ is not a waste of time. ‘Advocacy’ can take many forms, but for best results it really might be useful to know a bit of this social-sciencey-behavioural stuff – otherwise you could just end up preaching or asking for the wrong things.

And of course, even when the political will is there, it’s not only about the infrastructure, even though that has to be top priority. The way I think of this is that all the ‘soft’ stuff – the training, the persuasion, the information giving – is like the lubrication of a machine. The oil can do absolutely nothing in itself, yet is essential for things to work properly. And if a machine is completely seized up it might be able to get it working again. So another reason to pay attention and try to get it right.

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