Concepts, models and things

This week’s post comes out on Thursday, a tad earlier than the usual Friday or Saturday. Shortly, I will be away… just about to catch the ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam this afternoon. However, in good academic style, I have been thinking about conceptual models for a while – actually, since-ever posting this rudimentary conceptualisation from 1992 by McClintock.

And suffice it to say, we have moved on from there.

Philosophy and frameworks

Not to keep you waiting, I’ll come straight out with it: the search continues. Due to the subject’s complexity and interdisciplinary nature, there is no agreed conceptual (research) framework or model of travel behaviour that takes account of all ins and outs.

But, to date, there is a multitude of ideas out there how to frame it up (for research). See here for a rather random but illustrative collection: Katja’s Collection of Concepts [pdf]. And perhaps, out of this jamboree a conceptual framework will develop over time. At any rate, what’s happening in the research world looks to be convergent and we can discuss it in November. Let me know what you think.

On the whole, I’d say, it’s a question of degree: researchers seem to struggle to subscribe degrees of influence to internal (human, cognitive, social norms etc) and external (environmental) processes. And who could blame them, (eh, well, us)? As one interacts with the other, it is an entirely philosophical debate as to how much, or little, this mutual shaping is attributed to internal or external forces. It’s a question of how big an arrow is and which directions the arrow(s) point(s) in. The answer you give to that question therefore depends on which ‘conceptual camp’ you (want to) sit in.

Framing the debate

For the time being I’ll leave you with Ma et al (2014) who say “the perception of the environment had a direct and significant effect on bicycling behavior, while the direct effect of the objective environment on bicycling behavior became insignificant when controlling for perception”.

The environment is seen through people’s eyes, brains, heads. In short, our perception (and conceptualisation) of the environment dictates the way we interact with it. I’d argue that this is great news and a super starter for ten for someone who wants to investigate public perception to the (familiar and unfamiliar) built environment: changes to the environment can bring about a change in perception with them.

And there probably is a threshold to that too. Little things in their entirety can influence our behaviour and interaction – and little incremental changes to streetscapes may also go totally unnoticed. But we’ve all been there before: when environments are suddenly tremendously different to the one we are familiar with, we’ll scream “Wow, everyone cycles in Amsterdam!”

It appears that I am strangely drawn towards JJ Gibson (affordances), J Jacobs (spatial justice), J Gehl (observations)… the letter J seems operative for some reason. Jovial. Jubilant. Jazzy. Yip, I will get my coat, and  catch my Amsterdam ferry now.


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