Active Travel Podcast
PhDPOD: New qualitative research delves into the why and how of active travel
Some of the most exciting active travel research is done as part of a PhD, and this is our first Active Travel Podcast to showcase a couple of recent PhD studies.
These two projects, from Dr. Katja Leyendecker and Dr. Emma Mbabazi, use qualitative methods to dig into the how and the why of travel. Katja’s project tackled questions around policy, advocacy, and governance, with a mix of methods from retrospective video diaries to semi-structured interviews. Emma conducted over 80 in-depth interviews with commuters, to get their ‘mobility biographies’, i.e. how transport has fitted in with their lives, and vice versa, over time.
They’re both very different projects, but each tells us a lot about how and why things change – or (perhaps more often) don’t change.
Katja’s work can be found at https://katsdekker.wordpress.com/ , including blogs and links to her published thesis and articles.
Emma’s LinkedIn page, with info and article links, is here https://www.linkedin.com/in/emmerentian-mbabazi-ab6b7459/?originalSubdomain=ug, and her PhD thesis is here https://www.ros.hw.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/10399/3292/MbabaziE_1216_egis.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Hello, and welcome to the Active Travel Podcast. I'm Rachel Aldred and I’m the director of the Active Travel Academy. And in this episode I'll be talking to Dr. Katja Leyendecker and Dr. Emma Mbabazi about their two PhD research projects. PhDs involve somebody focusing on the topic for at least three years and doing some really in-depth innovative research. So I wanted the Active Travel Podcast to also capture some of this and translate it into a form that hopefully people will be able to engage with over around half an hour of conversation with the person who did the PhD. Katja’s PhD focuses on cycling, advocacy and activism and transport planning, and Emma's focuses on commuting behaviour, and what are called travel scripts. In the first half I talk to Katja and in the second half to Emma in the about their different but complementary PhDs, both using these really exciting and in-depth qualitative methods. I hope you enjoy it.
Very excited to have with me today Katja Leyendecker, who completed her PhD last year in 2019, which is on cycling advocacy, activism and policy. And so hello, Katja really pleased that you're with us.
I'm certainly the one who was pleased, Rachel. Great. It's great to be here.
Brilliant. So I've got some fairly general questions. And we'll kind of drill down into bits of the thesis as we go. But I wonder if we could just start by because you had maybe a slightly unconventional path to the PhD as well. A lot of people do. So I'm just wondering when you started the PhD, and before you started the PhD, so maybe four or five years ago, maybe even longer when you're thinking about doing a PhD? What motivated you? Was it a sudden decision or something you'd been thinking about for a while?
I started thinking about, let's call it going back to university. When I was still working as an engineer, so, I came out of these kinds of technical – I'm a civil engineer by training. So it's all about the applied natural sciences, big data sets, and I worked in water engineering, which certainly had to do with big data sets and analysing them, and it was numbers and figures was my life. Engineers get themselves into these careers of team leaders, project managers, programme managers, and that was part of what I did as well. But I had started to be a bit uncertain about how the future would pan out. That it felt as if there was a almost like a bit of a dead end. It was interesting to be in engineering to start with, I think I'm someone who always likes the excitement of something new, I like starting new things as well as I might add that here as well as finishing them! So it's not that I'm one of these kind of starting off projects and finishing nothing kind of person.
I kind of looked ahead in engineering and couldn't really see where I was going and was slightly kind of started to be disillusioned. And it was a time of my life where I also felt being a woman in engineering is hard work. There’s a lot of inequalities in that and it’s often quite difficult to talk about them as well because if the field is not prepared to listen and to receive maybe a bit of mild criticism and deal with it flexibly, you know, it can be unwelcoming, and that's kind of what it felt to me at the time. And so I started looking at what's going to be my next step. And bearing in mind I was let's say 37,38 at the time that I started to think like that. And yeah so there was always the open mind to well, I've got a master's degree, go to university do another master's degree, a PhD sounds great actually, now that I think about it and and as I've always found in my life anyways, that when you start to think about something and then talk about it as well, sooner or later, some doors open and that's happened to me here that I got together with Seraphim Alvanides, who works at Northumbria University and is also interested in geography and the sociology of cycling and especially the big data streams of it. And we started to think about how we could get me into university. And that was our little project for a couple of years. And eventually it, it turned out to be the case that I had written a PhD proposal. I applied for it, interviewed for it, and it was supposed to be about infrastructure, women and space and politics. And, and that's where I started. I was 42 at the time, I was just almost on my 42nd birthday that I started my PhD jungle journey. And yeah, and that's how I got into it so sort of developed over the years and became more and more possible. And then really concrete in the end and that was exciting and scary, huh?
Wow. Yeah. And that this sort of this specific idea of the PhD was something presumably very linked to some of the advocacy and activism that you were doing yourself as well as to some extent your engineering, the engineering experience.
Definitely. I realised Of course, later on that my mind was quite heavily shaped by my engineering training. But also when I started the PhD, it came about because I was interested in in cycle activism so nothing to do with water engineering at all, nothing with engineering and not much with water, either. And, yeah, that was the starting point for that, that in 2010. I was really starting to be frustrated and disillusioned with Newcastle Council and the politics that happened there around transport. And I had started to form a campaign, co-founded a campaign with Claire Prosper in Newcastle. So two of us got together, and then set up a petition had garnered 800 signatures, handed it over to the council. That's kind of the history to that before my kind of disillusionment started, but nothing is happening. Yeah, everything's so clear, we need to do something, we need to devise ways of getting out of this and allocating space to cycling and walking and yeah, it was the activism that got me into university it was the activism that that Seraphim and I collaborated on. That was the point where it came together.
So that motivated you to sort of study it to study the activism and the advocacy and to learn more about it through the PhD?
Definitely. Well, that's that's almost, two years into the PhD because I got into the whole thing, with an engineering mindset, technical figures, numbers, and let's create some data sets and let's analyse them and it took me two years to figure out and it's not, through the lack of helping from others, from university folks, it took me for me personally to understand these two years to, to see that it's the activism that really interests me in it. It's the activism, how it clashes with the politics for transport that interests me as well as being a woman campaigner interested me in it as well, because we've had all sorts of talks about such as me being a woman in this, that makes it so difficult or where does it all come from? And yeah, so yet again, another not so straightforward pathway, it started off with me doing a lot of reading, talking to people, the term ethnography started to come up. And I started in something that for an engineer, ethnography, that’s wholly sitting in sociology, it had nothing to do with me. And it took ages. If I look at it, through really rather critical eyes, it took kind of two years for me to have the confidence to understand ethnographic methods, feminist methods, critical theory methods, as well as you going one step beyond, which is using not just ethnography, but also ethnography. So, that was yet another final step that I, that I took. And I have to say, I mean Rosie Parnell, my supervisor, she was just, so helpful. And so patient I mean, Seraphim was patient as well, with this, this journey that I underwent. And Rosie really supported me in auto ethnography, and not just supported me, but made me understand, the important aspects of it, what I should focus on, sort of slashed the pathway free a little bit for me so that I could start to look ahead and so whilst I say it's my own journey, in the end, there were so many people sitting on the sidelines, kind of cheering me along, and really helping me and, kind of the research community as well as the activists and so many different aspects coming together that meet the PhD so multitudinous somehow as well, that's quite a few aspects in it that needed to be brought together.
Yes, I mean, and that's one of the things that I found most fascinating about it was this intense mix of qualitative methods and I've dabbled a little bit with ethnography, but nothing like the intensity of what you've done. So I wondered if you could describe, for the podcast listeners who may not be familiar with this kind of methods what you specifically did in this?
And now just pearls of sweat start forming on my head!
Yes. So that's, there’s various strands to what I did. And it had to do with that I had to sort of Hoover up, I felt, quite a few years of campaigning. It was at a certain time, say 2017 that I started to get really serious about data collection. And luckily, and it had nothing to do with my PhD as such in the beginning, but I had written started writing a blog, just for my own gratification in many ways, for my self-development. I started writing that in 2015. So, I have two years’ worth of blogs, blog posts, that I could analyse, it turned out to be over 100,000 words, really interesting analysis, it was a PhD in itself, when you just look at the sheer number of words. So I started looking at, very, very, let's say, conventional methods of, what are the themes in here, what did I talk about? How can I group these into themes and subsets of it? So that was really lucky that I had that data set there. But that still didn't cover anything before 2015 as such, and I started campaigning with my co-conspirators in Newcastle in particularly Claire and then later on Sally in Newcastle in 2010. So I had to find the method I thought of getting that down somewhere, gathering that and as well as analysing it, what is it that happened there? So I devised a method of a sort of retrospective video diary, I called it going back through old emails, and that was really lucky that I'm, I kept emails, the campaigning emails and that's helped to
find a method of condensing them and analysing them.
And the condensing happened by sitting down through 2017 every day to record three minutes worth of a summary that happened in a week's worth of campaigning, to get to grips with these kind of 5,6,7 years, and by recording a week's worth every day, for three minutes for a year, I got to these, what turned out to be 17 hours for me talking about campaigning and activism. And I could listen to that again and then sift through, and that was really interesting sift through the kind of emotional aspect that happened in it. What's what were the things that really riled me up or elated me, or what was it that really then alongside that happened, so to kind of sift through that. I don't want to talk down the emotions here at all. I think it's really important for what I was trying to do, to use those as kind of guideposts to the key things that happened, at least to my mind.
And yes, I went through that process and as you can imagine, when I said about the blog posts, a hundred thousand words read through, that was 18 hours to listen for, not just once but maybe second time, third time, sometimes just letting things play in the background and you'll be alerted to: oh, you seem to be, something is really happening here. That seems to get a hold of you and go back. Listen to it again. What is it that you're trying to say here? And then doing something similar again? What are the themes here? What happened here? What is? What is the nub, what, what's the what's the key aspects? And? And yeah, so I started to have the blog post and the themes in the video diary and the themes that started to grow up through that. As well as a timeline of campaigning events, the video diary was very helpful for that as well.
And then yeah, so alongside that, or maybe even before that I had started look at policy, Newcastle transport policies. And in my research, I do speak German as well as English, so it would be good - I have to say Seraphim was really helpful, he said if you speak German you have to use that somehow, not everyone can go to Germany and speak to Germans in their own language. I mean that's an asset, do it! And I had campaigning friends in Bremen, which is a city in North Germany, a big German cycling city with 25% of all trip cycled so, a real cycle city, especially from a UK perspective. And I had started to, look at Bremen a little bit and started to look at the policy there and the start of a policy comparison and it ended up, it wasn't specifically devised to be as such but it ended up in the PhD. And it also ended up as a as a book chapter in a book edited by Cox and Koglin. The Politics of Cycling Infrastructure. So that's another thing that, kind of puzzle piece that fell into place by just being interested in background analysis, I thought, which policy analysis was to me that. That in itself, though, is not a primary, produced data set, it’s data that's already out there in the public domain that ended up as another chapter. So another data stream that was analysed.
And then yeah, then I talked to women campaigners in Germany as well as in the UK, specifically, of course in Newcastle as well as Bremen But yeah, I talked to women campaigners with long extensive interviews again analysed for themes and understanding of what is it that happens here and also talked to Newcastle as well as Bremen, decision makers, a politician in each city and a transport officer, senior transport officer in each city as well. And that I think concludes the data in my PhD. So, it came together from various sources.
Yes, I mean, it's an incredible amount of data. And did you get the idea of the retrospective video diary from somewhere else, was there other research that had influenced you on that?
It's, it didn't as such, very loosely though. I mean, I grabbed myself a couple of Sage publications, Sage is quite a good publisher for methods, for methodology. And I had started reading around there, what methods are, what methodologies are, again, always with a background of, some sort of - what's the feminist aspect in this, and it came through that. But as such, when I went to start looking at, it came to me, let's just put it like that, metaphysically it came to me that this would be right for what I was trying to do, namely, get this retrospectively understood what happened. As well as kind of having some sort of raw bits in there, raw feelings and emotions not being lost and not just being a technical analysis of it. It seemed to be just what was the right thing to do and it kind of it was cobbled together as such. Helpful for and very useful for what I was trying to do. But when I started looking at how to describe what I was doing, I couldn't really find anything. I mean that there's blogs, and academics have written about blogs and how our blogs are really useful. And academics have written about diaries and how they're useful. And they might well be video diaries but it might not be about this kind of retrospective diary. There were always aspects of it, which weren't quite there. So it was different pieces put together, which I still think is quite good, for what I was trying to achieve. And it kind of did the job for that. So it was right and that's kind of one feminist aspect in it. Don't be constrained, know what you're trying to do. Not where you’re trying to end up, you know, that’s always a different thing, more what you're trying to do. And then the method is supposed to help you along with that, rather than that there’s this very set, a set of methods and that's the only toolbox you've got. No, methods are also mix and match as long as you can explain what you've done. And if it's open and transparent, always, where you're coming from as a researcher as well, and what you're trying to achieve with it, then mix and match is definitely a good way to go.
That sounds like excellent advice to me. So what would you say the sort of central puzzle that you were solving with all this data? what's what's the central question that kept you going?
Yeah, I started campaigning and as I said, with a very technical mindset, and I had not quite made a leap into sociology, let's call it that. I hadn't quite understood that there's people theorising about how society works, how activism works, how politics work, that there's a field that's called Political Science and, or about any kind of psychosocial aspects of it. And it was that, that I had to kind of work through and the PhD as such is a working through that process of coming from a rational mindset and ending up in a wider frame of mind. That's taking the social and the political in the psychological by all means, into account as well. So that's in short, the journey that I underwent, but the original question was, why is nothing happening? To me, as well as to my fellow campaigners things seem to be logical, why things needed to change. And yes, we thought it's not going to be easy for politicians, but we wanted to work together with them to get new narratives to find out what we can say and how it could be said, by no means we thought it was going to be easy, absolutely, you put the Newcastle transport system into an upheaval, of course that was not going to be easy and it was about space. So it was heavily political and politicised. And, yeah, my question was, so five years in, starting with the campaigning 5,6,7 years after, why is it still hard. Why could we not talk to the politicians, in a way that felt conducive to inducing change. That was my big puzzle question, the big question mark that I was trying to find an answer to - why is nothing changed, why is change so extremely slow when something rational is, is underpinning all this and could be used to frame new ways to find new narratives.
And so, from the research you did, how would you answer that question now?
Yeah, as you can imagine, with all these different aspects coming together, of which a lot of them were personal. And I underwent change the, the whole, the data sets were different to each other and needed to be woven together, somehow. So, I then started to look at the themes and how they related to each other, the themes of the blog post, the themes from the video diary as well as the women activists’ interviews and then the decision makers. I made the decision first of all, start with myself that's what's interested me here, what is it that didn't get answered? What is it that I'm grappling with? And I devised the framework out of that which I then looked at, again, once I had analysed the women’s interviews and what themes came out of that. And came up with a with a framework of there is automobility, and anything that that we do with cycling always, because it is, now hegemonic sits in, in in the shadow really of automobility. So you can't start talking about the bike without having an understanding of automobility and how that system, socio-technical system operates. And I in my thesis, I then split it in the framework into two aspects, the social automobility, the one that we actually do, we just enact, we have the roads, we have the transport systems, we've got our social norms. We all play our role within it, often totally unbeknownst to ourselves, and we're sort of actors in it. Often not having much space to act, we do our thing. Do the things that the space allocation, for example, tells us or that happens all around us. And yeah, and then there's institutional automobility and that is not such a new aspect, but it's the technical and political aspect of it, namely, how did we end up with those roads? Okay, we've got those roads, now. We want to change them. How could we change them? And that's me speaking as an activist here as well. So, we in Newcastle knew that the way to change that was that we have to go through the system, we have to talk to decision makers and policymakers, we have to talk to officers, and we have to talk to politicians. And that's the way to change it, or there's a chance to change it that way. So It's the institutional automobility that keeps us where we are, as every one individual person acting within the system. And the question then was and became interesting because I interviewed the decision makers. I then had my framework and wanted to appraise it against what these decision makers actually say.
And then it started to be clearer that there is a framework here. That these women activists, and I don't think it's a massively gendered, particularly, framework, that activists for cycleways, for allocating space for cycling, have set up, that's the framework and what is the difference if any, to these decision makers and what they make out of it now. I didn't go to them with a framework, I went to them asking, asking them about their roles, what their responsibilities are, what they feel about transport and change and how they as a politician, or as an officer, perhaps, would bring about change. And that started to be really interesting for me because I, I had then sort of understood various aspects of it and wanted to also as with any PhD, link it to existing theory, as you well know, because you helped me with that. I then started to look around kind of political sciences, a bit more, automobility, of course that fits in sociology as well. So in the political sciences and sociology, I mean, there's one theory that's called the post-political theory. And just suddenly reading through that, it became absolutely clear that in Newcastle, we are dealing with post-political concepts, namely, that the politics have sort of receded, from the public arena, and that it's more and more difficult for the public, or for groups and individuals to make their voices heard. As well as more difficult for the political technical system, so the council, for example, to actually link back into the public arena and the public arena. I mean, sort of a concept of that people can come together and talk and devise plans for the future, talk about change, new ideas and how, what it could look like, and how could how change could be brought about.
Whereas in Bremen, I couldn't really see the post-political aspects. There was a public arena, but also automobility happens there, and that's another aspect, another finding also. Through an old style of cycle campaigning as well, which was I'm a cyclist, I don't need any special space. I'm fast enough. I can cycle amongst cars, the vehicular cyclists, and that was present in Bremen. And that vehicular cycling attitude amongst campaigners always meant that if nothing needs to change, but just a change in attitude, then it was very difficult to politicise that and to make that into a political demand. Because we'd seen in Newcastle and in the UK, that over all those years, we had all sorts of liberal campaigns, get your bike out of your shed, start to cycle. It's about you, you, you, it's about you, you have to change and, and we've seen that that, for decades. It doesn't, hasn't made a difference in the uptake of cycling. In fact, it just stuck around the kind of the 2% or in Newcastle 1% of trips cycled.
But in Bremen, the public arena was relatively intact, you know, there were there were ways and means and places, and communications, debates, discussions happening. It was just that the kind of the technocratic process of ‘Yeah, we don't need to do anything at all the space is fine. There doesn't need to be any engineering feat here, any spatial redesign.’ It had yielded the same results which, which was the system that we've got is fine. Nothing needs to change. Now. I mean, in Bremen you do have your cycleways and people do cycle there. But I was still there and talking to activists and they felt in the shadow of automobility again, they felt not heard, not understood, side-lined, excluded, and they had this thing about them, ‘I’m just a cyclist, no one listens’. And I found this absolutely bizarre coming from the UK context where we really do know what it feels like to be marginalised, not just as a cyclist trying to enact the cycling thing but as a campaigner as well, you know being marginalised in in the demands for more space, building cycleways, they’re all the latest thing now, protected cycleways, temporary ones, are springing up all over the place. And so it was interesting to see these parallels between Newcastle and Bremen but then also the absolute and utter differences that existed, but in the end having a similar result for activism, which was, ah, this is why we are stuck here. And yeah, for the hopes that I've got, I mean, Bremen can change that relatively quickly if they still have a socio-political arena in which you can debate, in which you can you can fill in information there, and it can be discussed and it's not just pushed aside and forgotten about, then great. I think Bremen has lots of cycling happening there anyways, and maybe then it can build on that and maybe come up to Dutch levels of cycling because I mean, that is there is ways to go for Bremen and that's up as well.
And then Newcastle. It is, it will be extraordinarily difficult because if you've got a very closed or even non-existent public and political arena where the politics have shut themselves away they're not in this conglomerate, with the technical, with the officers, then it's going to be really hard to bring about change there. But again in Newcastle was interesting I talked to the officer and that person was actually, that person wanted change and had ideas about it and that officer found it difficult to initiate change because ultimately it was the missing public arena, so if you have to, if you want a starting point, Newcastle has to put a lot of time and effort into reconnecting and opening up that space again. Learn to in many ways learn to listen and learn to understand differences and that’s through differences that the learning process works.
Fantastic. Thanks so much Katja. There's loads more we could talk about about your research and your thesis, but hopefully this short conversation has given people an idea about the amazing methods that you use, how you combine them, some of your findings and the PhD process. So really just Is there anything else that you would like to add that we haven't covered?
Well, any PhD and particularly because mine is kind of an auto ethnographic one, it always sounds like there’s just this one person doing it. Far from it. For me, it was an absolute journey, a real jungle, that I had to kind of slash my way through. And I was given the tools by other people, and given the confidence by other people, to persist with it. And to give certain directions so without my supervisors, I should probably briefly also say, this was Northumbria University. It was done on a studentship, absolutely amazing what they allowed me to do in that time. Absolutely amazing that I was allowed to combine it with personal aspects, but then also to travel around, spent loads of time, as you can imagine, in Germany, living there, living the transport system and breathing and living the campaigning, life environment as well. I can't express the gratitude to these eight women activists, who got together with me spending a lot of time, sometimes up to three hours to sit down and get on record and what their campaigning journey was, how they got into it. What was amazing. To them, and, yeah, and, of course thanks as you can imagine, to the decision makers as well. It's just, a PhD is not just a one person, feat and activity, it's a real project, that needs real people. It does need the one PhD researcher the candidate to put it to pull it together and put it together in the end. And of course that is my product. And, if anyone doesn't find themselves in the PhD, then yeah, it is my product in the end and my understanding of what people said and their themes in what we were all saying and, then a complete mixing together with all these different data streams. But yeah, it’s a humbling journey. It's an absolute, I would always do it again weirdly enough, it was as scary as it was exciting.
I can only say that, if you if you're interested in bringing yourself into the PhD it can be done. And it's not always easy to find the right supervisors for example for it. It was a mega project, and it felt exhilarating and deflating at the same time when I finished it. There was always these polar tension points throughout the PhD and you live in this kind of grey zone and these kind of polar tensions and once it's finished, it's kind of done. But in your head I think the PhD never finishes because it kicks off so many new things. So many new thoughts, so many new people you've met through it. And possibilities for the future. It's amazing.
Brilliant. Well, thanks again, Katja. And if you want to find out more about Katja’s work, I'll just direct you to her website where there are links to peer reviewed papers and that full thesis and various other blog posts, debates and so on. So it's katsdekker.wordpress.com. Brilliant. Thanks again.
I'm Rachel Aldred. And I'm really pleased to be talking to Dr. Emma Mbabazi for the Active Travel podcast today. Emma completed her PhD research at Heriot-Watt University on the impacts of travel scripts on commuting behaviour. She's now a research fellow at the Uganda National Roads Authority. I'm going to talk to her about her PhD research. One of the things I found really interesting about it was it takes a social science approach to commuting behaviour using this concept of travel scripts. And I was intrigued to find out Emma that you've got a background in construction management with an incredibly high grade for your undergrad degree. And then you've ended up doing a social psychology PhD. So how was it to move from construction management to a very quantitative social science thesis?
I'm really glad to be here, Rachel. And yes, you are right. I do come from a more, well, I wouldn't say technical background but yeah, construction management background. It's really when I did my master's at Heriot-Watt, I did a Master's in Urban and Regional Planning. And that I, I got exposed to these social psychological issues. And I found them really interesting. Because as people, we are interesting. It's never a matter in transport, for example, it's never a matter of just let's build it and they will come. It's never that. And it's always about the people and what are they thinking and what will they do. So I find that really interesting. And I think that's, that's something we all have to consider as policy makers and as researchers. I think it's really important for us to try and understand that and see how we can help each other do the right thing in whatever circumstances we're in. So that's why I went with that. I was just really interested in that and it was a challenge because it was new to me, but I liked it.
Amazing, I agree. My background is sociology myself so I'm always really interested in qualitative methods in transport and so you're investigating, your full PhD title was ‘The Travel Script: Exploring the Construction and Engagement of a Mental Structure as the Link between the Influence of Situational and Social - Psychological Factors in Commuting Decisions along a Life Course’. So that's looking at this concept of travel scripts. Could you explain for people who are listening what a travel script is?
Right. So we as people, we form mental representations about the things around us and they could be just mental representations to help us categorise things. So we have what we call schemas. So like a stereotype, that's a schema, you're categorising something, but at travel script is more mental representation of the things around us of the things that we know through time, because the script is looking at engaging in a particular action or a particular behaviour over and over again, based on what we know, and the more we engage in it, the more we inform what we know about it. And so that's really what a travel script is, it's a mental representation of the things we know about how we travel, about where we want to travel, and, and what constrains or enables that. And, and so how are we going to put that mental representation into practice? And that's why it has to be both the construction and the engagement because I mean, the mental representation is there, but we only see it as a person engages a particular behaviour or a particular action.
So maybe, I guess, if I were a habitual car user, part of my travel script might be that buses are slow, they go around the houses, that I can't get a bus where I need to go and that's shaping my behaviour.
Exactly something like that. It might be just as you said, what you think about the buses, but also what you think about the car, and what you like about it and what it does for you, and what it helps you to do and the things you want to do in your life that the car enables that you think the bus or the bicycle will not do for you in the way you want it to.
So I was just skimming through the thesis this morning and one of the things that I kind of like about it is that the hassle, the focus on hassle and the fact that in a lot of ways when we travel, we're not trying to get good stuff. Sometimes we're trying to avoid hassle and we're trying to minimise the amount of effort and annoyance.
Yeah. That I found that really interesting. And it came about really early on. When I started interviewing people, a lot of people did talk about the hassle. And but we deal with hassle in different ways. As you said, sometimes it's not that we would travel because we want this, that we all want to travel in this high-end Mercedes or whatever. It's just we travel because we may sometimes want to avoid something. Yeah. But we deal with the hassle in different ways. Sometimes the hassle is about the things in our environment. So some people think buses are crowded and when the windows are closed, it's all foggy and dirty or things like that. While other people when they travel on public transport, they'll think, ah, I don't have to think about the road. And I don't have to think about and looking at the mirrors and all that and I can sit down and read a book so people look at hassle in in different ways and all that comes from something else that we've experienced or people close to us have experienced that we take on into our mental structures.
Mm. That's so fascinating. So I'm imagining you could have two people sat next to each other on the bus and having completely different experiences. One is really annoyed about the crowding and think it's foggy. The other person is thinking, ah, this is time for me. I think one of your interviewees said ‘stolen time’ that they get that time back for themselves on the bus. Yes, exactly, exactly. So if we just take it back to what you did and sort of starting the thesis you say you interviewed 82 commuters, that's quite a lot, isn't it? That's an awful lot of data. And how did you choose them? Where did they come from?
Right. These were people commuting to the Heriot-Watt University campus in Edinburgh. So the campus is made of is made up of the university and then there are other businesses and organisations that are situated at that campus. I was lucky that at the time I was doing my dissertation, my research, there was a survey already from Transition Heriot-Watt, a general study about how people come to work. And I just requested from that person that was running it if I could have just a question of if people who wanted to be contacted for my research, and so that's how I got people responding that yes, I would like to be contacted and when they brought back those contacts, I later contacted them. Of course, I had a process of whittling it down with particular criteria and but once I had done that, I just started sending out emails. And really I was so glad that a lot of people responded. That's how I ended up with so many, such a large number for a qualitative study, I realised that but I think the way that research went, it was important for me to to have those large numbers, because then they helped me in the end to form those personas that I created with my research, to look at people with the same characteristics and try to see what persona could that take on, when they were born and what life events might have influenced them. So that's that's actually how I ended up with such a large number for a qualitative study.
Mm. And the approach you took as well, you weren't just asking people what they think of the bus, you're taking this mobility biographies approach. Could you say a little bit more about how that way,
Right. So I was looking at the construction of a travel script alone somebody's life course. And mobility biography looks at the stability or the changes in the way in travel in someone's travel behaviour over time. And so I was looking at things in somebody's life, and how they've experienced them, and how that might have influenced the way they commute today. And I actually found that because I simply asked somebody, so please tell me how you have travelled since you're a child. So they just told me a bit of their life story, like when I was at kindergarten, my parents took me to school. Later, I asked people to start really from the time they went to university, to further education, whether it was university or college or something like that. And because that's the time we start to make the decisions, our own travel decisions, and I thought, let me start here, because there's really a lot of data before. And I found the different things in a person's mobility biography. So the mobility biographies are also influenced by other biographies. So you have like, household biographies. And that's changes in your life. Maybe starting a family, you're marrying or something moving in with a partner, or employment biographies. So that's changes in your work, or education, things like that. And your residential biographies, of course, changes in home. So all that will affect your travel behaviour over time. So I had to put all that in mind and try to see at different points in people's lives, how they travelled, or how their travel changed. And if it's been sustained, when did that start? And how long has it been sustained? And then I would know that at least the person, if it's sustained, say, maybe for five years, somebody will know this is when I started using the car and they will kind of think back to the situation around that time that made them change the car to the bus or start cycling and then start to see a certain mental structure that's being that has been built up to that point and is being enabled for that time and being sustained for that time. So that's why I took the mobility biography approach. That's why a mobility biography was important to me just to see the changes in travel behaviour, and then where they sustained and why it's sustained.
One of your important turning points, I think, was around having children you specifically looked into your use. I don't think they didn't all have children, but most of them did, I think.
Yes, I specifically looked for interviewees that had children because from the literature that seemed to be quite a big thing and also from my pilot interviews, when I spoke to the people that had children, there seemed to be some really interesting things to look at there. Of course, I had to look at people that did not so that I could compare. But yes, this turned out to be quite an important turning point for a lot of people. Because it created quite a number of constraints, even when people's locations or there was infrastructure for cycling, or buses, and that was good enough, and they themselves said it was good enough, but just having to make so many trips regarding their children as well as their work, just changed the way people view that. But for some people, you find that when those constraints were removed, so when the children were not so little and could do things for themselves, could walk to school by themselves, for some people. I mean, they move back to the public transport that they liked. For others, it was like, Oh, well, I'm already here, and this is good and I like being in my car. And, and I'll continue with that. And I found that, I found that that that that distinction between the two kinds of people interesting.
Yeah, I was gonna ask you a bit more about that as well because you say that there's the car default people and the alt default people. So could you tell me a bit more about those that distinction and what that meant?
Right, so in my research, I categorised people who are commuting by car at the time. I did these interviews in 2014,2015. So I categorised people who are commuting at that time. So let's say currently, but currently of 2014-15 by car, and then people who are commuting by alternative modes, which was the bus or walking or cycling as the other people. And so I would look at your travel scripts at the moment, so what it is pushing you towards you engaging with commuting with a car, let's go backwards. Or at least that's how I was analysing the data although that's not how they told it. Let's go backwards and see how you go to the car. And then for the people with alternative modes which I called alt default, so their default mode at the moment was to travel by bus or by bicycle. And so your travel script at the moment that you're engaging is that it's having you commute by bus, walking, or by bicycle. Let's try to move backwards in your life course and see how you go to that point. So that's how I got the car defaults, that's the people commuting by car currently for most days of the week. And then the alt-default, that's the people commuting by bicycle or by bus or walking to Heriot-Watt campus.
At the time I did that interviews, there was another categorization of the cohorts. So I divided the interviewees into cohorts and my cohorts were looking at, there was a 1970s and 1980s, and the 1990s cohorts. This is not when the people were born. Actually I was looking at when the people turned about 17, because I know that's about the age that most people in Britain can get a driver's licence. And that's a big thing for someone to start driving, obviously. So that's how the cohorts were so that people who turned about 17 in the 1970s, and people who turned 17 in the 1980s. And then the people turned about 17 in the 1990s. And just to follow that through, whether they decided to get the car then and continue with it and the different constraints, and when that constraint was removed, say for example, most people at the time they were in a junior tertiary education. I mean, you’re skint, you don't have money. And probably you live close to where you study anyway. So you walk or you cycle, or you go by bus and then when you get a bit more money and you start working, I found a number of people then decided to get cars because that enabled them to get to where they were going, but others did not. Because maybe where they started walking, they did not require a car. Or then they formed that habit of going by bus and they liked it. And then they started choosing where to work or where to live in such a way that they wouldn't have to use the car or something like that. So those are the different categories within my research that helped me to, to sort of interrogate the different narratives I was getting from people's life courses.
And that's quite an interesting part of the thesis, the way, which people yeah, they've established that behaviour and then they talk about looking for a house or a flat in a particular area. But one thing I was going to ask you about actually is the Heriot-Watt is a campus University, so it's on the outskirts of Edinburgh. And I think you mentioned it moved from the city centre was that important for people the fact that it moved and it was no longer a central location. It was on the outskirts?
Yes, for I met a few people who were with Heriot-Watt at the time. It was in the city centre, and then it moved to the outskirts and actually, I remember one of them said at the time it was in the city centre, he was fine, he would walk, it was okay. And once they moved out, he just decided to start using his car because well the parking was free at the time, was still free at the time I was there anyway. And, and the bus is too slow. The person was just not used to using buses. The person was fine cycling. But cycling that far on the road was not something that the person was used to and the easiest thing for him at the time was let me get into my car. So the location of where you're going really matters
And then the habits, you were talking about how people start using a mode and they sort of get used to it and that becomes part of their becomes part of their identity and so, once that person has used a car for a while, then they likely to carry on doing so.
Yes, there is a quite a bit of literature about travel identities. So people do form these travel identities and and the more you do something, the more you feel that I am the sort of person that does this, so this is me. So yes, habits are important and when people started using the car, and it became the easier thing for them. And then they started to look at themselves as the sort of people that use cars and that's okay. So they continued with it. I did find a few people who, their identity as somebody who is very much involved in environmental issues sort of overrode, or influenced their travel identity a lot more than just the way they travel. So even when they faced, let's say, really long commutes or a bus commute where they need to change buses and things like that. And they had already told themselves, let me use that phrase, they had already told themselves, ‘I'm not the not the sort of person who travels by car’, let's say, ‘and so I'm going to do whatever I can to travel in in what I think is a sustainable way’. And that's how I also came up with that the different group have the habit, the habit helps us, sort of reduces the mental effort that we have to go through in making a decision. Yeah. Because you've done it before. So it's quick.
But other people had to sort of dig deeper. In my research, I called it ‘an extra little thing in the system’. So that they would not just go for what is the easier. I mean, as human beings, it's normal, we go for what's easier to what, what will be the easiest decision to make. But there were those people who, even where they looked at the situation and the situation was not that enabling. They put things in there either in their minds, or in their space, to help them travel in the way they wanted to travel. And most of those people had identities that influenced more their travel identity than just the way they travel. So for example, if we have certain strong environmental thoughts about your carbon footprint and what you're doing for the environment and, and things to do with fuel and petroleum industry or things like that. And so they would choose to either use buses or cycle even when say, I mean, it rains a lot in Scotland, even when it's raining. I remember one of them told me it's not about the weather, it's about how you're dressed. So it's these little things that they either tell themselves, or we tell ourselves, it's really to make ourselves comfortable with what we're doing.
I mean the car-default people are comfortable, but also the alt default, people are very comfortable with what they are doing. Even though somebody on the outside might look at them and say, Oh, what a hassle I have to change buses, I have to take two buses and take like a one hour commute to work. For somebody else it would be a no no, but for them, it's okay, I will do this, and once I get on the bus, I'll be able to listen to this programme or I'll be able to read this book.
And you talked about how as well, for some of the people who use the car, but they have environmental identities, they were trying to manage that. And one of them I think was talking about, he felt bad about it so he got a lower emissions car. So there's some people who sort of managed the car using identity in that way.
Yes. So, as I said, people cope in different ways. We all try to make ourselves comfortable with whatever decision we make, really. Which is what we should do because if we're not, then I don't know, how we'll go around. But yes, so those who felt they had no other choice but to use the car, but had strong environmental beliefs, said it's worth it to spend more on a more fuel-efficient car or hybrid car. And that's what they would do to make themselves more comfortable with commuting by car. And this was not in any way in contradiction with their environmental beliefs, because they were trying to find a compromise of travelling by car which they know all the issues around it, all the environmental issues around it, but also their strong environmental beliefs. And so, in trying to find a compromising belief, a thought that, to spend more on a hybrid or more fuel efficient car is how is how they'll go about it. Yeah.
Presumably potentially you could redefine yourself as being less environmental that, that instead it's the convenience and the speed that matters to you, for instance?
It’s interesting that you mention that. I did not get that actually, now that you talk about it, they did not try to change what they thought they were. But they tried to change their perception of that behaviour to fit in what they thought they were. So actually it did not go the other way around. No, it was I'm behaving like this, but this is not in contradiction with what I believe or if it is, this is what I am going to do. It was never, or maybe I don't believe that. And I know that there are theories that say that the way you behave tells you, but I think maybe because I used retrospective interviews, they had already gone through that maybe subconsciously They were not going to think about who they were when they're talking about something they've done over and over again. Yeah.
Yeah, yeah, it's a coherent picture of who they are now. Now. Yeah. So, but presumably, only a minority of people had strong environmental identities. So for the others, what was what was it about instead?
So the others, it's really the situation around that helped to help them to form certain habits. So I remember clearly one interviewee who, who talks about the fact that they wanted to teach their children certain things. And so to their children, they didn't want their children to be so used to the car. So even in the rain, they would help their children put on all the gear and the raincoats and the boots and all that and just go out with them, they had to walk to school. But the situation helped so the people who lived near cycle paths or the people who lived near a bus stop especially. That came out very clearly that the situation around and the infrastructure around them, when it is there, it helps to form the habits. And once the habits is formed, even when they moved or when they are moving, they try to stick to it. I met this young lady, she did not have children and she'd moved from England and to Edinburgh. And she said when she was in England she used to drive just because she left University and she got a car. She borrowed her mother's car first and then she got her own car and she used to go to work that way. But when she moved to Edinburgh, the first flat that she got was in the city and there was a direct bus to Heriot-Watt where she was working. And so she just, she didn't see any reason to use the car then. So at the time she'd been using buses. And when she even, when she moved flats, she was looking for a place, you see the habit had now started to form so that when she moved flats, she was looking for a place that will enable her to do that, to still travel to work by bus. So the infrastructure is is certainly important. And I think that's why I looked at both the situational factors, we cannot do away with them and also the socio-psychological factors.
So, and if if we were thinking to get people out of their cars, particularly people who don't particularly have strong environmental views, would it be about the infrastructure then do you think?
To start with, to start with it would be about the infrastructure. And I think designing programmes that ask them to do just something small. It's not, I mean, it's daunting for someone to think I have been travelling by car for all these years, and yes, I understand all the environmental issues around but can I really start travelling by bus for every day, five days of the week? So that can be a bit daunting. And so I think it would be important to start with smaller programmes where we maybe in a workplace, Monday is the public transport day or something like that. Just something small. So when we, when they can start with that small thing, they then can move in and I think that then causes a foot in the door when someone has done something small or behaved in a certain way, but on a very small scale, they can start to build it up. And I actually did meet people who, who said, yeah, they had started by travelling one day a week by cycling, one day a week and the rest of the time they would go by by their cars. And then they worked it up to two at the time I spoke to them, they were just doing two days a week. But really, that is, those are people who, who, again, they want to, what can I say? They want to be in line with their own with their beliefs, with the thing that has touched them, but at the same time, you cannot make such a huge change. So the situation of the infrastructure is really important to help somebody because if it's not there, so if your cycle path is not there, or the road is not moving in such a way that the cyclist feels safe, or the rules on the road are not in such a way that the cyclist feels safe, then even the small thing that you're asking them to start with will be very hard for them to do because they will feel unsafe.
And we've mentioned already about sort of infrastructure like bus stops and cycle paths, but were there things that you found that you thought the university was doing or should be doing to support people to travel more sustainably?
Well, it would have to be the university working together with the council. I mean, at the time I was there, I used the bus a lot in Edinburgh and I felt the bus was quite good. I don't know if it was just coming from Uganda and comparing it to the public transport system there. And then I actually learned to cycle when I was in, I was doing my PhD, I learned to cycle in 2015 with someone through Transition Heriot-Watt and they were offering free classes. And cycling around the university was fine. Cycling outside of the campus was not. I mean, we were okay because we were with the instructor and so we thought it would be okay with her, but I don't think I would do it on my own. At the time I was in Edinburgh, so as about three years ago, there were no dedicated cycle lanes and the bicycles had to go in the bus lanes, which was okay, because that's the space they had, but yeah, it was not ideal. It was not something that would enable somebody who wants to get into that to do it, it's the people who already do it. Other people are already proficient cyclists, but it's not the easiest thing to do. I think dedicated cycle paths would help but I don't know how far Edinburgh Council or the university itself would be willing to go to do that.
I'm just going to ask, really sort of coming to the end of the podcast, if there was, if there was anything that you wanted to add, if there's anything that particularly surprised you, or you found particularly interesting about that the PhD research?
Well, for me in general, from the beginning, when you said it was a jump from my construction background to the social psychology, for me, so everything was different. I had not had these concepts and dealing with them myself, was different, but that's what was interesting about it, and then going out to talk to people and actually finding that you can trace these different concepts that you're reading in literature, things to do with mobility biographies, or things to do with people's feelings about these things. These are real things. I know they can sound abstract to somebody coming from that background. But these are actually real things. We don't see them, but they are real and they actually affect the way we use things or the way we behave. Just in the same way as building a road or putting together a good fleet of public transport or something, they really have the same weight, and they will affect behaving in the same, not in the same way but with the magnitude, with a similar magnitude with a similar impact that that those other situational factors will. And for me, it was interesting to actually trace that in what people were saying and I actually did not prompt them, because all I told them was ‘Tell me how you've travelled since this’ and it’s only after they told me the story that I then went back. And I think it is important for us, I know that in Europe and in the UK, you're already clued in to these things and, and I just hope that back here like in Uganda, people know them. It's just the policy will is not yet there yet, for us to, to read, to do research and then start implementing such things. So although I did my research in Edinburgh, my ears and eyes are always open for how that could be done back home here in Uganda.
Thank you. Yeah, that was really interesting. I really appreciated the chance to learn more about your research and it's a great case for qualitative social science research in transport. So and if people want to read your thesis, they can find it via The British Library Ethos service and I'll include a link to that on the web page and also to your LinkedIn page where you've got articles that you've written, and so on. So, yeah, thank you very much, Emma.