Walking from the Car

Article excerpt

walking from the car MIKE FEATHERSTONE, NIGEL THRIFT, AND JOHN URRY (EDS) Automobilities London, Sage Publications, 2005 ISBN 9781412910897 RRP US$101(hb)

Social and cultural research related to issues of human mobility has enjoyed a recent surge of interest. Psychological research, based on a focus on individual personality with some consideration of social norms, has been central in road safety and has informed policy for some time. Meanwhile, transport issues have been approached from a planning perspective based on instrumental needs and functionality. Mobility research is bringing together the wider issues of human mobility and its emerging forms, the limitations and implications of attachment to the private car and most importantly, addressing and investigating the symbolic and cultural dimensions of automobility. The book Automobilities, edited by Mike Featherstone, Nigel Thrift and John Urry, focuses on the particular popularity and attachment to car travel and, while it employs some of the latest post-modern thinking relevant to mobilities research, nevertheless keeps sight of policy and planning implications. Social researchers are not only considering the ambiguities and complexities of experience involved in mobility, they are also getting their hands dirty, as Jörg Beckman puts it, in being involved in transport politics.1

Social research has begun to impact significantly in fields such as transport and road safety, extending the investigation of car use beyond functionality. A recent edition of the European journal Transportation Research Part A focused on the benefits of travel beyond a means to an end and thus looked at some of the symbolic or meaningful aspects of car use.2 The papers in the edition challenged the assumption that 'travel is a disutility to be minimised', which is the basis of most policy, planning and models of travel.3 Exploring the 'positive utility' of travel involved adding to the list of reasons for travel-adventure-seeking, exposure to the environment and physical exercise, amongst others-and modeling the purpose of travel to include liking for travel.4 Steg identified instrumental, affective and symbolic motives, and found that affective and symbolic motives were a stronger influence on use of the car for commuting. Policies intended to reduce car use would do well to focus beyond the instrumental advantages of car use.

Other papers in this journal edition looked at information gain as a component of utility for travel (Arentze and Timmermans), a typology of excess driving (Handy, et al), the contribution of travel to physical exercise (Mackett et al), the economic valuation of travel time (Hess et al) and changes in the use of travel time (Lyons and Urry).5 These papers, on the whole, have added dimensions to the way in which travel and car use are viewed from a policy perspective. While in some of the papers the symbolic reasons for car use are considered complementary to the instrumental rather than implicit, social research can nevertheless be seen here to complement the abstracted engineering and rationalist models of travel that dominate in policy. These additional aspects are important, but they do not necessarily challenge the assumed neutrality of the car as a technology and the meanings implicit in the car itself and the systems that facilitate its use.

Autamobilities brings together a collection of essays that explore cars as a technology in combination with drivers and other significant aspects of culture that contribute to the prevalence of cars (unlike analyses that look at cars and drivers as separate entities). The essays in Automobilties enter into the arena of transport research with new perspectives, employing a range of recent social and cultural theoretical developments to highlight the implicit meanings of cars and car use as an integral part of car systems themselves. Mimi Shelter and John Urry had previously challenged the underlying neutrality of the car in sociological research and outlined a range of ways in which cars and car networks have significantly shaped social life. …