Danger: Bias at Work

Biases shape our cities. Planners, policy makers, health workers… assume the default is that people can and want to make journeys by car. This is unhelpful, unhealthy and unfair. Psychology researcher Prof Ian Walker coined a word for this: ‘motonormativity’.

In a study published at the beginning of 2023, he uses it to refer to normally unacceptable behaviour being justified because it’s for cars. This is relevant to people who cycle and walk in this city because the biases translate into infrastructure. And because 25 per cent – a full one quarter of households in York – do not have access to a motor vehicle according to the 2021 Census.

How the study worked

Professor Walker’s study asked 2,000 people identical questions about acceptable behaviour, but for some the wording was slightly changed. The outcomes were very different depending on whether it was about cars or something else.

For instance, faced with the statement ‘People shouldn’t smoke in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the cigarette fumes’, 75% of people agreed. But when just two words were changed (‘smoke’ to ‘drive’, ‘cigarette’ to ‘car’) only 17% agreed.

Non-drivers were just as likely to do this as drivers: motonormativity runs deep. (York Cycle Campaign members are probably more clued up!)

Motonormativity In York

For instance the Aldi at Clifton Moor has car parking for families and disabled drivers – with symbols on the tarmac to show this. By contrast none of the cycle racks has any kind of designation and when those car parking spaces are full you can’t see there is cycle parking and you can’t get to it without dismounting.

Another example from Monkgate health centre. The entrance to the doctor’s surgery is at the far end of the site. There are Sheffield racks there. But there’s a barrier to stop unauthorised entry to the site and it does not lift for people on cycles, but will for those arriving in cars. Plus there are signs that tell you you must dismount your cycle and walk through the cars and the car parking to get to those racks.

A barrier to those not in a car

There is though an excellent example of when councillors challenged motonormativity though they probably didn’t use that word. The recycling site on Hazel Court has an area for people not arriving in a motor vehicle to drop off items. This contrasts with other towns and cities where people on foot or cycle are banned from entering and therefore from using recycling sites. Those local authorities say the sites are dangerous unless you are in a motor vehicle but have not made changes to enable residents, who do not drive or who don’t want to, to make these utility trips.

All these are examples of motonormativity. It’s an effect we’re all wearily familiar with. But thanks to the study, we now have the evidence and data to show how prevalent it is. Which is to say, very.

How the study came about

Professor Walker – who’s familiar with cycling round York: he lived here for six years – told the Cycle Campaign: ‘The study came out of conversations with my colleagues on the clear, unthinking double-standards that one sees around motoring. We wanted to try to measure these in some way so that we could then explore how they come about and what might be done about it.’

The findings have consequences for public policy, Walker believes, because they show how much pro-car bias is in most of the population. We asked him what he would like people to do as result of reading his research. He said: ‘The main thing I’d like people to do in response to this is to recognise their biases exist. And, thereafter, to apply the same standards to transport that they would to other areas of life.’

‘For example, would they be happy in any other domain with a situation where a moment’s inattention could leave a child dead? If not, they really ought to apply the same thinking to transport and be co-operative when there are efforts to make streets inherently safe places.’

The study, Motonormativity: How Social Norms Hide a Major Public Health Hazard, can be viewed at https://psyarxiv.com/egnmj.

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