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.

Real politics, real communication ….

… are time-consuming and not terribly exciting. And although I’d much prefer to sit around and think, maybe read the odd journal article and look at some statistics (the latest national travel survey results were released recently), I have to admit that it is probably a better use of my time to stand on a bridge in the rush hour and hand out flyers to cyclists.
FTR bike placard

We were communicating the existence of the Bristol cycling manifesto petition. As explained previously the idea is to make visible the support for an improved cycling (and walking!) environment in the handsome-but-harrassed city of Bris. The support is necessary to stiffen the political will of the people with power (notably the mayor) to push things forward. The support does exist, but it is largely latent and so, boring as it is, and even with the internet and whatnot, talking to people’s actual physically present selves is still a necessary and excellent way to communicate.

Not too agressive I hope …

I put this sticker on the bike. Then I tried to take it off because I’m generally rather weedy about making political statements in public. But it won’t remove easily. Anyway, it might make it less nickable maybe?

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And why would people take it as agressive anyway? “Who are all these people?” drivers moan at a spot of unexpected congestion – so surely everyone agrees that the fewer the better?

“Mental infrastructure”

I like to coin new and useful phrases. I’ve been using this term in my own thinking about active transport and reading Dave Horton’s most recent post I think it’s time to float it into the wider world.

The right sort of physical infrastructure is essential for a less car-centric world – as with so many things, exhortation is not enough, nor even leading-by-example.

On the other hand, exhortation – in it’s more refined form of intelligent communication – is not at all trivial. Leading-by-example is even less trivial because it indicates to the onlooker that you take this seriously, you mean what you say. Walking the talk is in fact an excellent kind of communication.

The metaphor I like to use is that these communication-type things are like the lubrication of a large machine. “Oil” (except it’s not necessarily “oil” in any simple sense – I understand that some clever advanced chemistry can go into this) cannot do anything on it’s own, but without it a machine will work badly, or seize up and not work at all. It is therefore essential.

Which is why I think of bike training, campaigns, the fact that people are actually visibly out there, going into work, the shops, school, the pub, on a bike, or on foot, as “building mental infrastructure”.

Physical infrastructure assists you in going to physical places. Mental infrastructure assists you in thinking particular thoughts. Not using the car is, for many people, literally unthinkable. Anything which makes it thinkable could be described as mental infrastructure.