Arguments and barriers that undermine change

This is an opinion piece about arguments and barriers that undermine change, and current challenges of the active travel agenda.

The problem with progressive agendas is that our thinking is anchored on the status quo. The vision will lie beyond our day to day experience. It is a wonder we can change anything at all. However, society does change slowly and will change, begrudgingly. The purpose of the progressive agenda is to provide direction to what would otherwise be due to chance. Unless you consciously plan the culture you want to have, you will get what you deserve!

I will critique an argument that is thrown in the path of the active travel (the problem with all or nothing and either/or thinking) before moving to the importance of removing barriers to support the adoption of active travel (little things get us down). I will end with some reasons why people don’t use active travel as outlined in the Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019, chapter 5, Department of Industry, 278.

The problem with all or nothing thinking

Attacking a straw man

‘A straw man is a form of argument and an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent. One who engages in this fallacy is said to be “attacking a straw man”.’

Straw man (From Wikipedia)

A common argument against change is the worst-case scenario, which is not representative of what we are trying to achieve. For example, “Electric cars cannot drive 1000 km on one tank, therefore we cannot use electric cars.” Most cars cannot drive 1000 km either. Most of the time we are driving a very short distance, and this could be easily driven with an electric vehicle. The scenario proposed is not typical of the most trips and most cars. The example has been chosen “through the windscreen paradigm” and specifically with the extreme performance of a motor vehicle and extreme distance for a trip. That none of us are capable of driving such a distance in a day – even if we had such a vehicle, and that most of us are unlikely to do such a trip without a number of breaks, makes the example fanciful – if not an insult to anyone’s intelligence. The argument is neither representative of a typical trip or typical use.

It is not reasonable to unquestioningly expect the alternative to be better than the status quo. When comparing two options, there are always benefits and disadvantages for each. We want to bundle the good and the bad of each option to determine which is better for any particular circumstance. Comparing the two options, the strengths and weaknesses won’t necessarily map nicely onto one another but might overlap. There is always an example where one does badly and the other one well. But there are many instances where the two are legitimate substitutes. It is this “intersection of strengths” that is a good place to start, but the typical argument against any change will be where there is no overlap and we’re in favour of the preferred position. This results in an asymmetry of benefits. Very little evidence of benefits is required for us to favour the status quo, as the evidence of its disadvantages are largely dismissed by our reptilian brain. Anything new needs to have overwhelming benefits, as disadvantages are highlighted, and any benefits largely dismissed.

The tyranny of distance

Many people will say that distance is the reason that they don’t use active travel. This is disingenuous in some way, as many car trips are over a short distance and easily cycleable. The ACT Travel Survey 2017 states the majority of the trips were less than 10 km long. The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 confirmed that “two million car trips every day in Sydney that are less than 2 km in length.” I don’t know what the exact figure is for Canberra, but I would expect short trips to be common. It is rhetorical hocus-pocus to compare car travel over long distances with the active travel alternative, as this is the worst case scenario. It is not the typical case and dismisses all those short trips people are doing in their cars.

Furthermore, the argument misses the point. The objective is not to eliminate the use of cars and abolish roads. No country in the world has done this. The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 states, however, there are countries in the world where 20%, 30%, or even 50% of the travel is active travel. The objective is to reduce the reliance on the car and provide a wider range of infrastructure to make active travel an alternative. This results in a reduction in negative effects of car and road infrastructure, which are many (including noise, pollution, cost, space) and allows us to profit from the benefits of active travel as individuals (health, fitness, wellbeing).

The Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019 (chapter 5) on the transport does a good job setting out the challenges that Australia is facing. It is worth a read.

Risk aversion

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman noted in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” that we are risk averse: we have a cognitive bias to avoid risk and undervalue benefit. This means that benefits must greatly outweigh any disadvantage for us to risk giving it a go. He measured this effect and determined the benefits must outweigh the advantage by a factor of 2:1 for us to typically (statistically) take the risk and seize the benefit. This leaves us with a particularly gloomy impression of the chances of political and social change, as it would imply that the benefits need to be overwhelming to even get the ball rolling.

It gets worse. Cities evolve and represent the work of all those that have gone before us. In that sense, they are good solutions to past problems. “We go into every new conflict with the weapons we needed to win the last one.” This thinking denies that things change, and the circumstances are not static. It is, therefore, to be expected that the transport network is a historical artefact that is not well suited to what we are going to face. The old transport network is a mature one, while the new network is still in its infancy. … and we all know that babies need to be protected.

Kahneman’s risk aversion works hand in hand with network maturity to hamper the active travel agenda. Active travel will not be a revolution so much as an evolution. One approach to getting the ball rolling is to remove barriers that stop it moving in the first place. Removing such obstacles could be the catalyst to the change evolution we need.

Little things get us down

There are many arguments for active travel, but what hampers the change is not so much the weakness of the arguments but the barriers to its adoption. It is not those ideologically against active travel (or the car lobby) that kills progress, as much as the “little” things that hamper the vast majority in our endeavours to change our lives and give it a go. Even when someone is determined to adopt active travel for themselves, it is the lack of any clear path to the destination that discourages people and tests their resilience. Changing our habits is hard, and even more difficult when we don’t have others to guide and encourage us. It is easy for a city with 50% active travel participation for the young to adopt the culture and thereby to perpetuate it. The reality of Canberra, and most Australian cities, however, is the lack of visible and strong role models to inspire us.

It is therefore important to consider the reasons that people do not use active travel. These are outlined in the Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019, chapter 5, Department of Industry, 278.

“However, long distances are not the only reason, as many short trips are undertaken by car in Australia. For example, there are over two million car trips every day in Sydney that are less than 2 km in length.

Other commonly cited barriers to walking and cycling refer to insufficient infrastructure. About 70% of people in New South Wales say they would cycle more if they had access to separated bicycle lanes. Similarly, surveys carried out in Western Australia show that more people would walk if better footpaths were provided. Problematically, however, it is the densely settled areas where walking and cycling would be most feasible in land use terms that are the most challenging places in which to find the space to widen a footpath or excise a traffic lane for a cycleway. From a transport planning perspective, a key challenge is ensuring that our active transport networks are integrated with public transport. Many of our public transport facilities are not easily accessible, meaning the mobility-impaired and older people are less likely to walk to their local station or bus stop. In addition, people may feel unsafe, particularly at night, when they walk or cycle to public transport. Finally, cyclists need storage facilities at public transport stations and stops.

While there are likely multiple reasons for Australia’s comparatively low levels of walking and cycling, it is clear there is an opportunity to improve and better integrate active transport with the rest of our networks.”

Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019, chapter 5, Department of Industry, 278.

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