“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.”


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.

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.

Where am I?*

More politics. Our local Cycling Campaign recently organised the Bristol Cycling Summit.

I felt quite inspired by it. Amongst other things, words were said about “nettle grasping”. The chair of the meeting referred to the need for “corporate collective cojones – someone is going to have to take the pain”. The necessity for “sticks as well as carrots” was mentioned, together with the absence of an “easy way out”.

Good. It really does feel as if things are about to change – maybe they have already changed and this will only become clear with hindsight. Maybe. Unfortunately my “feeling” is not necessarily an accurate indicator of where we are. I might be feeling that maybe we’re on the cusp of taking a similar route to the Netherlands simply because I haven’t been around long enough. Although I have been broadly aware of the active-travel argument ever since I bought a copy of Richard’s Bicycle Book at the end of the seventies, I have only been involved in what is really the very shallowest of activism for a few years.

It has been argued on a number of blogs (if you’re reading this, then you’ve probably come across this) that the abstract argument has been largely won. Walking-and-cycling (despite the occasional elected noodlehead of the Hammond and Pickles variety) has been a policy “fluffy bunny” at least since the early nineties – perhaps even earlier. Fluffy bunnies are cute, everyone likes them, almost nobody is actually against them, but they are not, you know, a serious grown-up animal. So what we get is a cycle of Fine Words followed by inadequate funding combined with a failure to take any decisions which might actually do anything. It was a previous turn of this cycle that brought us all the dangerous and inadequate “cycling infrastructure” that is so striking the moment one gets on a bike. As that cycle went on, the timid infrastructure was neglected and forgotten (except by anyone who attempted to use it). Now a new round has started, active travel is in the limelight once more, fine words are being spoken, more people are riding bikes, things are looking good …

So where am I? Have I wandered in at the early part of the cycle, heard the fine words for the first time and naively been inspired by them? Or is it really different this time? Or perhaps not even “different this time”, because the cycle is more of a spiral – even the crap cycling facilities have pushed things forward a little bit, we’re not where we were back in the eighties when I was a regular London cyclist?

There isn’t a doubt that the amount of cycling in both London and Bristol has increased. But what about life outside the big trendy cities? I’ve extracted this graph from the figures in one of the many, many tables in the National Travel Survey for 2012. To be exact, it comes from table NTS0304 and represents not average number of ‘trips’ but journey ‘stages’ per person per year – so it catches the people who use a bike to get to the station and so on. I’ve included walking as a comparison.

NTS2012 walking_cycling

I think all one can really say about that is “hmmmmmm”. So I’ll cheer myself up by presenting just the cycling data (the data-scrupulous will notice that, as with the above graph, the scale on the x-axis is not completely consistent – but all it means is that the first bit of the line is “squashed up” and it doesn’t really do anything deceptive to the data presentation. I just didn’t feel like faffing around to correct this).

NTS2012 cycling

That doesn’t really make it much better, though there is, arguably – going through the ziggy bit of the line, which is what you’d expect with such low numbers anyway – perhaps, maybe, an upward trend from about 2003 onward (and I shall now remind myself about the nature of exponential growth – nothing seems to happen for ages and then, in a big whoosh, an enormous amount happens. Or you can have “tipping points” if you prefer. Anyway, I do sort of remain guardedly optimistic).


Completely off topic comment – nothing to do with transport whatsoever. If you haven’t already read it, Where Am I? is an entertaining (in the sense of ‘mind-twistingly strange’) philosophical story by Daniel Dennett)

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.

Commuter cycling: does it help your health?

In an earlier post I explained that recently I have been making more individual cycling trips than at any point in the last thirty-odd years. I also commented, when comparing the subjective experiences of cycling and walking, that cycling offers a wider range of physical intensity.

Even though most of my recent cycle trips have been short distances ( < 5 miles) it has been very striking that even a short, slow, flat, offroad journey will involve bursts of energy that you simply do not get in a walking trip. This is partly because nowhere, nowhere is completely flat. But you don’t really remember it. Thirty yards up a bit of slope, enough to make you pant for a few seconds? Forgotten as soon as its over. Accelerating to get past a bus? You do it without thinking or bothering. And these events occur even in the trips of the gentlest, the slowest, the most pootlesome of bike riders.

This struck me as something where – viewed purely as everyday transport – cycling really does win over walking. Raising physical intensity in a walking trip is difficult. With effort, you can just about make walking as hard as a rather gentle bike ride. I had lately taken to breaking into a minimalist jog for parts of walking journeys and of course Bristol is famously hilly – but I’m both temperamentally impatient and interested in experimenting with this kind of thing and I have to admit that truly vigorous utility walking is never going to be that popular.

So I was very pleased to see my speculation confirmed at Commuter cycling: does it help your health? a talk by Professor Ashley Cooper [note, I’ll change the link to the actual powerpoints, once they’re up on the Bristol Uni website]. The talk was one of the events of the Bristol Cycle Festival

There is now a ton of evidence about the benefits of what has been given the jargon term “moderate to vigorous physical activity” and Prof Cooper sketched out some of the seminal studies (the London bus crews for instance – conductors and drivers provided a really neat pair of otherwise similar groups which differ consistently in their workplace levels of physical activity). However he went on to say that there is “little hard evidence” of the specific benefits of cycling – but there is some. (By “hard” he meant well-designed academic studies – there is of course masses of personal experience – anecdotal evidence is not necessarily trivial in the sense that it can point at a real phenomenon, but the proper studies do have to be done to test our intuitions).

Sorry, I’m digressing – I made fairly extensive notes and I don’t wish to just transcribe them. To get back to the point I started with, Professor Cooper said plainly that the available evidence shows that:

“cycling gives you a bigger bang for your buck in terms of health benefits [than walking]”

And that benefit is thought to be because of the higher overall intensity of cycling:

“it is intensity which gives you the health benefits”

The research into physical activity has always shown that intensity is important. “Intensity” (how much it raises your heart rate) is to be counterpoised to “duration” and the current thinking is moving towards saying that “high intensity + short duration” is better than “low intensity + long duration”. I see that my notes contain the line “for increases in life expectancy – duration does not matter”.

Not sure how accurate that note is – it does sound pretty radical. It’s interesting to me how knowledge about exercise and health has changed over the years. At one point it seemed to be thought that beneficial exercise had to be both quite intense and of fairly lengthy duration. Decades ago I recall being told that going for a five- or ten-minute run couldn’t possibly do me any good at all – and as for walking hah! Well I’ve gradually watched the advice change and now it seems that almost any exercise at all will do you some good. This is great news. (And, incidentally, a nice example of the way the way that science changes its picture of the world as more evidence comes in). Any exercise will do you some good, but (in a broad way) greater intensity gives better results.

A complication

My earlier post on the epidemic of sloth was just a little disingenuous because I omitted an important caveat. The report I referred to was clear that physical activity wasn’t quite the whole story. The other half of the picture is the amount of sedentary time – if moving is a plus then sitting is a minus. You could take a good dose of exercise and then wipe out the benefit by sitting at a desk for the rest of the day. This was completely new to me; Prof Cooper said that it is new to everyone because the conclusions are recent.

The importance of decreasing the amount of time you spend sitting inertly on your bum is yet another plus for cycling – a “double hit” in Prof Cooper’s words – because the time on the bike is time spent not lazing about. You might be sitting on a saddle but you are active. It’s an even bigger plus for walking because walking journeys take so long (I’m currently at the stage where I arrive half an hour early for everything because I’m still applying walking calculations and can’t quite believe how much faster the bike is).

This caveat about taking care not to sit around for most of the day is important. The finding that, on the whole, intensity is more important than duration can be easily misrepresented. The BBC Horizon documentary the truth about exercise (the full versions on youtube have unfortunately been taken down) did not exactly misrepresent things and it did spend plenty of time discussing the importance of non-sedentariness but the documentary gave a misleading overall impression. Nevertheless it was good enough to be worth looking out for repeats, if you haven’t already seen it.

The structure of the documentary resulted in a foregrounding of some research findings about capsule exercise. The findings are that it is possible to get the full benefits of exercise from a very small amount of maximum intensity exercise. In the documentary we see the presenter (the very affable, and medically trained, Michael Mosley) following a programme where he does three twenty-second intervals on an exercise bike. The idea is that you really have to go absolutely flat out – you need to be gasping and groaning at the end – but you only need do this minute’s-worth three times a week. This is quite staggering I’d agree. Unfortunately the documentary did not make it clear enough that this needs to be done in conjunction with reducing the amount of the sitting down. The programme was not structured in such a way that the central argument about exercise came through. Although all the pieces were in place it succumbed to the gosh-wow factor (perhaps from a sad lack of confidence in the mental acuity of its audience?) and this resulted in a degree of confusion. (Horizon seems to do this rather a lot).

Incidentally Prof Cooper remarked that when he presents to audiences of fellow academics and practitioners in the area of physical activity, there are always a bunch of people at the back who have deliberately chosen to stand rather than sit. That seems perhaps a little ostentatious to me, but in case you’re wondering, I’m writing this post standing at my desk, with the laptop perched on a bunch of boxfiles and I’ve been doing part of my desk work this way for a few months now.


This all seems plain enough to me. If you get to work on a bike you get some reasonably intense exercise every week day. Furthermore, the time it takes to get to work is not time spent immobile in a chair. Double hit.

This knowledge is not a big secret. “The government has been told about this. It does know … it’s up to them to do something about it” said Prof Cooper. We’ve been so battered by half-baked US rhetoric about “big government” that perhaps it needs spelling out: the government spends my taxes to do things that I cannot do on my own by means of my own individual choices. I damn well want my taxes to purchase public health by means of doing what is necessary to foster walking and cycling. Increased public health means an increase in the amount of choice you have in your individual pursuit of satisfaction. It leads to more freedom.