Tim Cresswell, March 2, 2021
In the third edition of Rebalance Talks, Tim Cresswell encouraged us to reflect more deeply on mobility; the effects of COVID-19, socio-economic factors that shape mobility cultures, policy making and visions for the future.
To begin, Cresswell invited us to think more deeply about mobility — what does it mean beyond the simple act of transporting someone from point A to point B. What are the subjective experiences of walking, riding a bike, or taking a bus? In his paper, Constellations of Mobility, Cresswell defines mobility as, “…physical movement – getting from one place to another; the meanings that movement is given – discourses, narratives and stories about the fact of movement; and finally the experienced and embodied practice of movement.” Moving on from this definition we begin to understand mobility as something more complex than transportation.
What does it mean beyond the simple act of transporting someone from point A to point B. What are the subjective experiences of walking, riding a bike, or taking a bus?
Cresswell was asked about his thoughts on the term dead time. Dead time, Cresswell explained, is traditionally defined as: the time someone spends commuting. It was seen as “the pointless time spent in between when you leave and when you arrive. A problem that needs to be solved, with the goal to reduce the time spent moving.” Cresswell asserted that we need to move beyond this rather superficial way of thinking about mobility as simply transportation, and stated, “When I walked to work, it was precious time. There was time to prepare before arriving at work and time to decompress on the way home.” He said there are all kinds of pleasurable and productive things that happen between “to” and “from.” He quoted the cliche, “It’s about the journey, not the destination” saying that it still holds true. If we think of On The Road and Bonnie and Clyde, these are forms of autotelic, or for its own sake, expressions of mobility. He also rejected the notion that the only reason we move is because of external demands we have upon us.
This idea of autotelic forms of movement and the importance of the subjective experience of mobility can be seen in Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Walking. Thoreau writes, “The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine…you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking,” and that, “In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations. In my walks I would fain return to my senses.” For Thoreau, walking is for its own sake.
We need to move beyond this rather superficial way of thinking about mobility as simply transportation, and stated, “When I walked to work, it was a precious time. There was time to prepare before arriving at work and time to decompress on the way home.
Next, Cresswell was asked about his opinion of slow cities. He explained that, while the idea may be feasible for some niche populations, they only function if other sectors of society are moving quickly. Cresswell stated that slow cities are a luxury for the rich. He explained that the differences we see in one’s speed can be described as kinetic hierarchy. Referencing the Charlie Chapman movie, Modern Times, Cresswell showed how in the film the boss of the factory slowly sips his coffee and reads the newspaper in his office, occasionally saying, “speed up,” while the factory workers are forced to continually worker faster and faster. The workers are tied to the demands of the conveyor belt and their rhythm is controlled by the boss and on a larger scale, they are tied to the speed of capitalism. In this example, Cresswell showed that we can see an explicit, visual example not only of the kinetic hierarchy; how slowness can be connected to economic class. Cresswell noted that this type of rhythm control can easily be seen today in companies such as Amazon, where many employees’ movements are tracked when they are completing different tasks. Creswell went on to say, however, that “sometimes the rich are faster, sometimes slower,” but usually, the difference is the rich act out of choice and the poor act out of compulsion.
When asked about the effects of COVID-19 on mobility, Cresswell explained how we have been directly affected by policies that have forced us to ask ourselves, perhaps for the first time, important questions about mobility. However, Cresswell clarified that this new awareness of mobility is only “new for some of us.” The question of “Should I go for a walk?” or “Should I go to work or work from home?” are new questions for some sectors of the population, whereas those with less privilege may have already been aware of conflicts or attention to their access/privilege in terms of mobility. Mobility has become a present theme in daily life. Cresswell also noted that because of the pandemic, one’s mobility status has changed their title and meaning in society. A low-skilled worker that cleans hospitals or works stocking shelves at Amazon has been transformed into an essential worker. This shift in title is dependent on mobility restrictions. This example shows the power of mobility to change one’s position in society. For better or worse, the low-skilled worker now has greater mobility power than someone else in a higher position of society. However, this also shows the power one can have in choosing not to move. Someone who works in their own office and may enjoy greater freedom and privacy and avoid the anxieties of being in a populated workplace.
Because of the pandemic, one’s mobility status has changed their title and meaning in society. A low-skilled worker that cleans hospitals or works stocking shelves at Amazon has been transformed into an essential worker. This shift in title is dependent on mobility restrictions. This example shows the power of mobility to change one’s position in society.
In thinking about the future of transportation policy, Cresswell stressed that social and environmental justice must be taken into account. If an environmental perspective is the only one taken in policy making, social justice is relegated to a position of lesser importance.
He explained that we must incorporate procedural justice into the decision-making process. “We need to have justice in the process to have justice in the result.”
To conclude, Tim Cresswell told the story of homelessness in England. He explained that when the pandemic hit London, the government decided that having homeless people on the street was not good for public health and the spreading of COVID-19, and created an initiative to put them all up in hotels. For Cresswell, the pandemic has unveiled the actual ability of neoliberal governments to spend lots of money to change something when they decide it is significant. He says that we spend lots of money on things we esteem important; “We have the capacity to do extraordinary things if we have the will to do it.”
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Tim Cresswell is professor in University of Edinburgh in the School of GeoSciences. His research considers the role of geographical ways of thinking in the constitution of social and cultural life. By ‘geographical thinking’ he means modes of thought and imagination that utilise notions of place, space, and mobility to give the world ideological value. He is interested in how these modes of thought inform various kinds of practice from the practice of ordering and domination to the practice of disorder and resistance.