Against Automobility: Interview with Jim Conley

Driving_kills_communities_richard_liptrotSince the book Car Troubles was such an interesting read, we decided to have a chat with the book’s co-editor Jim Conley. Conley is associate professor in the Department of Sociology, Trent University in Ontario, Canada, where among other things he teaches the course “Sociology of the Automobile”.

Car Troubles revolves around the concepts of automobility and auto-mobility. Could you describe them?
Take something as simple as a commuter driving from her suburban home to work. A configuration of people, organisations and activities make it possible: global chains of production, marketing, finance, insurance, maintenance and regulation; automakers, parts suppliers, oil companies, designers, engineers, advertisers, construction companies, police, driving instructors, urban planners and many more. Add to that the environmental and social consequences of car travel and you get what we mean by automobility: the complex and far-reaching system of automobile-dominated transportation. Auto-mobility, in contrast, refers to the practice of car travel as part of people’s social lives: the commuter’s experience, as she struggles to get her children to daycare and herself to work on time, sits frustrated in congested traffic, but also feels good about the car model she’s driving and has the fleeting pleasure of a favourite song playing on the car radio.

Why do you choose to separate automobility and auto-mobility?
By distinguishing automobility and auto-mobility, we’re trying to heighten attention to the difference between the system and the practices of car users, to encourage awareness of how they are connected, and to foster action on both levels.

How do you see these concepts as useful for understanding the implications that automobiles have on our societies? And in what way can the carfree movement benefit from a deeper understanding of automobility and auto-mobility?
Considering automobility as a system draws attention to the powerful, interconnected interests that support and benefit from it. More encouragingly, it tells us that complex systems are vulnerable to disruption, and can change relatively rapidly and in unexpected ways. Auto-mobility on the other hand, when viewed as practice, shows how car travel is embedded in people’s social lives and its meanings for them. It leads us to examine how people become so dependent on car travel, why they use it rather than other modes, and the pleasures and pains of doing so.

Car Troubles is mainly centred around how automobiles transform our landscapes and societies, and a bit less on how to move forward. What would your suggestions be for the carfree movement, and how do you see the role of the academia in countering car culture?
If we see automobility as a system, then the carfree movement, like the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s and 1990s, might look at economic conversion so that people don’t have to feel that their livelihoods are threatened by the movement. Auto-mobility alerts us to the benefits of car travel (such as autonomy and status) so that the carfree movement likewise needs to look for substitutes, or highlight other benefits of alternative modes such as cycling, walking and public transport. On the one hand, we know that simple anti-car measures won’t in themselves produce public transport or bring housing, shopping and work within walking or cycling distances of each other; on the other hand, simply providing public transport is not enough to get people out of their cars once they’ve become habituated to them. Appeals for people to change their habits are not enough; there need to be disincentives to car use, and incentives to use other modes.

In our review of Car Troubles, Kelly Nelson writes: “How can we raise the prestige value of walking and bicycling and public transit? How could we devalue the status of car ownership?” Can you share thoughts on that?
We might take hope from the success of the movement against tobacco. Smoking was once cool and sophisticated; now it is a stigmatised activity done by people huddled on street corners. For some urban young people, cars are now not cool. How do we expand that? Status comes from consumption that marks group boundaries, so the challenge is to convince car owners that reduced car use, if not abandoning car ownership altogether, is something that “people like them” do – e.g., that you don’t have to dress in spandex and ride an expensive road bike to cycle to work. Or, that abandoning car travel doesn’t require an asceticism that will cut you off from normal social life. Although opponents of the car will never have the resources of automakers, sophisticated marketing is one way to attempt to counter the status and other appeals of auto-mobility.

Interview by Alexander Berthelsen, illustration by Richard Liptrot.

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