Irrational transport realities

With transport in the UK, we have manoeuvred ourselves into a monolithically-hardened deadend. Decades of systemic and systematic support for automobility – much at the expense of alternatives – have left us high and dry. Anyone who is challenging automobility, its practices and societal demands will feel a rebuff, harsh push-back, a simple wall or get a deeply emotional response. The power and might of automobility is strong. It permeates society. Anchored in our heads, in our thinking and doing. But challenged it must be. The monopoly of automobility is a destructive, all-eggs-in-one-basket perilous path to take. Others have written more about this elsewhere so I won’t address the gory futility of a pure-automobility transport system here much further.

One thing is very clear. The knowledge is there how to overcome and redirect away from the deadend of monosyllabic automobility. Evidence is there in abundance supporting multi-modality (offering transport choice and variety) as a better, fairer, more viable system for society and the individual. This means that the inaction we currently see originates from elsewhere. There are other forces at play. Acting on us, invisible. There, but not in our grasp or consciousness. We have become homo automobiliensis. Automobility, we

  • breathe (the fumes),
  • think (car is king) and
  • do (remain complictly silent)

automobiliy by automation, receiving it unbeknownst to ourselves but still gratefully so. Our minds have been consumed, numbed to other possibilities, different futures and alternatives. The following is a sample from academic literature where researcher felt the boundaries that automobility brings.


Decision-makers may simply blame the public for being petrolheads, and thereby justifying their inaction and absolving their institutional action. We can see that in this Australian example: “A frequently reported barrier to increasing active transport behavior was the Australian ‘car culture’. Participants [decision makers] reported public apathy toward alternative forms of transport, as well as barriers of busy lifestyles and family commitments.” (Cole, Burke, Leslie, Donald, and Owen, 2010, p.501)

If no alternatives are sought, suggested, discussed and provided, the debate not led, steered and coordinated, then we will remain in the stalemate situation that we are currently in. The kickstart that’s needed for multi-modality to become a reality must confidently and expertly come from transport authorities. This, in a neoliberal political frame (of pretending to absolve all decision to the public, to keep an engineereed stasis), may be a rather difficult thing to overcome indeed.

Guilty pleasures of reliance

From focus groups talking about their travel habits and behaviour in Glasgow, these kind of reactions were extracted: “[P]eople feel guilty about failing to travel actively suggests a negative consequence for health promotion when available resources and capacities do not allow its adoption (p.1) … However, for some, there was no guilt attached. Whilst more of a conscious motive, this habitual behaviour and lack of consideration of the alternatives could manifest itself as wanting to get the most out of the car given that it had been ‘paid for’: I don’t see the point in paying car insurance and tax if I’m going to walk. I drive even though it takes as long as I walk. (p.37)” – JMP (2009)

This is clearly describing societally designed car dependence. Here are a couple more JMP transcripts of individuals’ contributions about their relationship to the car, demonstrating a thinking of collective irrationality and a very personal logic:

Participant X “I’d feel as if my lung had been removed if I had to use the bus all the time I think it would be really difficult.” (JMP, 2009, p.38)

Participant Y “That would just put you over the edge – credit crunch first and then no car.” (JMP, 2009, p.38)

“Most people were open and honest about the convenience the car brought and the sense of control, freedom and independence it offered.” (JMP, 2009, p.38)

Automated driver thinking

People are bound to their cars. “In our study of citizens in a Swedish town, we find that the car is perceived superior compared to both the bus and the bicycle. It appears that the intention to use the car and to use the more pro-environmental travel modes seem to be at odds with each other; i.e. car users do not have a strong intention to use more proenvironmental travel modes. … findings confirming that car drivers are less flexible when it comes to modal choice (Verplanken et al., 1998).” (Eriksson and Forward, 2011, p.37)

Internal factors

“From current research, it would appear that individuals in identical situations and in the same socio-economic groups choose to commute using different transport modes. This implies that an individual will base his or her choice not on an objective situation, but on their perception of that situation; their eventual decision is thus also grounded in internal factors.” (Heinen, van Wee, and Maat, 2010, p.83)

Quite theoretically put, but what it boils down is this. People make decisions based on signals they receive from the ‘objective’ environment. It also means that cycling can and does happen across different socio-economic groups.

Furthermore, cycling is different to driving, so that we must treat cycling differently in frameworks and theory to driving. “This [study of determinants of mode decision] suggests that predicting and influencing bicycle use needs to be grounded in other kinds of knowledge than those currently available for motorized forms of transport.” (ibid, p.1)

A little word of scale: in its theoretical detail it may be complicated, academically-speaking. However in what’s needed as a basis in low-cycling countries, it’s not.

Unreasoned behaviour

Acker, Wee, and Witlox (2010) specifically include ‘unreasoned behaviour’ in their concept of transport-choice. Discussing various psycho-social models, the research team comes back to the point that “individuals are not constantly conscious of their behaviour” and that habit can be an automated process, switching off active thinking (p.229)

All this might of course only mean that we haven’t found a perfect model yet (do we ever). And ultimately, that human behaviour is irrational, only weakly linkable to factors and hence difficult to predict. Yet we do exactly that when designing for car use and road access. We have simplified models so much, that it serves the car, and smothers much else. (Koglin & Rye 2014)

Emotional illogic

UK researchers noticed that transport often prompts an illogical response also showing a loss of sense of care, compassion and understanding for the other users. “They talk of being ‘bugged’ and ‘annoyed’ by cyclists and about ‘getting a car head on’ when they drive and get irritated by cyclists on the road; language which suggests an automatic and emotional response rather than rational and cognitive one.” (Spotswood et al, 2015, p.27)


Despite knowing things like the above (just a small selection) and added also the knowledge we have about what happens to us as drivers, we continue to pay our servitude to the car. Power is at play. And we must make visible these hidden structures of power, its flows and pathways in order to make a move on sustainable travel. As it stands, we are stuck, jammed, gridlocked by automobility. Unblocking this deadlock will take a monumental effort of cooperation, alliances and strength. But it’d be so worth doing.



Acker, V., Wee, B., & Witlox, F. (2010). When transport geography meets social psychology: toward a conceptual model of travel behaviour. Transport reviews, 30(2), 219-240. doi: 10.1080/01441640902943453

Cole, R., Burke, M., Leslie, E., Donald, M., & Owen, N. (2010). Perceptions of representatives of public, private, and community sector institutions of the barriers and enablers for physically active transport. Transport Policy, 17(6), 496-504. doi: 10.1016/j.tranpol.2010.05.003

Eriksson, L., & Forward, S. E. (2011). Is the intention to travel in a pro-environmental manner and the intention to use the car determined by different factors? Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 16(5), 372-376. doi: 10.1016/j.trd.2011.02.003

Heinen, E., van Wee, B., & Maat, K. (2010). Commuting by Bicycle: An Overview of the Literature. Transport reviews, 30(1), 59-96. doi: 10.1080/01441640903187001

JMP,  (2009). Qualitative research into active travel in Glasgow. In G. C. f. P. Health (Ed.): Glasgow Centre for Population Health.

Koglin, T., Rye, T. (2014). The marginalisation of bicycling in Modernist urban transport planning. J Transp Health, 1(4), 214-222. doi: 10.1016/j.jth.2014.09.006

Spotswood, F., Chatterton, T., Tapp, A., & Williams, D. (2015). Analysing cycling as a social practice: An empirical grounding for behaviour change. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 29, 22-33. doi: 10.1016/j.trf.2014.12.001


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