Last week I went to the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). It’d be an understatement to say I’m not a fan of big academic conferences, but this year the RGS was in Manchester, which is almost my back-yard, and there was a full day session on ‘alternative travel futures’, which is pretty much my thing.
Colin Pooley was giving a presentation about the project on which I’m working, Understanding Walking and Cycling. And it looked as though the other presentations would give a really good overview of much of what’s currently happening in UK academia, in terms of thinking about modal shift and the possibilities for our world to be organised very differently.
What astonished me the most at the RGS conference was how, quite suddenly it seems, almost everybody’s swallowed the climate change pill. Most people at the session seemed to feel a real urgency in cutting car use and increasing walking and cycling, because the future of the planet depends on it. Given I tend to agree, I suppose I should really be pleased about this, and certainly, I think it’s encouraging that so many academics are now so serious about tackling climate change, and are elaborating and proposing fairly radical visions of how things might be otherwise (and in this, they’re obviously far, far ahead of policy-makers and politicians). It was wonderful to hear established academics, including people who don’t strike me as obvious activists, talking about 40% of all urban journeys potentially being made by bike (well, they’ve got to start somewhere!).
But the RGS discussions also made me feel quite uncomfortable.
Why? Well, if we concentrate only on cycling’s contribution to carbon reduction, we lose sight of all the other fantastic reasons to cycle, and to promote cycling. If the push to cut car use and promote walking and cycling is animated by threat and fear, it becomes much harder to talk about joy, satisfaction and pleasure – all things which walking and cycling futures will produce. I want to hear about the many ways in which more cycling (and walking) will create a better society, not just one which might survive the twenty first century. So, whilst of course it’s critical, I think we should be careful not to frame the reason to promote cycling only in terms of tackling climate change, or any other policy goal (such as tackling congestion, or obesity) for that matter. Such moves tend to reduce and strangle cycling.
Also, some of the contributors did elaborate the kind of urban vision which anarchist thinkers have been talking about for years, decades, centuries – convivial, face-to-face neighbourhoods, in which everyday life is much closer to home, and with streets full of people hanging out, chatting, strolling, walking, cycling. There’s nothing new about such visions, but widespread fears of climate chaos have given them increased legitimacy and respectability. Except, in these most recent formulations, the politics gets left out. I got no sense, during the RGS, that we’ll have to struggle to produce sustainable urban futures. Rather, it felt as though people expect Government, through enlightened policy, to deliver it. It’s as if politics begins to evaporate under pressure from the new world of climate-friendly, post-carbon policy which is perceived to be just around the corner. Hmmm …
One thing which can happen when everyone in a room is convinced of the problem (climate change) and the need to tackle it (here, cutting car use), is a kind of communal frustration with other people’s ‘irrationality’. Why can’t everyone else see the problem, see the solution, and just stop driving so much? In this way of thinking, other people become ‘a problem’ – if they accept climate change is happening, why don’t they start to change their behaviours? Why do they act ‘green’ in some aspects of their lives (maybe walking and cycling instead of driving around town) but then go and ‘blow it’ by flying to an overseas holiday?
I’d suggest that none of us act consistently across all areas of our lives. We’re all responsive to situations, their complexities and contingencies. None of us is ‘perfect’, thank goodness. So our political job is to govern one another’s, and our own, behaviour within acceptable limits. In this context, we are free to choose in ways which don’t harm the planet. So we should worry less about people driving and flying, and fight harder to figure out and implement ways which prevent them from doing those things.