Conceptualising low carbon mobility

This is a write-up of the RGS-IBG 2014 Session:
Transport and Energy (2):
Conceptualising low carbon mobility,
Sponsored by the Transport Geography Research Group and the
Energy Geography Working Group on Thursday 28th August 2014, by Neol Cass.

Session organisers: Dr Noel Cass and Professor James Faulconbridge,
 Lancaster University

The session was organised in conjunction with Robin Lovelace of
 Leeds University and TGRG, and Stuart Barr of Exeter and EGWG,
 whose session on ‘Transport and Energy: evidence base for post-carbon futures’ 
preceded it. There were 5 papers presented in each session and
the audience numbers were consistently high. The first session
focussed more on empirical and quantitative research
(with the exception of Antonio Ferreira’s discourse analysis).
Papers in the second session were more focused on social science approaches.

Mobility and the temporal and spatial sequencing of practice: implications for low carbon mobility futures

Opening with a paper from the conveners, Noel Cass outlined findings from a longitudinal ethnographic study of everyday travel (and modal ‘choice’) in Lancaster and Brighton. Broadly the paper departed from a traditional transport research model and distinguished a ‘social practice’ understanding of the spatial and temporal aspects of mobility, focussing on the commute as a travel routine that has to be fitted in amongst the other practices that make up everyday life. Low carbon commuting was posited as a unique set of practices with materials, meanings and competences involved that should be promoted together to gain recruits. He concluded with a series of potential policy interventions that would move beyond the traditional toolkit of transport policy to address the ways in in which the times and spaces of everyday have been shaped around, and therefore continue to drive the need for, the car.

The impact of residential location on mobility of households

Next the session heard from Age Poom of Tartu University in Estonia. She outlined research on settlement density and its effects on transport needs and modal choice– with denser and more urbanised areas expected to produce more lower carbon travel (primarily due to the availability of public transport) compared to their ‘hinterlands’. This was theorised within a model of ‘settlement hierarchy’, with Estonia shown to be highly ‘hierarchical’ (with its capital Tallinn housing 50% of the population). Empirical survey research on mobility and its carbon impacts among households and students was presented, and the impacts of hinterlands were confirmed. Smaller cities displayed less and lower carbon travel as expected, but the capital was shown to produce similar carbon travel impacts to the suburbs, and incorporating air travel in the assessments doubled the carbon impacts of the capital even higher. A potential policy solution of regionalisation and decentralisation was proposed as potentially capturing the low carbon potentials of smaller urban centres.

Moving to or from a carbon dependent countryside?

A paper from Martin Phillips and Jen Dickie from Leicester was presented by Martin, arising from research in the RELU programme on the rural environment and ‘living with climate change’, and addressing the issue of rural life as being automobile centred, car dependent, and thus carbon intensive. A typology of rural areas was laid out, including ‘deep’, ‘transient’ and dynamic commuter areas, with their undeniably higher carbon transport impacts disaggregated and compared. In the empirical research presented, the ‘reluctant driver’ was identified as being present, but amazingly 86% of one survey population had never used public transport from their village, and a spiralling of choice was shown to lead to inevitably longer car journeys to satisfy everyday needs. The unfairness or ‘inequity’ of the situation was appreciated by research subjects, more so than the link with climate change, with discourses similar to Freudendal-Pedersen’s ‘structural stories’ being shown to be deployed by rural dwellers in the research to defend car use or reject the necessity of change: from outright rejection to uncertainty, conservatism, and feelings of no agency. The prospect for increased public transport use was thus presented as depressingly small.

How do we go from here? The consumption of the car and the pursuit of a low carbon automobility.

Johnathan Kershaw (Coventry) next directly tackled the car as a cultural, social and even philosophical object in a presentation that mashed together theories of affect (Thrift and Spinoza) and explored its role in the dominance of the car as an icon, status symbol, artefact and experience. Drawing on the philosophical rather than more recent cultural writing on affect led to provocative suggestions that “cars lead us to a greater perfection”, and that there is a possibility for these affective drivers of drivers to be turned to low carbon ends if electronic vehicles can satisfy the desire for the automobile in a designed, ‘more authentic’ experience. The tour of concepts was stimulating for its difference in the session, pulling us free of the more empirical research that had been presented.

Planning and Practices of Carsharing: Fostering Low Carbon Mobility?

Finally, Robyn Dowling of Macquairie University in Sydney presented a paper from herself and Jennifer Kent which examined a promising and fairly new low carbon mobility practice that similarly attempts to reduce travel emissions from within the system of automobility: carsharing. It was seen as reconfiguring practice elements of automobility, particularly the meanings of ownership, of service rather than goods, and of freedom – the freedom from ownership combining with the freedom to drive. The competences required were highlighted as non-novel and fitting with general life practices, including internet skills, time management, driving and scheduling. In the policy world there was a learning by practice rather than an attempt to directly influence behaviours, and local authorities (along with private sector agents) were seen as having the agency to roll out schemes that can be seen as a hybrid parking policy, reformulating public (parking) spaces as quasi-private and yet communalised. The success of localised schemes appeared to be independent of other sustainability policy and to crucially hinge on public-private arrangements and the involvement of (quasi)NGOs.

In conclusion, the earlier papers reconfirmed that space and geography (particularly understood as urban and rural forms) still wield great determinative power over the carbon impacts of mobility practices, with lower carbon systems and the practices that are linked with them struggling to counter the dominance of the automobile. Theoretically and conceptually the socio-cultural addiction to specifically automobility was examined as one of reluctant dependence and/or of self-actualisation and freedom. Electric vehicles and car-sharing were therefore fitting technological alternatives that were explored as potential elements of future low carbon systems of mobility practices that use this dominance of automobility to some hopefully positive end. The absence of other forms of mobility beyond ‘the car’ for these low carbon futures, and the seemingly minor role for public transport or for ‘demand management’ was a sobering conclusion behind a stimulating session.

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