Trust me, I am human

Currently I am planning my field trip to Germany and with that the second part of the interviews for data collection. I completed a pilot study for the first part of the interview in Newcastle a couple of month ago. It’s high tide to get thinking more deeply about the second half, its setup and goals , and pronto. For September, I am planning to pilot the complete interview (part 1 and 2) in Bremen, Germany. Overall, my PhD research is looking at public perception (as well as power and politics) of cycle infrastructure. As an ‘added extra’ the research is carried out in two cities, thereby comparing two urban areas, one in Germany with in one in England – one with cycleable infrastructure, the other largely without.

Recap: first part of interview session

Participants watching short films showing different cycle infrastructure

The first part of the interview involves three videos of three street environments. The filmed street environments are shown from the active perspective of the handlebar. The participants are asked to imagine that they participate in the street environment riding a bike. Whilst watching the videos, the participants give a simultaneous Think-Aloud account of their immediate thoughts about space use. The technique allows gathering quick, “snap” opinions. In essence, the Think Aloud Protocol (Ericsson & Simon, 1993; Someren et al, 1994) seeks to create a running commentary – a stream of consciousness, it taps into the more unconscious parts of the brain.


Second part of interview session

The two interview parts are held in one session. The second part of the interview follows straight after the Think-Aloud task. The second part is more akin to an actual traditional interview. The researcher engages the participant in a semi-structured conversation about cycle infrastructure and its perceived feasibility. This should result in collecting somewhat deeper opinions than the Think-Aloud part allowed. Having primed the participants on infrastructure and cycling during the Think-Aloud part, should help keeping the focus on physical urban design. A questions for the semi-structured interview could be

  • Can you imagine this (unfamiliar) infrastructure in your city?
  • Can you identify with any of the infrastucture?

As the participants watched infrastructure of varying quality (NewcastleGateshead, Bremen, and best-practice such as Groningen) should aid to steer the commentary towards change and transitions. Perhaps, that way, we can start to see some “reasoning and bargaining” emerging here. Questions for the semi-structured interview could be

  • Is the (unfamiliar) infrastructure you have seen be possible in your city?
  • What would be needed to see such infrastructure built in your city?

The qualitative analysis will then find the general themes and narratives emergent from the interviews. I am hoping to uncover the logic boundaries, the edge of rationality and the start of structural stories. As urban space is such a contested currency in our cities, I am certain that participants will readily infer some opinion about power and politics. Finding out about the availability and presence (or inability and absence) of the bigger picture of power and politics is quite essential to the outcome of my research. The concluding bit of the thesis, all being well, should be a framework for public engagement and messaging on space-change projects. This should be useful for decision makers.

I do hope (yes, we all start aiming high, before coming back to earth with a thump!) to activate (political and administrative) decision makers and increase their contextualisation of public opinion. I would like to understand much better how public opinion is formed, especially in relation to street changes and cycling infrastructure. It will be key to advancing a healthy liveable city agenda.

Participants’ selection

The question “Who to interview?” is still outstanding. Roughly 80% of trip purposes are non-commuting but this overwhelming majority of trips is largely ignored by current transport planning and engineering practices. Often the voices of these non-commuters are pushed aside, through (political, administrative, professional) ignorance or by intention, or by professional practice or research using methods and datasets without qualifiying and informing to decision makers about the limitations. I am currently thinking it would be helpful to concentrate on interviewing parents with care-taking responsibilities, such as organising and carrying out child travel to school, to play, to visit friends and family. This would take into account a wider sweep at transport, going beyond the commute.

Speaking to people with child-caretaking responsibilites would give a voice to this section of society and could help highlighting its needs, current restraints and future desires. We know from Aldred (2015) that imagining travel with children humanises our views on street environments and softens our outlook and expectations (even that of the hardened UK cyclist). Kids are precious cargo indeed. Designing for use of children is planning for future resilience, health and wellbeing. There is no argument there.

The way we think

There are some deep disconnects in the way we see our environments in relation to our own actions. Researchers sometimes call it the value-action gap. It means that a divergence can be observed between having knowledge about something and the actual reaction to that something. It results in behaviour paradoxical to its intentions. Transport and urban design are “good” examples for that discrepancy between thinking and doing. We all know cycling is good and have been inform about that repeatedly by the authorities. We like the idea of cycling, but very few of us cycle regularly for transport in the UK.

Partially the value-action gap exists for reasons of social dilemma. An action taken by an individual cannot overcome structural problems. No-one likes to be the guinea-pig or personally put their head (or the heads of their children) on the line. As an example we can see this in the school run. An individual cannot fight traffic risks and dangers, it feels safer, for your own consideration, to drive. Hence roads needing a structural change to overcome the social dilemma of the school run.

A wider look becomes necessary. The systems needs a structural redress to address collective imbalances, and not rely on individual action, see Spotswood (2015, 2016).  Yet neoliberal ideology, so prevalent in the UK (but not so strongly present in Germany), puts that phony choice onto the individual (through “nudges” for example). This approach often results in (implicit, hidden) victim blaming and generally ends in inaction/freezing (rarely fight or flight) of the individual. Although the stress of cognitive dissonance may still be felt by the (vegetative/automatic) nervous system, it may also seek easing through the creation of structural stories, as described by Freudendal-Pedersen (2009).

Some ideas about human roots and reasons

Social boundaries

I am fascinated by the way we, humans, operate. As a herd animal we can perhaps meaningfully relate to a fixed number of say 100 people (our tribe, ie friends and family). Beyond that our path splits and there are two pathways. One would be adopting an altruistic view whilst the other is thinking selfishly and othering subjects that are remote and strange to us. (Brexit campaigning really used this human setup to a devastating effect.)

Bringing to the fore an altruistic, less self-centred view, depends on building trust in ideas, ideals and their identities and meanings. We can more readily identity with ideas once we see the reasons behind them.

Spatial boundaries

Another interesting thing I have noticed that it does depend on how “close to home” something happens. It determines your strength of feeling (and strength of defence!) for it. There is a spatial component to it too. We react with much more fervour when change is planned just outside our door. Even the strongest green people start fighting for the right to their car parking space. Mind you, it could also be a general dislike of the change proposer, the transport authority, that’s kicking people’s emotions off the usual scale.

Spatial closeness can result in feelings of identity, pride and belonging. It becomes more personal. This can be used to good effect, or bad effect.

Cognitive boundaries

We are hugely emotional and quite automatically-acting beings. We have plenty of built-in failure in our decision-making processes. Anyone who has read Kahneman’s seminal “Thinking, fast and slow” appreciates just how many cognitive biases we have (and more and more are ‘discovered’ by the day).  Or Ariely’s “Predictably irrational” is a good entry-level read on that subject too. He is showing, just like Kahenman, how we make illogical decisions, quite routinely. Our ancient rooted brains (and nervous system) play silly tricks on us. Another way to describe this is Peters’ “The chimp paradox” or, going back to the grandparents of psychology: Freud’s ego-id-superego distinction is not that far away from that fast-slow framework too.

Our opinion can vary, depending on which frame of mind your are in when asked.

The wider picture

From segmentation studies we know that many can be persuaded away from strongly held positions when engaged with wider context and information (Jensen, 1999; Anable, 2005). But doing this requires some upfront effort. It might just take that little bit more time to outline a vision (years), explain a certain overall situation (months), and to outline a project’s hopes and desires (weeks). I believe all these aspects are necessary ingredients and ideally ought to happen in that sequence too. A vision provides the foundation (carbon reduction, sustainability), whereas the situation is about construction the house (healthy citizens, safe communities and clean air) and the individual projects are the on-going DYI that’s required to make improvements and maintain a general good working order.

The success of conveying liveable city messages rests on its sound and firm foundations. Currently authorities may reckon it is too much effort to communicate wider ideas, including explaining the pros and cons. However they do not take into account the time it takes to uphold the current system of automobility (the car-oriented transport system). It takes tremendous effort to defend and maintain its grossly indefensible position.

There is a wider vision and idea that people have to understand and internalise first to understand the overall context, the benefits and see the necessity of change and strategies for change. I strongly believe people like to be and feel part of something. We are constantly seeking to belong, finding identity and locating meaning. If however an authority rules from high above in an ivory tower and rules with an iron fist it disenfranchises and disengages its subjects. On an emotional level, it destroys the feeling of belonging too. An authority may hide their iron fist in a fluffy glove of (pseudo) engagement and consultation (as so often the case), people will ultimately feel the bogus and reduce their trust in that authority.

In a really wide sense of course, automobility costs society, very dearly. But it is also short-term aspects that cost authority resources, money and energy. When consultations are held and opposing view are voiced, authorities often come out fighting – and that’s fine if a good policies (incl wider vision, reason for change) are in place. It can put context into the fight, so it’s not in vain. Often, that’s not the case: the vision-foundation is not in place, and the consultation is subsequently totally “lost in translation”. Authorities end up fighting tooth and nail, sometimes for a good thing (cycle infrastructure), sometimes for a bad one (more car parking). In the end everyone is exhausted.

Knowing why one does something is essential to success and satisfaction.

For decision makers to understand how people feel about a city, how people contextualise and interact with their policy, political and administrative environments is vital for the planning of expeditious urban change and making engagement and communication inclusive and equitable.



Aldred, R. (2015). Adults’ attitudes towards child cycling: a study of the impact of infrastructure. EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF TRANSPORT AND INFRASTRUCTURE RESEARCH, 15(2), 92 – 115.

Anable, J. (2005). ‘Complacent Car Addicts’ or ‘Aspiring Environmentalists’? Identifying travel behaviour segments using attitude theory. Transport Policy, 12(1), 65-78. doi:10.1016/j.tranpol.2004.11.004

Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1993). Protocol Analysis: verbal reports as data – Please think aloud. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Freudendal-Pedersen, M. (2009). Mobility in daily life: between freedom and unfreedom. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Jensen, M. (1999). Passion and heart in transport — a sociological analysis on transport behaviour. Transport Policy, 6(1), 19-33. doi:10.1016/S0967-070X(98)00029-8

Someren, M. W., Barnard, Y. F., & Sandberg, J. A. C. (1994). The Think Aloud method: A practcal guide to modelling cognitive processes. London: Academic Press Ltd.

Spotswood, F. (2016). Beyond behaviour change. Great Britain: Policy Press.

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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