Active Travel Directions

Back in 2006, Sustrans published a leaflet titled How to produce active travel directions for your visitors and staff.  It doesn’t seem to be on their website anymore (at least not that I can find) but I don’t know why because it’s useful and it can still be found here.

Anyway, quoting from the leaflet, the general idea is that you should:

Start with the assumption that people should not have to use a car to get to your

premises; [...]

Lay out your travel guidance in the healthiest order – start with walking and

cycling, then public transport (because there is usually a walk at each end of the

journey) and finally car travel. Of course some people will need to drive, but put

information about driving and parking last, so that the healthier ways to travel are

most prominent.

As a rule of thumb, a distance of about two miles is walkable for many people and

up to about five miles is reasonable to cycle.”

Now a common grumble amongst active travel advocates is that plenty of lip service is paid to the importance of walking and cycling but that’s where it stops: mere fine words without the buttered parsnips of effective infrastructure. I’d agree, of course of course of course, but a lot of the time we don’t even get the lip service. And that really grates – either they can’t even be bothered to mouth the words – or, more likely and even worse – they don’t even know that they are supposed to be paying lip service. And, if the message hasn’t yet got out to all well-meaning-liberal-arty-sustainability-greeny folks, then that means the whole active travel agenda has just failed, failed, failed.

So what has got this stirred up for me? Every so often – genuinely, not looking for things to get worked up about, not even thinking about active travel, with quite other of my many projects in mind – I look up the web for interesting places and interesting short courses. And, if anything catches my fancy, I look at the “how to find us” page to see if it’s practical to get there by public transport.

I found an interesting place recently, in the Cotwolds, so not too far from Bristol. Their website categorises their courses into: Arts, Sustainability, Spirituality and Wellbeing. Great – and I’m not saying that in a mocking tone – it looks a lovely place. These definitely count as well-meaning-liberal-arty-sustainability-greeny folks. There was a wood-carving course that looked an interesting way to spend a weekend. So I went to the “how to find us” page. Which consists of :

96 words on “driving” including an invitation to “contact us if you would like more detailed instructions”

62 words on “by plane” (It’s also a conference venue, so not quite as bonkers as it looks. I’ve written at tedious length about flying elsewhere.).

Sandwiched in between these two are 26 words on “By train”

And that’s it. But it is actually worse than that. Here is the whole of the “By train” section:

If coming by train, take a taxi from the Stroud train station (max. 2 miles). For hiking enthusiasts, it takes approximately half an hour by foot!

WHAT? It’s only two effing miles from the station. Have they heard of bicycles? Maybe it’s on a gigantic hill? Who knows? So bloody TELL ME. Yes, I can read a map – but then so can your driving friends you’re so eager to help. Is it in a bus desert, or have they merely not bothered to find out? And And And …. what the hell is that exclamation mark about? Two miles is not a flaming “hike”. It does not require “enthusiasm”. It’s the distance I sometimes walk to the main station in Bristol – and really it’s not that unusual, if you bother to ask.

Yes, I know this was intended to be cheerful and humorous in tone, but it completely misses the mark. It seems to say the author thinks that choosing to walk for half an hour is kind of weird.

So did I write to them?

Yes of course I did. And I wrote as politely and non-preachily as I know how, I cited some research without being too academic about it and I explained how active travel slots into the sustainability agenda. And of course I had no reply. TL;DR for one thing. Or my email is languishing in their spam folder – I sent the sustrans leaflet as an attachment, when I should have linked to it. Equally likely though, is that it’s above the pay-grade of the admin-person who answers the general email. Someone else, with whom they have no contact, authored their website and they have no power, knowledge or authority to tweak the fixed pages.

The other possibility of course, is that my letter was read, but with sheer bafflement. I tried to raise the same issue when I was an Open University tutor. In this case the instructions were “how to get a tutorial venue” (and oh, the detail and concern about parking and the complete absence of information about anything else). I was met with blank incomprehension, which hardened into impenetrable defensiveness as I tried to clarify.

At least lip-service is kind of comforting. I’ll take it as an alternative to the public implication that I’m weird.

Why haven’t I linked to the offending page?

I don’t like this aggressive internet culture and I don’t want to pick them out. It wasn’t the fault of one particular organisation – it’s just the whole damn systemic crap.

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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.

“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.

Language #5 “anti-car”

I really don’t understand what “anti-car” is supposed to mean. This puzzling term is often used in a sentence which starts: “I’m not anti-car but …” and which then proceeds to explain why it would be a really good idea if there was much less private motoring, or why road-pricing makes sense, or why free-parking is a bad thing or why a strong pro-cycling policy would improve the quality of life or whatever. Sometimes the term “anti-car” is thrown as an accusation – as if it makes a valid point all on its own with no explanation necessary “This legislation is anti-car”. So what if it is? That could be good or bad, depending on lots of other things. Surely it’s a neutral term?

Anyway, I propose that we stop repeating this “I am not anti-car” mantra. Just ignore the term – neither deny nor embrace it. If we use the term – even to deny it – we are giving it some sort of legitimacy and hence implicitly buying into a set of unnoticed assumptions – assumptions that the way personal transport has ended up being is actually the way that it has to be, assumptions that there is something natural or unchangeable about what I’m afraid we are just going to have to call car culture or the hegemony of the private motor vehicle.

Language #4 motorists v people-who-drive-cars

Following on from the previous post …

I think calling people-in-cars “people in cars” (rather than “motorists”) is slightly more useful than calling people-on-bikes “people on bikes” (rather than “cyclists”).

“Motorist” is more often used rhetorically as an appeal to solidarity in a way that “cyclist” is not – as in “stopping the war on the motorist” “this will hurt the motorist!” etc etc. Yet because of the ubiquity of driving, it is much less likely that any given individual in a car has any sort of serious “identity” that is built around driving. Many (most) people just go along with what society has made it easiest for them to do … (see the Gillian Anable research on attitudes to car use).

So perhaps better not to use a term that implies people do have some sort of meaningful identity as a “motorist” when they most likely do not? Spelling things out in this rather pedantic way might tend to emphasise the fact that we all make a variety of transport choices.

Language #3 Cyclists v People-who-ride-bikes

The idea here is that “cyclist” is not just a neutral word for a person on a bike. Instead, all sorts of extra meanings have become attached to it.

For certain people it has become a sort of horrid boo-word. “Cyclists” are those vile people who hold you up on the way to work, those demanding brats who are indulged with cycle paths and then don’t use them. “Cyclists” are endlessly whinging highway incompetents. “Cyclists” wear funny clothes, don’t pay enough tax, yada yada yada.

For certain other people, “cyclist” is a wholly positive term. It is what the sociologists call an “identity” – identity is part of “who you are” and threats to identity are painful and will be resisted.

For example, the lovely Dave Horton has recently suggested that if everyday utility cycling becomes the norm in the UK, then perhaps some current “cycling identities” will no longer be viable, because they are founded on cycling being a bit of a struggle, on those who cycle against the odds being rather heroic. Riding a bike won’t be special anymore. Being a reflective social scientist, he is aware that he has mixed feelings about this and can deal with them. Perhaps others cannot and perhaps identity-threat is involved in some of the vicious infighting which I gather has been a long-standing feature of the UK cycle-advocacy scene?

Anyway, to go back to language, the thing is that the word “cyclist”, in the current linguistic environment, suggests membership of a some sort of “group” and whether stigmatized or lauded it is a minority group. This is not what we want – what we want is cycling to become more like walking. It is rare for someone to have an identity as a “pedestrian” – I used to identify strongly as a “walker” but I’d never have called myself a “hardcore pedestrian” – it is not a real category, it’s just what everyone does when they’re not doing something else.

Even as things stand, a few minutes observation of the roads of central Bristol show that even now not everyone who pedals past is a “cyclist”. Saddles at the wrong height, gears all over the place, flapping trouser legs, bearings just screaming for some lube – there are clearly plenty of bikes whose owners regard them as mere transport rather than members of the family.

Conclusion?

Yup. “People who ride bikes” is in many cases the phrase to use in preference to “cyclists”. However, there are probably more important verbal tweaks. Ding! Next!

Language #2 Is it worth bothering?

Cardiff_station_181112This is following on from the previous post which was a short comment on the fact that “sustainable” had lost its meaning and a resolution to follow Jarrett Walker’s example and use the word “durable” (partly coz it just sounds so damn rugged).

I’ve got a number of “what’s the right word to use” questions to examine, but before I do, I want to ask “just how much this is worth bothering with?” because the exact relationship between language and thought is a tricky question. After a short and inadequate discussion I shall come to a not-very-exiting conclusion, which urges you to do nothing very difficult.

Choice of language does make a difference

Here’s the gist of one of the famous experiments of the psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus. Participants watched some short films of car collisions. They were then asked about the events in the film. The key question which the experimenters were interested in was given to participants in slightly different versions, to see if their memory/perception of the events were affected by different language.

The key question was “About how fast were the cars going when they [ something ] with each other?” The “something” was either “crashed” “collided” “bumped” “hit” or “contacted”. Well blow me down, the people asked about the cars “crashing” gave a significantly higher (almost 10 mph difference) estimate of speed than the people asked about cars “contacting”.

Like most psychological research of this kind it is subject to subtleties of interpretation. Did the differing estimates of speed indicate that participants actually had a different memory of the film or were their “estimates” a purely linguistic phenomenon and “40 mph” just popped out as an appropriate response to the English word “crash” with no reflection? Either way though, it clearly indicates that choice of language makes a difference. It is by no means unique – for example there is a standard experimental technique called priming. In its linguistic form it exploits the retinue of associations which are unique to each word in order to explore how we think. (The commonplace idea of “power of suggestion” might be described as using linguistic “primes”).

So yes, choice of words can do things to people heads. Well duh! No surprise at all, and therefore not pointless, as campaigners and advocates, to take a little bit of care to choose the right words to describe ourselves, what we do, what we want. If nothing else, using slightly non-standard terms might nudge a little bit of thinking in our audience. Maybe. Well it’s a cheap investment, so why not do it?

How much good will this do?

It is possible to go further, to make the claim that choice of words is very powerful indeed – that it is absolutely vital that we get it right. The idea that language in some sense determines thought and perception is popular amongst professional writers – Orwell’s essay Politics and the English language is a well-known example. The academic version is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. What is the academic consensus? Let me quote the sociolinguist Deborah Cameron at you:

Most linguists and psychologist today are sceptical about the strong version of the Whorfian claim that language determines perceptions, but on the weaker claim that it can influence perceptions there is conflicting evidence. My own view is that language is a highly variable and radically context-dependant phenomenon which may have effects on perception, but only in conjunction with other factors. Linguistic conventions help to naturalize and reproduce certain beliefs and assumptions, but these are not necessarily dependant on language or ‘caused’ by it”
from: Verbal Hygiene (the politics of language)

Well quite.

My not-very-exciting conclusion

It’s worth paying some attention to our choice of language. It’s worth paying some attention to other peoples choice of language (for example “traffic” to mean “motor traffic”) because this indicates something about tacit assumptions. Deborah Cameron again:

…drawing attention to someone’s use of language is one way of making previously unremarked assumptions manifest to them; and this can on occasion be the first stage in changing their attitudes […]

Yes indeedy. But don’t get carried away – getting the words right won’t solve anything in itself. Fiddling with one’s use of language and making a fuss about other people choice of words, is, compared to the unpleasant and frustrating business of politics and campaigning, a relatively easy gig and …

…it is not so much that linguistic manipulation does not work at all, as that it cannot work in the totalizing way that both self-help gurus and Orwellians would like up to believe … the relationship between what I say and the effect I obtain is far from straightforward; neither my intentions nor my words can determine it absolutely

So, I am careful with my choice of language around transport because I think it helps. But I remain aware that there are other things I can do which will help more.

Here is an example of the sort of thing I try to do – it’s from Jarrett Walker (again):

if you mean “car,” say “car”

Here’s a simple thing that anyone can do to improve the prospects of sustainable transportation. When you hear a phrase that makes sense only from behind the wheel of a car, notice it, point it out, and don’t get drawn into saying it yourself. …
(full post here)

There. A simple and painless tweak in one’s behaviour that might have a small effect.

Language #1 “sustainable v durable”

Can I draw your attention to this post? It’s from Jarrett Walker’s blog, Human Transit and contains an amusing cartoon. Jarrett is an american “transit planner” and his blog is slightly technical, but I keep in touch with it because he does often have interesting things to say – he’s an interesting chap whose original background was in literature, apparently.

Anyway the point here is about the word “sustainable” and how it has become a fairly meaningless hooray-word. Jarrett suggests replacing it with “durable” which has not yet been overused. Furthermore, as it is rarely used in a greenish context, it might cause a brief pause for thought. I resolve to start using it forthwith!

Ok. Language. Yes. Just how important is it to use the right words? How much difference does our exact choice of words make? There will shortly follow a number of posts on whether it’s worth bothering to be use the right words, and what those “right words” might be.