Considerate Cycling 18: A Simple Point

The point I want to make is very simple. It isn’t particularly contentious and it doesn’t take long to express.

My difficulty is that the hostile responses I sometimes get when I make it confirm the truth of what I am saying, while leaving my sceptical correspondents unconvinced.

I expect everyone has that experience at some time, so I hope you can read to the end of this short blog before hauling out the standard denials and shoving the point back where it came from.

Here’s the point itself. I have squeezed it into one tweet-length sentence:

Individual emotional comfort is more influential in decisions about personal daily travelling than any reported probability of physical harm

It has no full stop but it is exactly 140 characters long (including spaces). I’ll put it on the page once more, this time with a full stop.

“Individual emotional comfort is more influential in decisions about personal daily travelling than any reported probability of physical harm.”

As it stands it is a hypothesis. It’s a theory that needs to be tested in contexts that matter, and in ways that are relevant to strategies for transport engineering as much as for transport campaigning. For the time being though, I have a lifetime of experience, research training, friendly chat  and reading that leads me to believe that if I did all the scholarship, planned and executed excellent data gathering and then analysed my data with caution and good advice I would fail to refute the statement.

In plain language, I bet I would be able to show evidence that would change many people’s minds if they were open to mind changing on the basis of formal evidence. Most people aren’t, of course and that is a big part of my dilemma. It is a dilemma that applies just as much to me as it does to the confidently empirical engineer/campaigner who might be rejecting my hypothesis as it now stands.

That’s the formal half. Now the anecdotes. The important, influential half of this blog.

My wife is a pedestrian. Unusually she neither cycles nor drives.  She never took a driving test. Regular journeys of less than a mile (and many that are over a mile) are done on foot, often with shopping bags or other loads. Beyond that she uses the bus or train, and on rare special occasions she gets a taxi or a lift (not from me, we haven’t owned a car for years). She walks a lot. She walks every day and she has done for decades. She lived and worked in Bristol from the age of 17 and has recently returned after an absence of about 30 years.

She is delighted to be back. Moving here has been a really good one for both of us. But on one thing we cannot agree. She absolutely hates sharing her journeys with people on bicycles. She finds that Bristol City Council’s policy of creating shared space has contributed to (or arises from) an anarchic situation in which sudden close encounters between cyclists and pedestrians happen regularly in unexpected and emotionally disturbing ways. The legal situation is not the issue. Signage is ambiguous or inadequate everywhere and conflicts occur independently of the formal rules. She never knows what might happen next.

She knows full well that harm to pedestrians is rare, and when it does happen it is far more likely to be a motorised vehicle that causes it. We all know that. But no-one (even my wife, whose work was in medical laboratories) reflects on scientific knowledge before allowing adrenaline and discomfort to rush briefly through their calmness as a cyclist cuts across a road and  comes between two parked cars onto the pavement they are walking along.  When she feels a cyclist buzz behind her as she walks over a pedestrian crossing she doesn’t summon her rational self fast enough not to feel startled and threatened. Even as she walks along a completely empty footpath, memory and experience tells her that her attention level has to be higher than it was in calmer days, because last week this was the place that a bicycle appeared, as if from nowhere, at what felt like an excessive speed.

She feels angry, after the close pass by a perfectly well balanced attentive and silent cyclist doing 15-20 mph, that the cyclist has not taken into account the possibility that she might have skipped to the left, or suddenly stopped to blow her nose, or done some other ordinary pedestrian thing. As she calms down, of course, she forgets and she walks on. But the unpredictability of such encounters offers no useful learning. The simple peaceful experience of walking has become one or two degrees less comfortable, and she blames people on bicycles. She is adamantly against devoting scarce resources to cycle-friendly developments. She can be as sceptical and unreasonable about cyclists as cyclists can be about motorists. She looks around for new incidents to report back to me, in the same way that helmet camera users collect evidence to show YouTube that roads aren’t fair to them.

What this tells me is that emotions, immediate experiences and feelings are far more important in attitude formation and political support than cold dissection of “the facts”. The hard line of some cycling campaigners and the sometimes lax attitude to suboptimal degrees of separation of some traffic engineers can make the issue worse rather than better. Cyclists and engineers, of course, are subject to the same irrational influences on their own attitudes.

My view is that by itself, simple analysis of official data on traffic management will lead nowhere useful. What must be done is to give greater priority to how people feel and what people value. If we believe in evidence based policy, then we must stop using arithmetic for a while and start talking to people, systematically and at length. There are well-established methods for gathering rich qualitative data without resorting to the sterility and inflexibility of questionnaires. Someone somewhere has got to do that serious work and give confidence to politicians who have the inclination to adopt human solutions based on how people are rather than how they should be.

This blog was brought to you by the tweet:

Individual emotional comfort is more influential in decisions about personal daily travelling than any reported probability of physical harm

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2 thoughts on “Considerate Cycling 18: A Simple Point

  1. I have only just come across your blog, please forgive such a late response!

    I agree that a greater awareness of the true factors that contribute to creating attitude will be beneficial. By fully understanding all the factors that influence behaviour we will have the best hope of changing it.

    However, to my mind the real question is, how can these irrational beliefs, once identified, be used to change attitude/behaviour? I certainly don’t think they should be used to direct policy on their own.

    Perhaps it points to the need to find a way of making the cold hard arithmetic as salient as the immediate experiences and feelings?

    An interesting 140 characters!

  2. Thanks for that response Luke. In following up some ideas that it provoked I found this interesting article: http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm/volumeID_25-editionID_217-ArticleID_2136-getfile_getPDF/thepsychologist/0912walk.pdf

    In my research life I was always interested in what are sometimes called “mixed methods” – combining the apparent power of numbers with the more convincing evidence of observation, ethnography, life history and testimony. Politics tends to take comic-book versions of research and see only the convenient bits that can be used as persuasive ammunition to sway less well-informed audiences . With disastrous results, as often as not.

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