Sustainable Mobility?

Sustainable mobility?

This is the first in a series of posts by AUSCCER authors on mobility and questions of sustainability. In this post, Gordon Waitt and Theresa Harada discuss cars, concepts and experimental methodologies.

Driving in Wollongong
(source: participant #5)

Wollongong is an archetypal Australian regional city in that the car dominates everyday life. The car is integral to its very geography, particularly since the 1960s when its residential population boomed and new suburbs and undercover shopping malls were built away from the old town centre. In Wollongong there is an underpinning assumption that if you are going anywhere, you are going to travel by car. Cycleways do exist. However, they are mostly oriented around leisure activities and thus provide access to places valued for their aesthetics – like beaches or Lake Illawarra – rather than workplaces like the Central Business District. Likewise, there is a train line that dates from the late 1800s and is closely aligned to Wollongong’s coal mining legacy. Hence, the rail infrastructure while connecting Wollongong with Sydney, does not connect many Wollongong suburbs with the city centre. Roads and cars dominate the transport infrastructure rather than train lines, cycleways or even pavements. Car parks are ubiquitous; you find them at the shops, the beach, the university and the steelworks. In Wollongong, people spend a lot of time going places in their cars. 

It is perhaps no surprise then that questions around car culture, and more generally, sustainable mobility resonates in AUSCCER. Some are thinking about this in the context of working-class car cultures, car based commuting and others in terms of how everyday lives are mobilised by short, car-based drives.

We have been exploring the question of sustainable mobility by unpacking the relationships people have with their cars. We have had a joint project on this theme, and have begun re-evaluating our own driving experiences. We both drive cars: Gordon a sports car and Theresa a utilitarian hatchback. At the start of the project we took up the challenge of driving less and instead using public transport. We learnt a lot about how driving manipulates time and space when we attempted to ditch our cars. The car enabled us to juggle multiple commitments in our lives and it seemed that we could manage more tasks in the week when driving. In comparison to the strict clock time of the train, the car felt like a ‘time machine’ where fragments of time could be woven together.  We also became aware of the disorientation that came with establishing a new routine, and the nuances of train culture.

Our lived experiences resonated with our conceptual starting point. This was inspired by the work of Tim Cresswell, and other proponents of the ‘new mobilities paradigm’. These scholars encouraged us to move beyond simplistic thinking that reduced journeys to dead time or to the mere overcoming of distance between points A and B. Instead, the new mobility paradigm encouraged us to think more imaginatively about journeys and to think of ways that foreground how the body is actively involved in mobility choices. Recent conceptual shifts have enabled approaches that highlight relationality, assemblages, and emotional and affective modes of agency. Everyday car driving can thus not be reduced to the logic of markets – as if people drove for entirely ‘rational’ reasons. Driving cars is not simply about economic cost, but must be understood as embedded within capitalist markets, simultaneously entwining with wider cultural practices, social relations and political agendas. Car driving helps make and remake places like work or home, and helps sustain how people enact being a ‘good’ employee, mum or dad.

What sorts of methods enable us to explore life-on-the-move? This is a key challenge of the new mobilities paradigm. Ours has been an experimental approach in tracing the emotional and affective relations of the lived practices and performativities of driving. Recruitment for a project that required a substantial commitment of time posed its own challenges. But that is for another blog… Here, we simply want to outline some of the methods we found helpful in embracing the challenge to think more imaginatively about everyday journeys. Somewhat ironically, our starting point was rather conventional – with time-space prisms, semi-structured interviews and sketches. These nevertheless provided us with insights to the familiar routes, temporal rhythms, spatial patterns and ideas participants held about driving and sustainability.

The next stage involved the ‘ride along’ technique – which involved the researcher going for a drive with their participants. This technique has been used by Eric Laurier in his work on motorway driving in the United Kingdom and within AUSCCER was also taken up by Andrew Warren for his work on custom car cultures in Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia. Ride alongs were conducive to sharing intimate details through ‘drive talk’; provided opportunity for participant observation/sensing; and enabled the researcher to use their own body as an ‘instrument of research’ by remaining attentive to bodily dispositions towards different modes of transport.

The third stage invited participants to make audio and video recordings. Our interest was in how the affordances of sound – rhythm, temp, beat, melody and mood – enlivened journeys. We wanted to investigate how sound mediates the connections within driving assemblages through the experiential practices and performativities of listening and driving.  Sound and video recording were ways of exploring life-on-the-move, where the researcher was present in the form of audio or video recorder. Recent work by Michelle Duffy, Rosie Emeny and David Bissell was influential to developing theses methodologies.

The final stage involved analyses. A number of techniques were employed. At one level, discourse and narrative analysis provided insights into the sets of ideas participants drew upon to frame driving, places and sustainability. In addition, we employed film scholar Laura Marks’ (2000) notion of ‘haptic cinema’ to go beyond understanding the video and sound recording as ‘text’. This required a mode of address that might be termed bodily empathy, where the researcher listens to a sound recording or watches a video clip to empathize with how the driving moment might have felt for the participant through watching for bodily clues. These notes then become the basis of a follow-up conversation while watching the video or playing the audio file with the participant.

We believe it is worth geographers adopting these sorts of experimental techniques to investigate sustainable mobility. They help respond to calls to adopt more nuanced accounts of practice – a more grounded approach. We explore these ideas further in our latest publication ‘Researching Transport Choices: The Possibilities of ‘Mobile Methodologies’ to Study Life-on-the-Move’ in Geographical Research. Are you interested in similar themes? We’d love to hear from others who are responding to the methodological challenges of attending to the fleeting bodily feelings of life-on-the move.

3 thoughts on “Sustainable Mobility?

  1. Pingback: Nordic geographies | Conversations with AUSCCER

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