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.


Epidemic of sloth

I have mentioned previously that I reckon one of the most serious of the negative effects of motorized traffic is car-induced sloth.

There is a ton of evidence that physical activity is almost incredibly beneficial to health – if it were a drug you could swallow they would have put it in the water supply by now. “A ton of evidence”. Hmmm yes, that is a bit handwavy, I know. So, for my imaginary reader who is a naïf in the shouty world of transport policy:

* A bibliography of some actual proper journal papers

*A more lengthy (and chatty) compendium of evidence from Cycling England (and the very fact that the government created a quango to promote cycling tells you something about the amount of evidence)

If you care to google some suitable terms, you will find that there is more.


So yes, ok fine. Personally I’m prepared to take as given that moving about under my own muscle-power is good for me. I don’t have to chase up every single journal article – I’ll trust the published work of epidemiologists and medical statisticians and physiologists and whoever because I have no reason whatever to doubt that their knowledge is much more deeply grounded than mine in their areas of expertise. So physical activity is good for you, and it is very “dose responsive” – even a small amount is beneficial and you have to do a huge amount for it to be damaging.

I was thinking about this yesterday, while walking back home from Bristol City Museum, where I’d gone to buy a nice card for my mum in the museum shop (about half an hour each way). I wondered about the other side of the problem – how much physical activity are “we” actually doing?

I knew the recommended minimum levels – a total of two and a half hours a week of brisk walking or normal cycling plus a bit of muscle-type exercise. Two and a half hours walking? That’s really not a lot. A fifteen-minute-each-way commute to work would cover it – then dig the garden at the weekend and you could be smug. And anyway, the world seems to be chock-full of amateur athletes these days. Whole magazines devoted to triathlon and running and cycling and climbing and anything you can think of. Whole shops full of (frankly, rather sexy, cough) sports gear. Endless, endless, internet chat about the arcana of sports footwear. Everyone’s at it! I was suddenly overcome with doubt – surely there just couldn’t be a problem with levels of physical activity? Find some research.

First stop for this kind of question has to be the Office of National Statistics. From there I found the publication statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet 2013. The physical activity section relied heavily on some research from 2008, the health survey for England – 2008: physical activity and fitness.

Part of the survey involved a people wearing accelerometers while going about their daily lives so we have some objective measure of activity levels. The standout sentence in the summary report was:

Based on accelerometry, only 6%of men and 4%of women met the government’s current recommendations for physical activity, by achieving at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity on at least five days in the week of accelerometer wear, accumulated in bouts of at least 10 minutes

5% of the population manage to do what is, or should be, for an average person (and I’m sorry to have to put it this way, but really) the equivalent of a piddly bit of walking. It even counted if you did it in 10 minute bursts – the time it took me to walk to the bus or tube when I lived in London, the time it takes me to walk to the coach station in Bristol.

But wait, you think, maybe the survey included a disproportionate number of “old folk”. Well it was a proper large random sample, so the proportions would have matched those in the wider population, but just before I disappear in puff of flabbergastedness, let me add that, of course, as you would expect, the youngest age group did take a lot more exercise:

Men and women aged 16-34 were most likely to have met the recommendations (11% and 8%respectively),

I hardly know what to say. Yes, I knew that levels of activity were not as good as they should be, but it really hadn’t connected for me quite how bad things are … and yet there’s all that hoo-har about sport and fitness and going to the gym and doing marathons for charity … oh, we are such symbolic creatures aren’t we?

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 #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.

Storing cars on the pavement

Grit dispenser

Hello again, dear imaginary reader. It’s the first of January. It’s a beautiful day here in Bristol, mild, sunny, still. And very quiet of course, being January first. Just the time for some idle psychological speculation.

Pavement parking. Oh dear, yes, sorry. So anyway, the background is that I live in an area with an eighteenth century street layout. The houses were built long before it was assumed that everyone would own a large personal conveyance and so the streets are lined on both sides with parked cars, many, or possibly most of which are parked, at least partly, on the pavement. This is a slow moving area, so walking in the middle of the street is not dangerous, but in places it is compulsory, which is annoying.

Pavement parking is a popular topic in the active travel blogosphere. Ugly, nuisance, potentially dangerous, blah blah blah. Yes, of course I’d agree.

Except that I think that if you tried to put any of these points to someone who has just parked their motor on the pavement you would be greeted with utter astonishment and incomprehension. What sort of reply would you get if you actually asked a few people – asked them very, very politely of course, because we are imagining real life here, not the internet, and we would actually like to be listened to and get an honest answer. I would anticipate the following categories of reply.

Answer one: “If I didn’t park on the pavement then other people wouldn’t be able to drive down the road because there isn’t any room. It’s obvious. Are you stoopid or something?”

Answer two: “Yes, oh, I know it’s awful and I do worry about the elderly and young mums with buggies, and I do try to do it as little as possible, but really, the roads are so narrow round here that if I didn’t park on the pavement then it wouldn’t be possible for anyone to drive through the area and what if there was a fire or someone needed an ambulance?”

Answer two is essentially the same as answer one but with added handwringing. And my point is? Implied assumptions. My imaginary interlocutors are quite right – if they are going to park in a built up area with narrow roads then the socially responsible thing to do is park on the pavement. There is, they think, no alternative. If I were to point out that there are at least two alternatives, one of which is to park somewhere else and the other of which is to not have a car at all, I would get more of the open-mouth treatment. These are both, currently, unthinkable. They need to be made thinkable.

Bit of philosophy for you

Here’s a thought.

Telling someone what they feel is offensive and insulting. If they say that they have a particular feeling, then who am I to know different? People are best placed to know their own inner lives.

But consider this. We have to respect people, but we don’t necessarily have to respect what they say. (You think you are what you say? Really?) It is possible to draw a distinction between experience and interpretation of that experience. Interpretations can be mistaken. We revise our interpretations all the time, often in the light of other experiences, sometimes as a result of someone else suggesting an alternative interpretation, sometimes spontaneously.

Two experiences we often hear: a driver says that cyclists who hold them up and get in the way, put everyone in danger and make travelling frustrating and stressful; a pedestrian says their life is made a misery by hooligans cycling on the pavement. Are these really accounts of their experience? Or are they interpretations of something else: an experience of feeling frustrated, stressed, frightened and angry. I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that those experiences are real. It would be offensive to suggest otherwise. I would (often) doubt their interpretation of these feelings. I’d say these were caused by a badly-designed urban environment with too many cars, given too much priority. Our lightning-fast, causally-hair-trigger brains link up the feelings, caused by a complicated system, with the simple sight of a few bicycles and interpret the feelings as being caused by the bikes.

Campaigning relevance?

Communication. Do not get drawn into mollifying peoples interpretations and respond with tutting about red-light jumping and pavement riding. Do not get drawn in refuting other peoples interpeations and respond with growling about speeding and pavement parking. So far as possible point at an alternative interpretation of experience of the unpleasantness of the traffic environment – and a very real and possible solution to it. How do we do all this ‘pointing’? I don’t know, I’m still working on it – but the thing is, don’t get sucked in to disputing someone else’s interpretation of the world, because it can sound as if you’re disputing their feelings. Don’t get drawn into fighting their self-chosen battles on their self-chosen battleground. Keep it cool.

Noticed on Gloucester Road

From this it appears that people actually try to take their bikes into a shop. I find this quite strange – it would just get in the way wouldn’t it? You might get oily marks on things. Honestly, some people. Tut.

But it might be an example of behaving like traffic – forgetting that the bike is an actual large lump of encumbering metal and thinking oneself a natural unencumbered pedestrian and behaving accordingly.

Or it could be an attempt to reduce the faff factor – all you want to do is pop into the shop for a quick nosey – 2 mins, tops – but if you have to faff about finding a bikestand and then faff around with a huge heavy lock, then it’s hardly worth it.

The Cyclenation conference again

One of the afternoon speakers was Roger Geffen of the CTC. I have to say I rather warmed to him. His talk alluded, rather gingerly, to the Big Infrastructure Bunfight and I wondered if his slightly frantic manner was caused by this being such a tender topic. Apparently not – other ctc bigwigs present told me that this is just his normal style and on this occasion he was actually being rather restrained.

The CTC are known for being, or perhaps for having been, strong opponents of cycle infrastructure which is segregated from the ‘real’ road. I sense that this particular debate is gradually coming to a sort of consensus, as can be seen from this item, dated 12th October, on the CTC website: CTC declares support for quality segregation while still opposing “farcilities”.

A point that was made by both Roger Geffen and by Philip Darnton was that the offical approval of cycling is maybe opening a ‘window of opportunity’ and that activists must be able to give a clear ‘ask’, or the window will close again.

Real politics is a strange business: we talk about it using all these glowing words like “vision” and “strategy” which imply that it is all about human will and imagination. A more accurate image for the actual business on the ground might be one of those games of traditional medieval ‘football’ that gets held every Shrove Tuesday in some village in the sticks. Hundreds of people pushing and shoving across three muddy fields, most of whom never even see the ball and the last goal was scored in 1382. So I’m trying to avoid premature rejoicing about windows of opportunity – but nevertheless this was a hopeful speculation which could, I suppose be true(ish).

Anyway, it contributed to the good feeling with which I ended the day.