Blood on invisible hands

I am sitting at my parent’s house, upstairs, with the laptop in my lap. And look out of the window. It has snowed overnight, and all is white, and beautifully wunderbar at that.

Humans, we are a special case.

With all our special abilities and our natural fallacies. For one we are the most self-aware and conscious in the animal kingdom (for animals we are), yet our mind detaches us from objective reality by the many cognitive biases we inherit. We are ‘change blind’. I would like to turn this around a bit. Despite being change-blind, on the whole… bluntly put, we simply do not like change – we are creatures of habit. Not always… so, we do notice when snow has fallen, we are not totally change-blind all the time – some benign value-free change we notice and cherish, some change perceived as intruding and attacking we notice and dislike.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves” -Bertrand Russell

Yes, but sure, we are these huddling-cuddling herd animals by origin and by extension in social reaction and thinking. We like to be liked and we like to be liked by many. Ultimately this means, we like to fit in. Maybe, agree and compromise. Or fall quiet, silent to not ‘out’ ourselves with unpopular views – however good or right they may be. When we stumble over social norms, it’s usually not elegant and certainly uncomfortable. I posit that we are very aware what goes and what not, and we rarely (are in the mood to) push the envelope.

We also like to be in charge of ourselves. We believe we are logical and rational, independent and present ourselves in a constant and consistent manner (and even resort to cognitive bias to ‘overcome’ this)… it’s good to be in control over our thoughts, personal and social surroundings. What about our physical environments? We have little control over our physical environment. Snow, we somehow accept. However otherwise, space provision is controlled by transport and planning authorities. Hanson’s socio-ecological model (so often used to describe the transport situation) is made up of ever-increasing circles of

  • personal (at the centre),
  • then social
  • enveloped by environmental

This is a chart that perhaps has been set up, first and foremost, to describe individual decision-making. But where is the politics, decision-making and policy element? Where is the machine that controls, produces and creates the physical environment? This is why I have increasingly come to embrace Jensen’s model (see below). It shows that transport (mobilities in situ) is made (staged) from above and below. It powers up Hanson’s model by including institutional and structural responsibility. It takes into the equation the collective situation, not just the individual’s. The model takes account of external influences and acknowledges that it’s not just the individual who makes a decision, but that there are collectively-created circumstances that bear down on each one of us. No, bad or silly cycleways, mean no, or very little, or specialised cycling. Quite simply it’s the authorities in charge who need to get into gear.

It was Spotswood et al (2015) who reminded us a year ago, that we must take a more holistic look, to overcome the current deadlock. We must fully operationalise the authorities’ mantra of “wanting to get more people cycling, more often”. The city makes its own cyclists. In effect, please be my guest and blame the city government if you do not like the cycling culture.

The role the individual is able to play is much overplayed.

What Shove et al (2012) and Spotswood and colleagues are pushing against is the way we now make politics in this country. Cosy promises of neoliberalism have us in its spell, and that grip has increasingly turned icy and cold-hearted. Politics is dead in the water and policy is no longer used as an instrument to govern fairly, transparently and inclusively. Neoliberalism has made it personal. Much is now your fault. We are pushed to the corollaries of nudge – that is the extent of permissible influence that has been afforded to you. Baron Münchhausen may have managed to pull himself out of the swamp by his own aristocratic ponytail. However physics tell us this is a fairy tale of a mad man.

Words like responsibility, choice and freedom have been emptied out to the point of complete meaninglessness. In many cases what’s asked of us is beyond us (simplified: you are now held responsible for being unemployed even if there aren’t any jobs). Money has flowed to the top, whilst responsibility flowed to the bottom – making UK one of the most unequal and disengaged countries. In so doing, class order has been restored by neoliberalism, and it was all part of the plan in the words of Harvey (2005).

The individual has been lured by dubious freedoms and apparent choices to think they have a say. A real shame is that national cycle organisations have fallen for this too – a leg trap was laid and it snapped round their ankles. Now they can’t move, but amazingly they thank the trappers as some miniscule pay-offs flow their way (some short silencing money, and even less influence).

In fact we are blamed for something which is largely beyond our own control – see the school run, which has now become an arms race in the UK. We have to start talking individual versus collective responsibility, social justice versus neoliberalism’s politics of hollow choice.

In short we have to bring back politics from the dead. That’s no short task.

  • Hanson, S., et al. (2005). Does the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity? Examining the Evidence – TRB Special Report 282. Transportation Research Board, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
  • Harvey, David (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Jensen, Ole B. (2013). Staging mobilities, Routledge.
  • Shove, Elizabeth, et al. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: everyday life and how it changes. Los Angeles, [Calif.], SAGE.
  • Spotswood, Fiona, et al. (2015). “Analysing cycling as a social practice: An empirical grounding for behaviour change.” Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour 29: 22-33.


Fig. Ole B Jensen’s model, from his book Staging Mobilities

2 thoughts on “Blood on invisible hands

  1. 🙂 I have been groping at something similar! My attempt!

    There is a British Standard about disability and the built environment and there are currently discussions about extending its remit to cover the bits between buildings: BS830.

    I have been in correspondence with the Dot partly who have confirmed that an equality impact assessment of the Highway Code has not been done, and that none is currently planned.

    My thinking has been prompted by two publications, Jan Gehl’s Life between Buildings, and The European Transport Ministers’ document on Accessible Transport.

    Life Between Buildings | Island Press. at
    International Transport Forum. Improving Transport Accessibility for All. at

    I also wrote personally to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act stating the following:

    We do not now have public and private realms that achieve “any journey is only as good as its weakest link.”.

    To do this includes all parts of all journeys, including getting out of bed, going to and using bathrooms and toilets, getting around a home including up and down various levels, getting out of a front or back door, and using pavements.

    It includes all public transport being fully accessible and able to carry all types of mobility equipment, including cargo trikes and mobility scooters.

    The Equality Act has not enabled the full review and reassessment of all practices and professional thinking that I understand to be basic to taking equality seriously. There are not only physical and administrative barriers but also historical, legal, professional and intellectual barriers.”

    I understand that quality standards like British Standards must take a whole system approach that has relationships as key. I find inclusion issues as very intellectually professionally and ethically fulfilling because they do ask serious questions about why and how we should live together.

    I have written to someone involved with the proposed BS revisions that I am very aware everything cannot be done together, but I must ask that the BS8300 revisions look at all issues of life between buildings and at least puts them on the agenda, making sure there have been no unconscious assumptions about where the parties belong and why, like kerbs, and is very conscious of the implications of private, semi private and public spaces, and the barriers that happen when moving from one legal space to another.

    Another series of barriers I am becoming more and more aware of are of governance, administration, specialisation, professions, law and politics!

    Institutionalisation, so we do not even ask basic questions and disallow possibilities that will work by not even accepting the possibilities of change.

    Stan Cohen, States of Denial , discusses these issues from another perspective.


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