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Thursday, 3 June 2010

Sustainable Mobilities

Yesterday, wanting something to read on the train, I picked up a copy of THE [Times Higher Education], the trade paper for University staff. It's ten years since I gave my last University seminar - I was teaching on a Creative Writing MA - and I rarely look back. I probably haven't picked up a copy of THE for a couple of years and when I flicked through the pages yesterday, I found it hard to imagine myself back in a university.

At the University of East London they want to appoint some Research Fellows on two year contracts worth up to £38k a year. I was a Research Fellow for six months in 1973 - 74. Funded by the British Film Institute, I studied the February 1974 General Election as it unfolded on TV - the write-up was published as "Television and the February 1974 General Election". You can find the 15,000 word essay on my website

At East London, they are seeking "an outstanding candidate to plan and conduct sociological research into sustainable mobilities....walking, public transport, virtual mobilities, freight and car use". More about those words in a moment.

I can imagine some interesting research. For example, my guess is that the Free Bus Pass has created a culture among the over 60s which has both positive and negative aspects. It is a disincentive to walking, so probably has a negative effect on physical fitness. It has turned buses into mobile Day Centres for the elderly, so probably has a positive effect on mental well-being - older people have more opportunities to talk with each other. It gets older people into town centres, so probably is good for the business of high street cafes. In the context of very low state pension entitlements, it probably creates a culture of dependence and gratitude among those over 60 who are not affluent. They feel entitled to their Freebie Pass and it does not occur to them that their self-respect might be better served with a higher pension which allowed them to make their own decisions about how to travel. For example, for a big weekly shop, a taxi might be a more sustainable way to get home than a swaying bus. You are less likely to sustain an injury.

Oh, I nearly forgot. The Free Bus Pass is presumably very good news for the private bus companies. How good I don't yet know.

And so on. Not a bad first shot for a piece of research which is pretty clearly sociological?

But to get there, I had to get past the coding and confusions of this advert. The word "sustainable" alerts you. You ain't gonna get that research fellowship unless you have figured out that there are some forms of mobility which are not sustainable and you had better guess right what they are. In advance. You aren't being invited to conduct a piece of research to assess whether a form of mobility is sustainable or not. You must know the answer before you start.

Hence the confused phrase "freight and car use", which looks as if it is there in the interests of Balance. Freight isn't a mobility. Freight is what gets transported, whether on the back of a bike or in the back of a white van.

At which point, another piece of research occurs to me. I'd like to investigate whether there is any sustainable alternative in urban areas to white vans as a way of moving stuff around - supplies to the kebab shops, building materials for the loft conversions, alcohol to the student bars at the University of East London. If there isn't, then I'd like to ask how the urban environment and the political culture can be made more friendly for White Van Man so that he doesn't feel he has to be quite so defiant towards the rest of the world. And I don't mean the flags of St George - everyone flies them, regardless of race or culture. I just mean his sense of grievance that no one appreciates that he's doing a useful job.

Now there's a piece of research ....

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