Sustainable Travel and the Limits to Viator Economicus

A lecture given to Explore Lifelong Learning, 24th May 2017

I’m a planner with an interest in sustainable transport, and so when I was given the task of doing a lecture on the theme of “Exiles and Pilgrims” it struck me that the unifying characteristic of both exiles and pilgrims is that they go on a journey.

Sustainable transport is concerned with how transport systems and practices can be managed in such a way as to enable people to access the services and opportunities they desire while minimising the impacts of transport upon environment and society. Last week we discussed climate change; in my current interesting condition I winced to imagine “the next generation” in a state of destruction.

Martin, John, 1789-1854; The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

Obviously greenhouse gas emissions come from many sources; transport is only one. However, it is a significant one, responsible for 23% of UK emissions in 2016; because journeys and miles keep on rising, efficiency savings do not mean that total emissions are reducing (1)(2). Although no journey is entirely emission-free, the single-occupancy or average-occupancy petrol or diesel car is a pretty energy-inefficient way of getting travellers from A to B. (3)

And of course greenhouse gas emissions aren’t the only problem caused by transport. There are the effects of air pollution: nitrogen oxides and particulates are thought to cause 23,500 and 29,000 deaths per year respectively. (4)

Then there’s the social impact of road traffic accidents, firstly in terms of direct impacts upon the injured, and then in terms of the way people alter their behaviour to avoid risk.

Then there’s the physical impact upon our towns and cities and upon our landscape. This was the issue that really got me into sustainable transport as a teenager in the early- to mid-1990s when anti-roads protests sprung up around the UK. Private cars are an inefficient use of road space, as this graphic shows (5); therefore, they will tend to be a major contributor to congestion in busy areas and to stimulate demand for new road infrastructure.

buses cycle cars road space

Specifically with regard to cars, it’s worth noting that something like 40% of households in the UK haven’t got access to a car, and these tend to be poorer, older or younger households; therefore a driver-focused society will tend to add to the exclusion these households already face. (6)

Now, those of us who get up in the morning and jump into our cars to get to work aren’t doing so out of malevolence or a lack of concern for those around them. Many factors go into the decision-making process regarding journeys. We consider things like speed, convenience, safety, and cost, and also the benefits of the destination – whether it’s worth the effort to get there. So if we live four miles from our destination and it’s too far to walk but there isn’t a safe cycle route or a reliable public transport system, it’s only logical to drive.

We know this because whenever a given transport mode becomes more convenient, cheap or reliable than its competitors, then, if it isn’t unacceptably unsafe or uncomfortable, people will start to transfer to it – sometimes in large numbers. When public transport services are withdrawn, people will tend to transfer to the car. When cycle routes are safe and convenient, large numbers of people will use them – so 43% of people in the Netherlands cycle daily, as opposed to 4% in the UK. (7), (8) When new road space is provided in order to “ease congestion”, the amount of traffic on the relevant route increases by, on average, about 20% – thus, in some cases, negating the congestion gains entirely and leading to calls for even more new roads. (9) (10) (11)

There is a myth that users of different modes are tribes who are inevitably in competition with one another over the division of road space. In fact we are all just travellers who may put ourselves in one modal category in one set of circumstances, and in another in a different case.

Viator Economicus


What I’ve expounded here is a model which describes all travellers as if we were perfectly rational beings making choices according to a sound and reasoned analysis of what’s best for us. You may be conversant with the concept of Homo Economicus – an idealised decision-maker who makes choices about consumption, lifestyle, work, and so on, for entirely rational reasons. Actually, we’re not really like that: we do silly things, like thinking we’ve got to have something because the adverts say so, or throwing out perfectly good clothes because they’re wildly out of fashion.

We might call my imaginary rational traveller “Viator Economicus.” Despite the examples I’ve given, I’d argue that Viator Economicus is also an only partially adequate model for how we make transport choices. I’d argue that there are other things going on as well.

Before I was a planner I studied linguistics, and at Newcastle that means, or used to, that you would learn about Middle English via Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Which takes us neatly back to pilgrims.


The point of the Prologue, if you haven’t read it, is to tell us that there’s a bit of a motley crew of people from all walks of life who are thrown together by circumstance. They define themselves, in terms of their social status and their moral standing, by their clothing and their behaviour and so on, so you’ve got the verray parfit gentil knight whose horse were good, but he was not gay, and the Wife of Bath lumbering along on her ambler in her red stockings, and the genteel Prioresse doting on her little dogs. Then they all define themselves all over again by the stories they tell, whether they concern courtly love or people sticking their backsides out of windows (12).

For the purposes of this lecture it would have been nice if Chaucer had dwelt on the kind of horses ridden by each of his pilgrims to show some people defining themselves by their mode of transport. However, he didn’t know I was going to do this lecture and he only makes a few references to horses; I suppose they just weren’t his thing. But the principle that journeys can be an act of self-definition holds good.

I think there are certain qualitative concepts which travellers take into consideration alongside the perhaps more measureable, or rationally assessable, ones that would be covered by Viator Economicus.



The first is status, or prestige. It takes into account power, and money, and how much a person is afforded respect by those around them. These things don’t often correlate, but they often do, and, while it isn’t always the case that everyone wants to be known to be rich, nobody ever wants to be a person whom nobody respects.

The picture above shows the first-class waiting room at Newcastle Central Station – the Centurion, as you might know it.

In the early nineteenth century the railways weren’t a prestigious entity. The first railways  – Stockton and Darlington, Liverpool and Manchester – were Northern, industrial, and associated with the transport of goods. They were dirty and noisy. When they expanded into passenger transport, the railway companies knew they had to keep the upper and middle classes on side, to be able to tell them that, yes, they were being drawn by heavy machinery, but that didn’t mean they were so many ingots of pig iron. So they did two things: they invented first, second and third-class carriages to keep the upper classes from the hoi polloi (they also provided carriage trucks to enable wealthy passengers to travel in their own carriages) and they built immensely grand new stations, prestigious environments in which to receive their valued customers.

The first-class waiting room wasn’t fitted until 1893, by which time everyone of every class was used to the concept of rail travel; but, while rail travel was still unaffordable for many in its early years, by the later nineteenth century third-class passengers were the most numerous class by far. So efforts still had to be made to make the first-class passengers feel special at every stage of their journey. (13)

It’s fairly obvious to see the “status” message in car adverts and the styling of the non-budget airlines, and so on: those who sell travel continue to put forward the idea that the journey is an expression of prestige.

Power and Control


Status, as I’ve said, is associated with power and control, and that’s another thing that we tend to associate with private cars. I was at a lecture on autonomous vehicles recently at which the lecturer said: “One of the barriers to acceptance might be that, for many people, the drive to work is the only part of the day over which they have complete control.” Of course, they don’t, not really: their journeys are determined by the configuration of the road, the locations of origin and destination, road signals and other traffic; but, even though there might only be one sensible thing to do, the driver is still the one making the car do it. The converse would be what the French, I understand, call “metro-boulot-dodo” – metro, work, sleep – the entirely controlled life of the stereotypical city-dweller. Or the characters in the Divine Comedy’s song “National Express” if you remember it:

“Take the National Express/ When your life’s in a mess/ It’ll make you smile”.

Neil Hannon then goes on to describe the passengers, in affectionate, but satirical terms. Unlike Chaucer, however, although he says “All human life is there”, he knows it isn’t. The people whose life isn’t in a mess – the executives and decision-makers, those in control – are not.

For some time traffic guidance which acknowledges the need to bring about modal shift has appealed to the notion of a hierarchy of road users, in which most consideration is given to those who need it most. The most vulnerable and least polluting – pedestrians, then cyclists – are at the top, with motorised vehicles further down.

The problem is that that’s the absolute reverse of what actually happens, not necessarily in policy, but certainly in practice. One response to vulnerability is for more vulnerable road users to simply absent themselves – or, in the case of children, be absented – and that’s because the actual, physical power of a Range Rover is greater than that of a child. Without significant intervention, the power, and therefore the status, remains with motorised vehicles. And this has got to mean the stigmatisation of other transport modes. There are areas of Newcastle within a few miles of the city centre where car ownership is low and public transport poor; Viator Economicus would cycle in, but the statistics show that Walker Man doesn’t (14); and I’ve heard anecdotally that, in certain quarters, anyway, people “wouldn’t be seen dead on a bike”.



You can’t talk about prestige and power and liberation without talking about gender, and there’s some interesting things at play here. The first thing is that society has always tried to curtail women’s movements “for their own good”, whether “good” meant safety, or propriety. Before any of the men bristle and call me a misandrist, it’s only fair to note that it’s quite often been the women putting pressure on other women to “behave”. So you’ve got the famous situation in Pride and Prejudice where Lizzie Bennett is roundly criticised for walking cross-country to see her the women. (15) (I also, however, get people who have never inhabited a female body at all, let alone been pregnant, telling me that I oughtn’t to be riding a bike at the moment. As if you need a Y chromosome to make an informed decision.)

The other thing is that there’s been an assumption that mobility is the realm of men. Not just in the sense that boys like trains and cars. There’s an assumption that men are the ones in control. All of Fielding’s coachmen are male, so is Thomas the Tank Engine. Ships are “she” but they are, as Donne might’ve put it, by rather a lot of men mann’d. The makers of the Flintstones assumed that a 1950s American family transported backto the Stone Age might start dressing in skins and throwing rocks but some things are sacred: Fred would still be the one behind the wheel of the car.

Which means that when women do take control of their own mobility, it’s, at first, notable. In “Lark Rise to Candleford”, Flora Thompson’s memoir of nineteenth-century rural life, she describes how women were granted mobility by the advent of the bicycle. Thompson says that men complained that the women were all out cycling and “Daddy’s in the kitchen a-cooking all the meals.” She comments, “And very good for Daddy it was, too.” (16)

The same was true when women started to drive. In this case, it didn’t only make them able to get around. It made them safe. It saved them from the vulnerability that women experience by virtue of being women and it therefore gave them not only the liberty but the invulnerability of men.

It would be possible to construct a case for cycling as the feminine counterpart of driving. Cyclists wear Lycra; they are more vulnerable and less powerful than motorised vehicles; they are slower and less noisy. And they are subject to victim-blaming. We’re getting better at not assuming that because a woman’s wearing a short skirt she’s asking for it, but we still get judges saying women shouldn’t go out and make themselves vulnerable by being drunk. Likewise, discussions of accidents involving cyclists reasonably often act as if it’s the cyclist’s fault. She can’t have been looking where she was going. The driver couldn’t have been expected to see her. She’d have been alright if she’d been wearing a helmet. Or she shouldn’t be cycling at all. In an online discussion recently, which started with the observation that a collision at 50mph is likely to kill, a (female) respondent argued that it would be unreasonable to “annoy” drivers by making them reduce their speeds, and that cycle lanes should not be provided alongside roads because “We just can’t carry on allowing people to do stupid things.” “Stupid things” didn’t seem, in this context, to include propelling heavy machinery around residential areas at speeds likely to kill. (17)

The problem with this is that in the UK, most cyclists are men, and the reason seems to be that because women are more risk-averse, they are more likely to be scared off the roads. So the metaphorical femininity of cyclists as opposed to “male” drivers contrasts with the actual masculinity of most cyclists and arguably, this has an effect upon cycling behaviour.  A thoughtful New York blogger who calls himself “Dosik” wrote recently that, following a minor altercation at the lights on his bike, he realised that he was behaving with exactly the same combination of aggression and a sense of entitlement that he recognises in motorists that try to scare him off the road. He refers to “toxic masculinity” – the pressure upon men to express their masculinity in negative ways. (18)

Tradition and Modernity


The next pair of concepts I want to touch on are tradition and modernity. I think they have always been in tension, with some people being early adopters of new technologies and behaviours, and others tending to resist them. At some times, perhaps, the influential people in society were keener on being traditional than modern – at least, as far as was practical. The nineteenth century saw astonishing, unprecedented change – sociological, technological and intellectual. There were dark satanic mills. There were doubts about the afterlife at a time when death was still as omnipresent as it always had been. And, since anyone could make his fortune and buy his way into the middle classes, the superiority of the elites was called into question. Some, at least, reacted against this by a fetishisation of the middle ages, which Pugin and others believed was purer and more sincere than their own age. Going back to the earlier discussion of prestige, some tried to be as visibly Old Money as they could be. Recognising this, the railway companies made extensive use of pre-existing architectural styles in their new stations – neo-classical at Euston, Gothic at St Pancras, and “engineers’ Tudorbethan” at Bristol Temple Meads. This was partly just the way the Victorian era approached the arts – it didn’t discard, it just made its art more grandiose and better-engineered – but it also helped to reassure passengers that the new way of travelling wasn’t a complete break from the past.

There was less of the sort after the Second World War. In music and architecture and planning, there was a belief in casting off the superfluities of previous generations and creating from war-ravaged Europe a clean, modern and functional society. Although Modernist architecture and Serialism in music emerged well before the Second World War, they were embraced as part of this better society. Similarly, the private car was to be at the heart of Britain’s reconstructed cities and New Towns. Here’s Wilfred Burns’s vision for central Newcastle: we’re looking down Percy Street from just beyond the Haymarket. Broad new thoroughfares have been constructed for motorised transport, which run smoothly and withouth interruption through the city centre; pedestrians are kept apart. There is no provision for cyclists – presumably the assumption was that nobody who could drive a car would ride a bike – and, though Burns shows a bus or two, public transport wasn’t this era’s forte. It was the age of the Beeching Axe.

I think we’re in a rather neophilic age. Not in all respects. But advertisers have got us used to the idea that what is new is good, and there isn’t a past age that people tend to fetishise.



Not that private cars are seen as “new” these days; they’re too ubiquitous for that. They are normal, and normality is that other concept I want to discuss. When more people can afford something, it can be marketed not as a luxury but as something that a functional person or family ought to have, and that’s what started to happen in the 1950s, and it became reinforced over the second half of the twentieth century by the prioritisation of car transport in policy-making and infrastructure, which contributes towards the fact that, if you’ve got a car, it is the cheapest, most convenient and quickest mode for many journeys.

When a pattern of behaviour becomes “normal”, not following it can come to be seen as “abnormal”. That can mean “shameful” – as when Margaret Thatcher said that anyone on a bus over the age of 30 had to be a failure in life. Or it can mean “suspicious” or “irresponsible”: my sister-in-law was told that she and her new-born baby couldn’t leave the hospital without a car seat, even though neither she nor her husband could drive. What if they’d been planning to walk home? Or take the bus?

It also contributes towards the belief that non-drivers are illegitimate users of road space. People still sometimes say “Cyclists can use the road when they pay road tax!” even though road tax, in the sense of a ring-fenced tax paid by drivers for road infrastructure, hasn’t existed since 1937, and we all pay for roads through general and local taxation. (19) The road system is an enormous, socialised, public asset, free at the point of use, unlike many other public assets: we all pay for it and we all have rights to it.

Where now?

We have seen that car journeys are seen as expressions of status, which is reinforced by the actual physical power of a motorised vehicle. They can be an expression of masculinity or an expression of emancipation. Car travel is seen as liberating; as modern; and as the normal, default choice of a functional member of society.

In public discourse, this makes it difficult to put measures in place which curtail or inconvenience drivers. It makes it difficult to resist calls for new roads – which end up being justified on the grounds that they will boost economic growth, even though the evidence suggests that they do not (11)– perhaps because of the equation of power and prestige with wealth. So more space in town centres is allocated to motorised vehicles, the Government won’t act on air pollution, road-building continues to take place, cycle routes are patchy, absent or unsafe, pedestrians sometimes still have to take the kind of unpleasant and roundabout routes exemplified by the crossings over the Central Motorway, and urban public transport ends up being the service for those whose life is “in a mess”.

Which has a knock-on, reinforcing effect upon social attitudes, resulting, as I’ve said, in victim-blaming, a reluctance to be seen cycling or taking public transport, and a belief that roads “belong to” drivers.

What should we do about it? Here’s a depiction of another pilgrimage – the one described in the Pilgrim’s Progress. How, in transport terms, do we get away from the City of (Environmental) Destruction and arrive at the Celestial City where everyone is able to go where he or she desires, but it’s not always easiest to drive?


I would argue that public policy, environment and social attitudes are inter-related. All policy-makers, being only human, take on the attitudes of the society they’re in; and our attitudes are affected by the cues given to us from our environment.

I’m afraid, therefore, that despite the fact that this lecture has critiqued the concept of Viator Economicus, I’m forced to recommend a course of action as if he did exist: better and safer infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians, better public transport, and legal and fiscal measures to ensure that we aren’t unfairly subsidising motorised transport. Changing the travel environment, I think, is the way to change attitudes. We need to stop creating urban environments which send out the message that the non-driver is an afterthought – someone to be thrown a few scraps of urban space, out of pity that his or her life is a mess. Because, I believe, otherwise, all of our lives will be.

  1. Department forTransport. Transport Statistics Great Britain 2016. 2016.
  2. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. 2016 UK Provisional Greenhouse Gas Emissions: summary. 2016.
  3. Futuretravel. Statistics: Environment. Futuretravel: Investigating Sustainable Transport. [Online] [Cited: 23 May 2017.]
  4. Follett, Tom. Air Necessities: Place-based approaches to a pollution crisis. s.l. : ResPublica, 2017.
  5. Walker, Jarrett. Human Transit. The photo that explains almost everything. [Online] 21 September 2012. [Cited: 23 May 2017.]
  6. Kay, Duncan. Fairness in a Car-Dependent Society. s.l. : Sustainable Development Commission, 2011.
  7. Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Barriers to cycling. [Online] 2017. [Cited: 23 May 2017.]
  8. Cycling UK. Cycling UK. Cycling UK’s Cycling Statistics. [Online] [Cited: 23 May 2017.] do the levels of cycling in the UK compare to those in other EU countries?.
  9. Mumford, Lewis. The Highway and the City. London : Secker & Warburg, 1964.
  10. Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Roads Assessment. Trunk Roads and the Generation of Traffic. London : The Department of Transport, 1994.
  11. Lynn Sloman, Lisa Hopkinson and Ian Taylor. The Impact of Road Projects in England. s.l. : Campaign to Protect Rural England, 2017.
  12. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. London : s.n., c. 1400.
  13. Brindle, Steven. Paddington Station: Its History and Architecture. Swindon : English Heritage, 2004.
  14. Office for National Statistics. NOMIS: official labour market statistics. [Online] [Cited: 24 May 2017.] NOMIS: official labour market statistics.
  15. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813.
  16. Thompson, Flora. Lark Rise to Candleford. 1945.
  17. Campaign for the New Urbanism. Auto-Pedestrian Crashes. Public Square. [Online] Campaign for the New Urbanism. [Cited: 23 May 2017.]
  18. Lee, Do. To Dismantle the Master’s Streets. Intersectional Riding. [Online] [Cited: 23 May 2017.]
  19. Reid, Carlton. I Pay Road Tax. [Online] [Cited: 24 May 2017.]
  20. British Library. British Library Online. Poem by Wordsworth, Suggested by the Proposed Kendal and Windermere Railway. [Online] [Cited: 23 May 2017.]

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