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.


Might active travel decrease obesity?

For reasons explained previously, I’m not really that keen on the whole blogging thing. Apart from anything else, almost everything one wants to say will eventually be said by someone else, so what’s the point?

Here is today’s example, it’s from Joe Dunckley, and concerns the connection between lack of physical actrivity and the “obesity crisis”. It’s from what, he warns us, is a rather sciencey and not terribly finished piece – and yes, it is slightly confusing to read unless you’ve already read a bit about the debate he references. Nonetheless it contains a point with which I am in total agreement. Joe’s post is aligned with a central thrust of psychobikeology: stop thinking about individuals (oh it’s so terrible the way people behave! Let’s talk to them about it!), start thinking about systems (people behave the way they do for complicated reasons, most of which are related to external circumstances. How might we change those circumstances?).

(The full post is here)

“[Garry Taubes commenting on the obesity crisis, in the journal Nature] is right to treat those who “blame individuals for not following [healthy eating] advice properly” with contempt. But not because the advice is wrong. Because any “advice” — right or wrong — is going to be useless. This is not a problem that individuals have created for themselves, and it’s not a problem that individuals can be “advised” to solve for themselves. This is a problem of the environment that we live in: the types of food that are available to us, and the opportunities for an active healthy lifestyle that have been taken away from us. […]

“[…] obesity, is a process of physiology. But it’s a problem of environment. […] you can’t solve a problem environment with advice alone. Bad lifestyle choices are not an individual failing. Good lifestyle choices need an infrastructure to support them.”

Just to expand a little here, strategically, I think it’s best to avoid claiming “answer to the obesity crisis” as one of the benefits of a public policy which takes walking and cycling seriously enough to do what is necessary (just as I think it’s strategically best to avoid banging on about carbon emissions too much). This is because it is a huge oversimplification – and therefore becomes a source of yet more contrarian ‘debate’ and dithering. I think it’s better to point out how great physical activity is in health terms (and how effortless it feels when that activity just happens as part of everyday getting around) and skirt around the whole psychological rabbit-hole of dieting-and-weight-loss.

“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 #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.

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.

Behaving like traffic

Our minds are amazing because they can do far, far more than they evolved to do (just look around you). Nevertheless that does not mean that they can do all these 21st century things easily, or particularly well, or with no practice. And the fact that the limits of our minds are to some extent unknown, does not mean that our minds are unlimited. ‘Evolutionary psychology’ gets laughed at, not because it suggests that we are in some ways constrained by our evolutionary history (of course we are), but because it can seem so over-confident in suggesting the precise ways in which it is so constrained. In other words, the criticism is not of the endeavour itself (provide behavioural explanations in an evolutionary framework) but of the flimsiness of some of the assertions which are presented as ‘findings’.

So with that in mind, let me try this one out on you.

Hom sap is a walker and runner. Natural selection has not had time to help us with the speeds now available to us from driving. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that our default behaviour in traffic of all kinds is in fact ‘walking behaviour’. That is to say, to drive (and to a much lesser extent, cycle), in order to cope with the extra danger created by speed, we need to have extra and/or different behaviour artificially trained into us (for example ‘mirror signal manoeuvre’ repeated endlessly during driving lessons). When that training slips or decays we will, by default, ‘behave like walkers’.

Continuing the ‘mirror signal manoeuvre’ example, when you are in pedestrian mode you don’t give explicit signals of your intentions to move or change direction. The reason seems obvious – at walking speed collisions very rarely happen and on the rare occasions that they do, almost never cause serious injury. Why are walking collisions so rare though? We don’t give conscious and explicit signals of intentions, but we do give unconscious and implicit signals – we read each other without thinking about it and more or less know what the people around us are going to do, without being consciously aware of this.

As a pedestrian, you cannot help but notice how many drivers don’t bother signalling. So much so, that the absence of a signal from a car is no indication that it not going to turn into your path. I would suggest that they are simply ‘behaving like walkers’, their driver training is not at that moment operational and it no more occurs to them to signal than it would to a pedestrian. They just unconsciously assume that their intentions are transparent – just as the intentions of a pedestrian actually are transparent to other pedestrians.

Another example is tailgating. I am a rather aggressive walker, prone to getting annoyed when held up behind a bunch of dozy tourists occupying the pavement, given to walking very close behind them, tutting impatiently and trying desperately to force a way through. This might be rude (thinking about it, this was definitely London behaviour) but it is not dangerous. Tailgating in a car is dangerous. Everyone knows, in some sort of theoretical way, that it is dangerous. Remember that chart of stopping distances on the back of the highway code? How often do you see the safe distances observed? Once again, I would suggest that the imposed driver training has switched off so it feels safe, just as it actually is safe to tailgate on foot.

So I would suggest that in the broadest sense we don’t behave like cyclists or behave like drivers; we all ‘behave like traffic’ – revert to our natural behaviour as walkers.

Does this have any campaigning relevance?

Indirectly. A quick online stroll will reveal huge amounts of shouting. Cyclists jumping red lights, dozy pedestrians who never look before stepping out, dumbass motorists who park on the pavement. Well shouting is great fun so please just get on with it. I quite like reading it sometimes. But shouting is all it is. It would be useful in campaigning effectively to be able to think strategically. Even though one’s own immediate situation is important, it is equally important to be able to think beyond it – and it gets us absolutely nowhere to start adopting a moralising tone or thinking of other people as stupid.

More importantly, although training is important and of course people can learn to do all sorts of new things, and learn to old things much better, even with this, perhaps one should beware of expecting training or education to pull too much weight. Folks will be folks.