Alarm bells: marginalisation ahead!

The predominant system in transport planning and engineering is that of automobility. And since humans are shaped by their surroundings and environments (habitat), automobility is a system that permeates deeply into our public space, society, and our resultant interactions. The circle closes. How can the closed system be challenged?

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From V Wesslowski (2014) “Facilitating a Contested Practice”

Automobility reins so supreme all around the globe that even the big cycle cities cannot ever relax the fight for non-car spaces. Yet, as we well know, the car-based systems are maiming, laming, choking and fattening us, killing society and cities.  There is a paradox here. We have left rationality behind. Automobility contradictively is an entirely emotional socio-technical system.

Cycling of course challenges automobility. It presents a threat to this predominant and largely automatic system. Automobility is so pervasive that its (power) structures are often totally invisible. We do not even notice traffic-sewer roads anymore. Perversely, and inversely to their damage, they blend into the background.

But you can feel automobility’s edges. When the system gets pushed, then automobility pushes back. Even where cycling is embedded in society, Copenhagen and Amsterdam, they are space fighting. Just imagine the situation in low-cycling countries: the fight is especially heightened in low-cycling countries with a corresponding low social norm on (everyday/transport) cycling.

But challenge we must

One big remaining question for campaigners is to ask: “who needs challenging?”. In other words, who are the people who can change the environment to better benefit the collective good? For transport definitively is a collective structural matter. Who holds the decision-making power over our transport environments?

Decision-making splits into political and administrational power. The former is worried about re-election, the latter doesn’t have to. There is a strong argument that politicians often (wilfully or haphazardly) misrepresent their electorate on transport matters. How do they know what people want? From my experience, it is a question politicians nearly always answer by having a hunch (and ‘using’ all their cognitive biases at their disposal). We must change that.

Once something is embedded at the political and the administrative level, it has become a dominant socio-technical system, like automobility has. It becomes ever so much harder to change.

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From V Wesslowski (2014) “Facilitating a Contested Practice”

Then there is the individual

Individuals by themselves don’t hold power per se, but they can form or join interest groups highlighting inadequacies, raising profiles, putting and bumping things up on public and political agendas. Showing off public support. Lobbying, informing and activating decision-makers is certainly one thing that campaigners must do.

And yes, individuals vote, but how much does that matter? On the subject of transport cycling UK political parties tend to be floundering – they seem lost. Transport and its pervading power is currently not a rational system. Although, and that’s good, transport (cycling) seems to become more of a political issue in the UK – thanks to some sterling local campaigning (mostly in London, but elsewhere too). Rationality, and with that evidence-based planning, may be able to enter the arena again. We still have some campaigning to do it seems to me.

What is your campaign addressing?

One of the hard things in campaigning is getting the momentum going and keeping the momentum. But the hardest thing yet in low-cycling countries is dealing with the marginalisation status. And to persistently deal with it whenever it’s thrown at you over and over again. The social norm is not on our side to start with. What am I trying to say by that?

The dominant system wants to remain. It gives off a cosy, warm and fuzzy feel, and it’s a little bit lazy too. It’s rooting for the status quo – is big, heavy and won’t budge easily. It ignores you. When you push it hard enough, however, it gets stirred – and it makes it clear that it doesn’t want you to do that. It makes that clear in many different ways, but a general first response is by increasing your feeling of marginalisation – it asserts its dominant status. “It’s always been like that”, “No need for change”, “How ridiculous!” and cycle specific ones: “No. Why spend money on just a few cyclists?”, “Cyclists are [insert any old myth]”.

Automobility does that because as soon as you can be shown to be different and ‘other’, then you are much easier to dismiss (however relevant, logical or urgent your concerns and causes may be). What do you do next, is the question.

Who is your campaign addressing?

Campaigns should be keenly aware of their inherent status of marginalisation and social no-norm. I have seen many campaign groups whose response was to hide and turn inwards. Marginalisation needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

It is not easy. Human default seems to be one of avoiding marginalisation. It’s not necessarily that we all want to be popular all the time, but we most definitively do want to be part of the herd, the crowd, the in-group, part of the dominant system. It has kept many a person from being good campaigners. Avoidance would be a very natural response to feeling the rejection pains of marginalisation. Groups and individuals then get solely concerned (often obsessed) with providing a safe group for like-minded people. But, these groups have stopped turning outwards, stopped facing the pressures and pressing for change, ultimately ceased campaigning. A self-help group is not a campaign group. But a campaign group can have aspects of a self-help group.

What may be useful is a segmentation of the population and their transport views. After doing some reading, I suggest the public tide is turning on automobility – if there ever was one clear view on automobility! Naturally, it may still depend on the phrasing and context of the questions posed. Where and how a net is cast determines the catch it makes. Politicians often like to use this against out-groups (only that they themselves have outed that group and labled it in the first place!). Discussing voter preference is a real minefield, and a very interesting and a very hot subject.

I have noticed amongst campaigners that we often get confused with who we are addressing with our campaigning. Strong campaigns stay strong when they have a strong message of common good which is squarely aimed at the people who can practically do something about it. If your campaign aim is one of common good, as building cycleways is, you are on the right track. I suggest that you don’t get too bogged down with public communication, unless media opportunities open up, simply because the message will get out there anyhow, will win over people, silently supportive or newly informed.

It is decision makers who must be the first and foremost target. But beware, they may like to marginalise you at first. Overcoming marginalisation and coping with marginalisation are intimate parts of the struggle. Think of automobility as a driverless car careered out of control, and we need to stop it for the common good.

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