Monday, 30 July 2012

Mauer im Kopf

Between 1992 and 1997, I lived in Berlin. It was then and still is one of the coolest cities on the planet. The wall had only just come down and there was a great deal of change going on. I worked with quite a few people from the former DDR. An expression that was often used at the time was "Mauer im Kopf", meaning "wall in the head". It was a reference to the belief that while the wall may have come down, there was still a wall in people's heads that needed to be removed and, it was suggested, it would take a generation to remove it.

I don't know whether there was a mauer in people's kopfs and whether it is still there. I was in Berlin again in 2007 and there was no evidence of it all.

It is a good metaphor though for our thinking. I think it is common knowledge that we all tend to try and find information and evidence to suport our pre-conceived beliefs and notions. I know I do. It is also well known that human beings' thinking can be quite irrational. A perfect example is the fear that we now have to allow our children to walk home by themselves but at the same time will think nothing of strapping them into the back seat of a car and driving around in traffic - something that is way more risky.

When attempts are made to provide ways for people to use bicycles for some of their journeys, they are often met with "mauer im kopf". Any article in our local newspaper about improving cycling infrastructure is generally met with some support but also a lot of the usual comments about lycra, registration, obeying laws, etc ad nauseum. Combatting it I think is a bit of a waste of time. You cannot convince people one person at a time. You also often get the "we're not [insert nationality], it's too far, it's too hilly, it's too hot, it's too cold" and other nonsense. Interestingly, when the measures were first introduced that have transformed Copenhagen over the last 40 years, they were met with "we're not Italian" so it's nothing new.

One way to try and break down the "mauer im kopf" about increasing cycling is to point to children, particularly teenagers. They do not have access to cars and so have to rely on walking, riding a bike or catching public transport. I think anyone seeing a video such as this one would have to agree:

A few years back I heard a talk about how to get people to volunteer for things. This was about getting members of a club to volunteer to be president, treasurer, etc. The speaker's thesis was WIIFM (pronounced "wiffum"), which stands for "what's in it for me?" A lot of people you speak to treat riding a bike rather like the use of public transport, public education and reducing car use. They fully support it as long as it is someone else doing it. If you can appeal to that self-interest, I think you're halfway there.

Depending on what is being done, some transport methods are better than others. You wouldn't catch a cab from Adelaide to Melbourne. Clearly an aeroplane is better. In some circumstances, such as after a rock concert or football game, the best way to move a lot of people in one go is a decent mass transit system. Same with the rush hour when a lot of people are all moving in the same direction at the same time. And of course, for some journeys, the humble bicycle is best - either because of the relatively short distance or because the person travelling does not have access to a car.

Improving cycling networks raises the number of people cycling. That is unarguable. The rate of cycling, even inside countries like the Netherlands, is proportional to the quality of cycilng infrastructure. It might be claimed that it is merely correlation rather than causation but what cannot be denied is that it is more than mere chance. If you build a decent network that allows people to choose that mode of transport because there's something in it for them (low cost and speed spring to mind), they probably will.

Once you make those alternatives to cars good enough that people can choose them, they will. Maybe I'm being simplistic but it strikes me that you will then have fewer cars on the car networks. That makes those still driving happier. Also, if I use my car less, I have more of my household budget left over to spend on other things. It also means you have fewer cars making potholes on non-arterial roads administered by local councils that can ill-afford the maintenance. For those who choose cars for say short journeys, the length of them may be increased from 2 minutes to 4 minutes because they can no longer use streets where people live as rat-runs. But hey, that's a small price to pay. And besides, they're sitting down anyway.

Selling change as a good thing because other people will adopt the changes seems to me to be a winner. The other people who change are happy because they can change and the other other people like the fact that the other people changed so that the other other people don't have to.

If you know what I mean.

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