LTT Comment: Are changes in how we travel bound to reduce social mixing?

Mobility matters 3rd March 2017

Alistair Kirkbride writes in Local Transport Today

Mobility matters 3rd March 2017 Life used to be simple in the transport world. People generally owned cars, used public transport or walked and cycled. OK, I am guilty of opening with what is probably a false premise, but stick with me for now. As the boundaries between private and public transport blur through the emergence of shared models and new forms of ownership, maybe the discussion could shift to private and public spaces of travel. Put another way, if the future means that we summon pods to whisk us to our destination, what have we lost through not mingling with other people on the way?

What makes a great place?

What makes a great place? The diagram here demonstrates that a significant part of “great places” involve social contact.

Given free choice, would more (most?) people choose to travel in their own private space than mix with strangers? For anyone who has been skiing, waiting in line for a 6-person gondola is an interesting social experiment: I’d suggest most people secretly hope that the “strangers” behind choose to take the next gondola; get on any busy-and-getting-busier bus or train, and people fill the empty seats first; Jonathan Dunne, the originator of the 2016 “Tube Chat” campaign that aims to get people talking to each other on the London Underground, suggests that about 80% of people think its “terrible, the worst idea ever”.

So are we really social animals? Or does it just need a rethink when we consider transport?

Looking back to the rise of the private car, two of the key drivers for its popularity (ignoring for now issues of affordability or social norms) were the promise of independence of journey making plus the privacy of the capsule.

Robin Chase’s brilliant video of the heaven or hell future scenarios for autonomous vehicles only touches on the idea of social mixing. In the changing world of mobility and the rise of new ways of travelling, should(n’t) we be focussing a bit more on this? The risk of not doing may inadvertently lead us into a form of hell where increasing numbers of people mix even less with others from outside their chosen social bubbles.

Social mixing has been considered in great detail in relation to things that don’t move, but seems to largely to have evaded moving spaces aka transport or mobility.

The approach to design of public realm usually considers social mixing explicitly; this often involves not just how people pass through, but about creating places and opportunities for pausing as well as managing mixing. The explicit development of mixing spaces is a core part of more radical interventions as outlined in Charles Montgomery’s Happy City (2015), as well as the UK’s Home zones and other traffic calmed and traffic free areas.

Perhaps the most obvious sector where social mixing is made explicit is in relation to housing. From the benefits of deliberately designing-in mixed tenures, scale and values of housing in development to the issues of gated communities and social exclusion, the mixing of types of people is a big issue in property development.  Danish Architect Jan Gehl’s recent observations on the social problems of skyscraper living is neatly summarised as “stacking people on shelves is a very efficient method of human isolation” and the observation that “we have seen in the past 20 years a withdrawal from society into the private sphere”. The architecture literature is crammed with classic (if somewhat impenetrable) tomes relating to the design of social interaction including Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space” (1958), Lefebvre’s “The Production of Space” (1991).

As we dip a toe into the sociology, psychology and philosophy of social mixing, a few important ideas emerge: it is recognised that passive social contact, chance encounters and managed “peri-personal” space are all important with regard to key issues from mental health benefits, breeding tolerance and broad-mindedness and – in the case of chance encounters, defining life paths. In short, there is great value in people mixing with strangers, and especially with those from outside their own social spheres.

So let’s bring this back to transport and especially considering the possible future directions of and for mobility. Does the shift to user-focussed mobility run the risk of leading to an increasing demand for private travelling spaces (regardless of whether they are “private” transport)? While this (user focussed services) is often seen as a positive – especially if it shifts people to choosing to make lower-impact journeys (e.g. by electric car), opening fairer access or by triggering economically valuable innovation – how do we reconcile this with the acknowledgement of the benefits of informal social mixing?

Robin Chase’s “Hell” future vision of the future of AVs then gets interesting; the majority of people for whom “Tube Chat” is a terrible idea, hell would be more social interaction, and so we could assume that they would prefer AVs to be the equivalent of “gated communities”. Or would they?

What does applying the significant body of evidence from other sectors on the benefits of passive social interaction suggest about the future of mobility? It would suggest that not only are there benefits of designing social interaction into travelling spaces, but that this needs to be done deliberately otherwise it wouldn’t happen.

Of course, there are also new methods of social interaction through social networking. The boom of ridesharing (or “2+ car sharing”) demonstrates the potential of people choosing social interaction as part of their travel experience. There is a proliferation of social networking sites dedicated to matching travel companions or bringing together travel groups whether for a routine commute, a one-off weekend trip or whole gap year travelling. The security afforded by today’s travel matching apps means we really do need to put the myth of “stranger danger” into the past.

It’s easy to look to the compelling images of future mobility and see that the sun is always shining as people zap about in their personal movement pods. We have seen this before. To increase the hit-rate of poetry in LTT, May Swenson’s 1963 Southbound on the Freeway “was written during a time in America when the country was reaffirming its love affair with moving machines. From the automobile to spaceships, technology was taking mobility to new heights in the early 1960s”. Sound familiar? The last line paints a rather eerie dystopia of cars “They all hiss as they glide… Those soft shapes, shadowy inside the hard bodies—are they their guts or their brains?”.

I’d like to paint a picture where people are mixing rather than being reduced to moving insulated units. But to do this, we have to decide that we want to, so we need to start talking about talking to each other while we travel.

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