Divvying up the divide

Reading, still reading, reading still, I came across the Cupples-Koglin exchange again. It made me think – again, as it did when I first read it some time ago. It is in those moments that some rather stark divides start to form out of the mist. The form of the professional city transport ‘landscape’ is lumpy, and a bit hazy too.

I will put across my points about this bluntly, in black and white. It’s important, I think, to start like that, as otherwise the overriding logic and words would risk getting ‘crushed in translation’. Big things deserve a big look.

Please use the comment box, especially if you disagree with the position I am taking.

Short v long term solution : talking timescale

It appears people – public, academic, practitioners, advocates, politicians, everyone – can get quite entangled in treating the symptoms not the cause. Therefore it’d be good and prudent to define the problem, for starters – before engaging in any solution talk at all. The ground-rule starting point, here, is

  • Why: reduce inequalities, tackle man-made (!) climate change and pollution, health and wellbeing injustice, and acknowledge the big causal role local transport plays in that arena
  • What: reduce car-centricism, reduce car-dependence, provide alternatives, aim for mass cycling and reduce car use
  • How: increase cycling and walking by building conducive enabling environments, road diet, using the human form as the yardstick

In short, I’d like us to talk shop about ‘shifting the modes’, get really down to the awkward nittygritties of the transport transition and – perhaps above all – take a longer view through a wider lens. Anything else, like peeping round the corner, is not focussed enough and just a distraction.

Hard v soft solutions

The hard solutions are the big solutions. Rearranging city space and introducing cycleways will take some vision, imagination and… time. They are long-term solutions. They need thinking through, and by quite a few professions, but together, too. These take into account the inevitable and obvious conclusion: our city environments issue diktats to the user (environmental determinism): environments (like floral or faunal habitats) support or deny us, make or break us, enable or disable us to do certain things and acts.

We simply ‘behave’ within these environments. Bringing our nigh-all subconscious to bear. The human mind is wired to, if unchallenged, work for the short term ‘gain’, and concentrates on the immediate surroundings (house and garden, health of family, some friends / neighbours) ie small-herd animal. Hence policies and regulation(s) being so important as directives for change.

These hard solutions are more clearly seen, envisaged maybe, and identified by engineers, architects, planners if/when they (are allowed to) ‘think big’. Sociologists and social geographers may more readily take to focussing on the individual, and hence can be more predisposed to making the transport transition an individual’s problem of cultural or behaviour change, attitude formation, social surroundings as motivators, or: ‘subject’ just needs training or information. Given the serious bigger picture, this viewpoint carries victim-blaming tendencies. It neglects to see reasons and brushes aside human characteristics. It can also function as a lazy cop-out for the policy- and decision-maker.

Marketing solution

Not to forget, that the public will struggle with conceptually re-imagining space, too. The public, I believe, has turned off to the nudge-nudge message, in many ways. There have been too many instances of ‘being cordially encouraged to swim in shark invested waters whilst being disallowed to play with conkers’ making it increasingly hard for Jo Public to take these messages seriously any more. They are illogical in many more ways than one. Quite mad even. The marketing is all wrong. It’s selling a product no-one wants. The product needs a makeover, not the consumer.

Big solutions

Back to re-imagining space. This poses vital questions. How to reach, engage and communicate with the big public at large, but in particular with receptive groups, like the ‘interested but concerned’. Or do we suffice ourselves with hearing opinions and acknowledge them for what they really are, mostly ‘voices of the uninformed’. In that case, would we not need a ‘mind-mapped’ dictionary to translate these voices? Who’s role is it to empower the public?

As said at the start, I am grossly exaggerating, of course. But one thing is clear, we have to seriously start talking cross-divides, dividing up what’s what – what’s needed and when. Defining the problem and outcome (charting the future), its roots and origins (checking the past to inform the future), these must be the first big bold steps that allow different academic and professional strands, advocates and ultimately the ‘interested but concerned’ public to get (and pull) together.

So, where does that leave us? I think it’s a duty of The Informed to start charting transport futures, for countries, for cities, for neighbourhoods. Real plans, real solutions. These plans would make it relevant, bring it home… and would then be fit for wider public debate.

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