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)


More about ‘choice’

I put the word in inverted commas to make ‘choice’ seem a little opaque. Its meaning is usually assumed to be straightforward and it is assumed to be a Good Thing. Yes, choice is pretty good, but it is not at all straightforward.

For some purposes, ‘choice’ can be treated as a ‘black box’ – we’re not interested asking why people choose, we only need to know what they choose, treating that choice as a ‘revealed preference’. In case there are any economists reading this (unlikely), this sounds to me like a useful procedure for some purposes – the social sciences make use of simplification and abstraction just as the natural sciences do. But asking ‘what causes one choice over another?’ is highly relevant for other purposes and there is a lot of research (both observational and experimental) looking at this.

What I’m getting at here is that choice of travel behaviour (“oh well, now we’ve moved to the country we really must get a car”) is not neutral in the way that, say, choosing between the chocolate gateau and the strawberry cheesecake would be. If so many people chose the cheesecake that you couldn’t find decent gateau anymore, it wouldn’t matter that much. It would be sad for the choc-fans, of course, and a slight reduction in cultural liveliness for everyone, but I don’t think there would be the justification for legislation, choc-awareness campaigns or public subsidy for gateau-making equipment. Nobody’s freedom would be impinged on in any important way. But the current transport arrangements (i.e. the primacy of personal driving) do violate freedom in important ways, (which I will talk about in a future post) and they do cause harm, as previously argued .

So we do want to ask why people make the travel choices they do, and to insist otherwise (“modal agnosticism”) is, I think, a misunderstanding of economics and a fantasy about the possibility of a “level playing field”.

Choices are not isolated.

Right then, we make choices in a context. So for example, it might make sense to do your shopping once a week, or fortnight, in an out of town supermarket – it saves time and money which you need for other things. Correct choice. But why is there an out of town supermarket, with a jinormous free car park, and super-cheap food? Because a heroic entrepreneur who loves to take risks set one up? Oh come on. A decision was made to allow a very rich company (which knows exactly how small a risk it is taking) to build it. The company’s behaviour is fine – that’s what companies do and competitive aggression can, if kept in harness, be very beneficial.

But society does not have to say “yes” to every request from aggressive companies, because what is good for Tesco’s business is not necessarily good for society’s business. And yet, the more “yes’s” have already been said, the harder it becomes to say “no”, the harder it becomes to even think “no”. It does become genuinely difficult. It has become genuinely difficult.

That small planning decision to allow the out-of-town supermarket sits within a context of myriad other small planning decisions about the built environment, stretching back throughout much of the previous century, but which were all made with the presumption that more car-ownership was a good thing, would produce good results, would increase wealth and make us happier. There was a presumption that car-use should be fostered (and doesn’t that word sound just a wee bit, erm, nannyish?). Those decisions brought about the current situation, where many people ‘have to’ (and a few really do have to), drive everywhere.

The way out of this situation is via myriad small decisions which admit that there were some unanticipated consequences of our previous decisions and that we now want something different.