Friday, September 18, 2009

traffic safety

Traffic safety doesn't much interest me as an academic pursuit, but I'm pulling some figures together on transportation sustainability and noticed that while the number of fatal crashes in the US has hovered around 40,000 for the last 20 years or so, that same statistic has declined substantially in other countries including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

The reason?

In an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health, Leonard Evans argues that it's the litigious culture of the US that's to blame. Says Evans, "Instead of encouraging drivers to obey traffic laws, actions over which they have control, the US media coverage defines the problem in terms of manufacturing and design decisions over which drivers have no control." Yet another problem that comes down to separating individual actions from their consequences. Is there any problem that can't be formulated in these terms? Apparently this goes back to Marx's decision to highlight production (as opposed to consumption) as a problem in Capital. But that still doesn't explain why all of the other countries get it while the US doesn't.

Evans, L. (2003). "A New Traffic Safety Vision for the United States." American Journal of Public Health 93(9): 1384-1386.

more WWII posters

love them!

these are the "save and sacrafice" ones.

i want a whole set for my house.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

academic controversies

Jumping into the middle of an academic controversy makes it very difficult to put together a coherent picture of that controversy.

I'm currently trying to decipher the actor-network theorists' approaches to the study of scientific and technical systems. In general they seem to have things right on, but they're constantly criticizing others (the Edinburgh school, e.g.) for privileging "social" explanations. Having only read ANT accounts, I have no idea what it is they're actually criticizing or if their criticisms have merit.

In any case, as I read, the picture is getting a little clearer, and I'm gaining insights about the form I'll want my (eventual) analysis to take.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

on the consistency of thought.

I just dug up an old doc with a single sentence idea for a research topic.

It very closely resembles what I'm actually spending time on right now, even though it was written before I was even finished with my MS.

So I guess the lesson is that my thoughts are continuous and coherent on some level, even if I don't always have access to that level.


I stumbled upon "the new citroen" by Barthes after getting linked from Jim Conley's sociology of the automobile course syllabus. I'm confused though: if neomania is the obsession with the novel via consumption, then certainly when Barthes writes, "The D.S. has all the features ... of one of those objects from another universe which have supplied fuel for the neomania of the eighteenth century and that of our own science-fiction ..." he is writing criticism, even though the passages describing the instrumentation, bodywork, and the public response to the car seem to elevate it. In the worst case it's possible that Barthes didn't realize the poisonous effect that the image of the automobile would have on transportation in general. Indeed he refers to the DS as "the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object." Even those that don't use the car (not just the DS) are affected by it, but it's no longer magical, it's in terms of air quality, climate change, congestion, and public health impacts.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

interesting insights from 1983

I just came across this gem of an article by Yago published in the Annual Review of Sociology in 1983. In it, he gives a scathing critique of much of the current transportation studies work.

Examining the background characteristics of people and their choices of transportation for the journey to work, the researchers not surprisingly confirm that those with higher incomes who own automobiles are less likely to use public transit than those with lower incomes who do not own cars.

This is maybe a little exaggerated, but only a little. While this type of analysis is probably important in a regional planning context (the magnitudes of those coefficients are important, after all) it's less clear why these studies are still being undertaken in an academic one. One explanation is that they're easy (relatively) to complete and they're still sexy to publish. Especially if one of the coefficients has a counterintuitve sign or magnitude but is readily interpretable because of the particulars of the dataset.

Research on these spatial, economic, and population correlates of transportation fails to explain how they evolved.

Indeed, it seems as though transportation studies is always starting from scratch or stating the obvious. Worse, it takes a thoroughly positivist and technological deterministic stance: if the right technology is provided in the right conditions then it will diffuse and transport will be sustainable. Many of my colleagues devote substantial amounts of time to studying (e.g.) the optimum location of alt-fuel refueling infrastructure. No one to my knowledge is putting this type of analyses together (well) with how transportation systems have evolved in the past (in a society, in a culture, in a political system) and how this is likely to connect to the future. weaving together technology, culture, politics, to determine sustainable futures is likely to yield better results than analyses which cut out any single portion. yago knew this in 1983. howcome we don't know it now?

Yago, G. (1983). "The Sociology of Transportation." Annual Review of Sociology 9: 171-190.