Episode 99: Car Brain with Dr. Ian Walker

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Ian Walker: Anyone alive today has only known a world where cars come first. And this not only tells us how the world is, it suggests to us how the world should be. That thought process stifles change because the average person who’s grown up in that world unconsciously believes that that world cannot change. It is that way, so it ought to be that way.

Sarah Goodyear: This is The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear. With me are my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Doug Gordon.

Doug Gordon: Hey, how’s it going?

Aaron: Good. How are you guys doing?

Doug: Good to be here in studio again.

Aaron: Yeah. Happy New Year. This is our first new year episode technically? All together at least?

Doug: I think so.

Aaron: Yeah, I think it is.

Doug: The magic of recording time means that any episodes we released before this were recorded in 2022. So yeah.

Aaron: Yeah, here we are.

Sarah: Fresh, fresh start. But before we get started, some business: we are now releasing ad-free versions of all our new regular episodes like this one just for Patreon supporters. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us,” and sign up to get access to ad-free episodes as well as exclusive bonus episodes. Plus, we’ll send you stickers.

Doug: Yeah, this is something some Patreon supporters had requested, and we’re happy to oblige. You just will add the RSS feed that you already have probably, that was the one supplying you with your bonus episodes, and you’ll get ad free versions of the regular episodes. So we’re happy to do that, and thank everybody who’s supporting us for supporting us.

Sarah: So we’re gonna be asking some pretty big questions in this episode. Questions like: is it acceptable to harm another person, to steal someone’s private property, to bend health and safety rules just to save a few minutes or make more money? According to a new study, it might depend on whether or not a car is involved.

Aaron: We already know that people behave differently behind the wheel than they do in just about any other area of their lives. But what about when they’re not behind the wheel? How does living in a car-dominated society influence people’s ethics and morals?

Doug: To answer those questions and more, we have a really great guest. Dr. Ian Walker, welcome to The War on Cars.

Ian Walker: I’m so happy to be here.

Sarah: Dr. Walker is a professor of environmental psychology at Swansea University in Wales in the UK, where he researches road safety, travel choices, energy consumption, water use and the built environment. And we’re all longtime fans of your work, Ian. It’s just such a thrill to have you here with us.

Ian Walker: I’m very happy to have the opportunity to meet you all face to face and have a chance to talk about this sort of work.

Sarah: We have you here today because you are the co-author of a new study that I love the name of this study so much. It’s “Motonormativity: How Social Norms Hide a Major Public Health Hazard.” It’s just beautiful, and I can’t wait to get into this and let our listeners know what you’ve done here.

Doug: Some of our listeners may be familiar with you from your research on drivers overtaking cyclists. It’s a great study in how the closeness with which motorists pass people on bikes depended on a lot of different things: road positioning, what a cyclist was wearing, perception of gender, whether they had a helmet on or not. I wonder if you could give us a brief summary of that study for people who might not be familiar with it.

Ian Walker: Yeah, so this was a long time ago now. This was about 2006, and I spent several weeks riding around on a bicycle with an ultrasonic distance measuring device, looking at what influenced the amount of space that people left me as they passed. And tested a bunch of things. Originally, it was really just my riding position it was looking at. Does riding further out into the road make a difference? And sure enough it does. If you ride further into the road, people get closer when they pass you. But along the way, I looked at a couple of other things: does wearing a helmet make a difference? And that’s been slightly controversial over the years because I found it did, and I found people got closer. And also thanks to a little bit of strategic clothes changing and wearing long wigs, I was able to suggest that drivers left more space if I looked female from behind.

Ian Walker: Interestingly, people have found the same in the United States when they’ve used real women, and they also found that in Malaysia, I think. But when they tried it in Australia a couple of years ago, they found no difference. So Australian drivers hate everybody regardless of gender.

Doug: [laughs]

Sarah: Wow.

Aaron: Nice.

Doug: That’s terrible.

Sarah: That’s fascinating.

Aaron: So let’s dive into your new study, Ian, what you and your co-authors call “motonormativity.” What is motonormativity?

Ian Walker: Well, this was a coming together originally of two different events or two different things. So on the one hand, my co-authors and I were talking about double standards. You know, we’ve all seen this, we’ve all noticed that people do things in cars or do things for cars that they wouldn’t do in other circumstances. Like for example, you know, if you were in a shop, you would never just scream at somebody in front of you saying, “Get out of the way! I want to be in front of you because I’m more important!” And yet people actually did that all the time on the road. Similarly, you know, at a local government level, no politician or planner would ever say, “I think we should arrange our city so that 20 percent of people can’t reach things. You know, they’d never do that. And yet they actually do it all the time when they assume people are going to travel by car in a country like mine where about 20 percent of people don’t have a car.

Ian Walker: So there was that, noticing these double standards and saying, “Well, you know, I wonder if we could look at that a bit more systematically.” And then the other thing that kicked this off was I had a—you know, an incredibly minor medical thing. I can’t even remember what it was. Let’s say I’d cut my finger. It was something trivial. And I went to my doctor, and at the end of the consultation, she said, “So here’s a prescription. To get to the pharmacy, you turn right out of the car park, go down the road. Da da da da da.” And after a moment I said, “Do you mean the pharmacy at the end of the street?” She goes, “Yeah, yeah.” “What, the one that’s 400 meters away?” And this person who should have been concerned about my health was just automatically assuming that I would make this incredibly short journey in the least healthy way possible.

Ian Walker: And that then fed into the conversation with my colleagues Alan Tapp and Adrian Davis, where we started saying, “Well, surely the medical profession should get this. Surely people who worry about public health shouldn’t be making the same sort of weird car-centric assumptions that other people do.” And it was those things coming together that made us sit down and we said, “Well, let’s get into this. Let’s see if we can measure this. Let’s see if we can do something to show the world that we do have some slightly strange double standards in this sort of area, that we do either put cars first or give cars a free ride in a way that we wouldn’t in other circumstances.”

Ian Walker: And so we set up this study. What the study was, we got an independent polling organization, and we paid them to find over 2,000 people around the country, a representative sample. And secretly, everybody either got one set of questions that asked about driving cars, or another set of questions that was absolutely identical, but just with a couple of words changed so as it wasn’t about cars. So for example, one of them was: if somebody leaves their belongings in the street and they get stolen, should the police act? And the other was: if somebody leaves their car in the street and it gets stolen, should the police act? And what we found on most of these questions, people gave completely different responses. If you mentioned driving, suddenly people were applying standards and ethical principles that they would never have applied in other circumstances.

Aaron: So what were the results of the question about belongings? Like, what did people say?

Ian Walker: So if you left it general and said, you know, “If you leave your belongings in the street, should the police do something about it?” then only 37 percent of people thought that the police should act. Whereas if you leave your car in the street, then 87 percent of people thought the police should take action. But, you know, the car is just a belonging, the car is one of your things. It’s just that we allow people to leave them in the street.

Aaron: This is awesome. This is so good. I love that you’re studying this, first of all.

Sarah: To me, what’s really fascinating about asking these questions, the sort of mental effort it takes to formulate a question like this, to actually allow yourself to see things in a different way. Because we talk about why are people allowed to use the streets for car storage instead of parking? Because it points out exactly what you’re talking about. But, like, it seems to me that as a researcher, even formulating these questions is a challenge. I mean, how did you make the questions that would get at this?

Ian Walker: Well, originally we wanted to do something very slightly different, and we wanted to take things that we see people do with cars and then do a second version that was essentially the same thing but completely abstract. So for example, someone driving in public should be liable for any harm they cause whatsoever versus somebody operating machinery in public should be liable for any harm whatsoever. And I was actually really, really keen to ask that question. I wanted to know the answer to that. But when you’re a social scientist, the instinct is to do everything as cleanly as possible. And so we decided actually no, if we were to do it with these versions where it’s an identical question just with one word changed, that’s—that’s cleaner. It’s a bit more controlled, it’s less subjective. Because if we said—you know, people are gonna pick us up on “Is driving operating dangerous machinery?” So to avoid all that, we just went with this very clean version with single words changed.

Doug: My favorite example of one of those questions where you change just two words related to smoking. The first question was: people shouldn’t drive in highly-populated areas where other people have to breathe in car fumes. And then that was changed to: people shouldn’t smoke in highly-populated areas where other people have to breathe in cigarette fumes. Can you talk about the difference in responses that you got? How did that change based on those two words?

Ian Walker: This was the biggest one. So we went from 17 percent agree that you shouldn’t make people breathe car fumes to 75 percent agree you shouldn’t make people breathe in cigarette fumes just with those couple of words changed.

Aaron: Wow. That’s amazing.

Sarah: So when I see that, I see rationalization of an activity that is essentially compulsory for large sections of the population, that people feel like driving a car is something they don’t have a choice about. They have to do it in order to get to their work, to their school, to take care of their children or their elders, and they can’t allow themselves to understand the impact that it has. Whereas if it’s smoking, that’s perceived as a discretionary choice, that they can allow themselves to think about the moral implications of it because they’re not forced into that activity by the very structure of society.

Ian Walker: Do you know, I’m going to be quite careful here because I have this terrible tendency when I’m talking to people to jump between two different ways of answering questions without people noticing.

Sarah: [laughs] Okay.

Ian Walker: So on the one hand, I’m answering as a researcher looking at some hard facts. Then on the other hand, I’m a person who lives in a city and goes places and walks and cycles and things like that. And so I’m gonna be really explicit that I’m now gonna jump briefly into the second one of those when I answer this question. This is basically me as a citizen of this country, seeing what goes on. And one of the things that I really struggle with is this notion of necessity and the kind of fake reluctance that goes with it. And it’s really interesting to break it down and say well, come on, what would it look like if people really did drive as a pure necessity and were incredibly reluctant to do so as they often claim?

Ian Walker: And you think well, if people were driving reluctantly purely because they need to, well, surely they’d be in the smallest car they can get their hands on to minimize the harm. Surely they would think really carefully before each journey, and only drive if there’s genuinely no other way they can find to make that trip or to avoid that trip. Surely they wouldn’t spend extra money on large cars or maybe putting vanity plates on it, and surely, surely they would never demand that other people using cleaner modes of transport get out of their way or make space for them. And, you know, when you start to break it down and you realize all of these things are happening, I find it very hard—I say not as a researcher, just as some guy in the street—I find it very hard to swallow this notion of reluctant necessary driving a lot of the time because the way it is done is so at odds with what it would look like if people were really driving reluctantly for essential journeys.

Doug: I can give you one example of that as just some guy on the street with a podcast, that’s idling, right? There’s no need or necessity to idle. If you smoke a cigarette outside of a schoolyard, you’ll be swarmed by parents saying, “Put that out. You’re endangering the health of children.” If you idle your car just because you want the air conditioning on or want to listen to the end of the ballgame or something like that and you’re comfortable, nobody will say a word about it. And that has nothing to do with utility or necessity at all.

Ian Walker: And actually, to put my research hat back on, one of the things we mentioned in our report, our government has banned smoking inside cars for the benefit of children. So they’re really, really worried about toxic effects of a cigarette in a car. But we know that cars are full of toxic fumes from the car in front whose exhaust blasts right into your air intake, and nothing’s done about that. So again we’re back to the blind spots and the double standards there.

Aaron: Ian, were there any other insights that you found from the different responses you got to these questions—gender differences in the responses, differences between, you know, drivers and non drivers? Did you collect other kind of demographic data to even be able to tell how different types of people were responding to these questions?

Ian Walker: Yeah, we did, and I can answer both of those. So there weren’t a lot of gender differences. We saw a couple of instances where there was a very slight tendency for men to be a little bit more gung-ho. So one of the questions asked something like, is it okay for a delivery driver to cut a few health and safety corners to save time or save money or something like that. And we found I think it was something like I’d say, 15 percent of men agreed with that versus five percent of women. So there were one or two examples of men being a little bit more accepting of danger, but it was just a couple of isolated instances. There wasn’t much difference. There were also—and this is a really interesting one, there wasn’t much difference between the people who drive and the people who don’t. And that becomes really interesting because that kind of goes back to something Sarah said a moment ago about excusing your own behavior. Well, if that were the case, we’d expect to see a substantial difference between the people who drive and the people who don’t drive. But when you’ve got all these people who don’t drive making excuses for people who drive, and suggesting that cars should come first, and doing this special pleading on behalf of motoring, then this isn’t just excusing yourself, this isn’t just rationalizing things that you find yourself backed into a corner, needing to do. That needs a different explanation. And that’s where we got very social scientist about it.

Sarah: Could you explain that term “special pleading?”

Ian Walker: So special pleading is one of these cognitive biases. You’ve probably come across other examples like availability bias, which tends to be something you’ve heard recently feels much more likely to happen because it’s fresh in your mind. And there’s loads of these, different biases that make you do flawed judgments in quite systematic ways. Well, special pleading is one of those. So special pleading is where certain cases or certain situations just get a free ride in your discussion or even at a social level within our society. We just give something a free ride uncritically without actually justifying it. And one of the things we’re arguing is that we’re seeing this happen probably at quite an unconscious level that you mentioned driving and, you know, although I’m sure after the event, if you questioned people and probed them, I’m sure they’d think through some answers and go, “Oh, well, of course, you know, driving has special utility that smoking doesn’t da da da da da.” But I don’t think that was there when they answered quite automatically and quickly. “Oh yeah, yeah. Driving’s fine.” And so special pleading is an example of that.

Doug: So Ian, we’ve been talking about questions where you changed a couple of words and the responses were dramatically different depending on the words, like “smoking” versus “car exhaust.” Were there any questions that you asked where the responses were somewhat similar, where you changed the words and people more or less had the same answers?

Ian Walker: Yeah, there was one. So we had this one that was, “It’s okay for a delivery driver to cut a few health and safety corners to save money,” or something very similar to that. And we changed “delivery driver” to “chef.” And amazingly, we really didn’t expect this, people treated those two items as exactly the same. There was no difference between them whatsoever, which was very surprising. We thought the delivery driver would get the free ride, and the fact it didn’t, well obviously, we’re having to explain this after the event, but presumably that is something to do with delivery drivers being “other drivers,” not like me or not like the people I know, but we’d need to probe into that further to really have an answer to that.

Sarah: To me, one of the interesting things that your study reveals is just the pervasive nature of these biases and these ways of thinking, and how entrenched they are in society. And you talk a little bit about how these views and biases are perpetuated, and you talk about something called the social-ecological model, and sort of the different levels and layers of the way that these biases are formed. And I was wondering if you could explain that a little.

Ian Walker: Yeah, this comes from some work back in the 1970s, from child development of all places. And it understands a person and it understands a person’s development as being surrounded by lots of different layers of influence. So if you imagine there’s you, and you’re there and you’ve got things going on inside your mind, what influences you on the outside? Well, this model would say that most immediately, the biggest pressure on how you think and act are the people close to you: your family, your close friends. You see them regularly, they have a really big influence on what goes on and how you behave and what you believe. And then surrounding that, that immediate social layer, is a wider social layer: all the other people in the world that you observe and mimic.

Ian Walker: And I can actually say quite a lot about this tendency of people to mimic each other, because we’ve done a lot of work on this. Just to break off very briefly, what do we see when we look at other people in the world when it comes to travel? We see them speeding and parking anti-socially and using cell phones in their car. And of course people imitate that. People also imitate their parents. There’s actually really good research that there’s a strong correlation between how you drive and how your parents drive, because of course, kids learn to drive in the backseat. So you’ve got those two layers of social influence, but then they don’t operate in a vacuum either. They operate within a physical world. You know, what does the design of our vehicles and the design of our streets make easy and hard? Because that also presses in on us and shapes our behavior.

Ian Walker: And then all of that operates within a cultural world. What are the things that we tell one another are good and bad? What are the laws we pass? And all of those things also press in on us and shape our behavior. So this social-ecological model is about you do not exist in a vacuum. You are surrounded by social influences that press in on you and change your behavior, physical influences that press in on you, legal, cultural, all of these things are shaping your behavior. And we found that so useful as a way of understanding how a person might come to grow up in a world like ours and internalize these messages that cars come first. Because one of the things we had to explain was the fact that non-drivers were showing very similar responses to drivers, and we found this framework very useful for that because anyone alive today has only known a world where cars come first. And what we’ve suggested in the paper is that this not only tells us how the world is, it suggests to us how the world should be. Now you can actually take this—I’m gonna be so social scientist now.

Doug: Go for it.

Aaron: Please.

Ian Walker: You can actually take this all the way back to the work of David Hume back in the 18th century. So he talks about something called the Is-Ought fallacy. So another fallacy for you. So he suggested that what we do as humans is we see something, we see that something is a certain way, and from observing how something is, we say, “Well, it is that way, therefore it ought to be that way.” Now that’s been known for 250 years or so, and that’s what I would argue is happening in the streets. And it’s happening as we grow up within the world around us in our urban and suburban and rural areas. We observe a world where cars come first, we observe a world where fast, antisocial motoring is condoned or even encouraged, where the externalities of motoring are picked up by the state even amongst the most rugged individuals. It’s a world where there are basically no consequences for killing another person as long as you do it the right way. And within that environment, we say, ‘Well, it is that way.” And what we argue—and this is the core of our arguments about motonormativity—we say, “Well, it is that way,” and then people go, “So I reckon it ought to be that way.” And the crux of our paper in many ways is to suggest that that thought process stifles change, because the average person who’s grown up in that world unconsciously believes that that world cannot change. It is that way, so it ought to be that way.

Aaron: I mean, we’ve talked about this before on the podcast where it’s like, if you presented somebody with our kind of automobile dominated system fresh, like a fresh new babe, and been like, “Okay, here’s how we’re gonna do transportation: you’re gonna be stuck in a metal box. It’s gonna cost you thousands of dollars every month. It’s gonna kill 40,000 Americans every year. We’re gonna destroy our cities. It’s gonna, you know, melt the polar ice caps. Like, if you presented people with the thing that we have now, there’s, like, no way you could sell it.

Ian Walker: And it’s interesting to translate it to other devices, isn’t it? So if you imagine I really like my washing machine. You know, it saves me so much work. But if we said, “Well, okay, washing machines, starting tomorrow, they now kill 50 people a day,” we’d all go, “Well, we can’t have these things. This is unacceptable.”

Aaron: Ian, one of the questions that arises for me from this study—and a lot of your work, actually—is like, does the car hold a special place? Are there other types of fallacy or normativity, other products, other things we use in our daily lives, other things we do that are kind of like the car, or is the car just like a special and unique case?

Ian Walker: No, I don’t think it’s unique and I think you could absolutely abstract this and say there are many normativities. As you probably can tell, we stole the name based on heteronormativity. This idea where a minority’s told you’ve just got to live this way because it suits us by a majority. And so we were very much thinking of that when we chose this name motornormativity. There will be plenty of other illustrations and other examples of similar things going on, it’s just we focused on this one because we think it’s so incredibly important. And it’s important for more than one reason, it’s important because of the direct issue of the collision that we’ve just talked about, but it’s also important because of all these indirect effects,: the people who are dying from not getting enough exercise, the people who are dying from air pollution, the people who are suffering because they’re cut off from facilities or excluded from society by not having access or not wanting access to cars.


Sarah: So I’m interested in how one breaks open these fallacies and exposes them in a way that vast numbers of people can see. One of the fallacies that this made me think of was the idea that women don’t have the right to vote because they’re too emotional, you know, all these reasons that people had for as long as democracies existed of why women couldn’t be direct participants in democracy. And it wasn’t until about a hundred years ago that women managed to break open those fallacies in such a way that they got the right to vote in the United States and other countries. I think it’s pretty unthinkable the idea that women would not have the right to vote, and yet that was completely accepted by the vast majority of society—including women—for a long time. So I guess my question to you is: how do these kinds of ideas change? And put your researcher hat on for this one if you can, because I’m interested in some hard answers.

Ian Walker: I can’t tell you how much I wish I just had a nice little piece of paper here with the answers to how you do this. One of your recent podcasts actually touched on some of this with talking about the LGBTQ+ community is looking for change, and I think there were some powerful lessons from there, and also from the same world. One of the things I’ve learned in the past from deliberately studying gay rights, for example, as a mechanism of social change is really important lessons that I think [we] can learn, such as it’s really important to speak with a common voice and with a unified message. If a minority group speaks with more than one message, it makes it very easy for majorities to write them off and to say, “Look, you guys can’t even agree among yourselves. Come back when you’ve worked this out and then we’ll talk.” So there are some important lessons to be taken from things like that.

Ian Walker: More widely, when it comes to challenging this particular mindset, I think one of the strongest tools we might have available to us is highlighting and making explicit the contradictions in what people are doing. So for example, if I saw my local authority here promoting high visibility gear to kids, probably no one would notice the issue with that. But if we were to approach and say, “Do you think it’s okay to tell children it’s their responsibility to protect themselves from adults who might harm them?” Drawing out the contradiction by reframing the problem into something that they might care more about might be quite a powerful way of starting to overcome this sort of thing.

Sarah: I mean, it seems to me that this suggests an avenue for PSAs or other campaigns that governments could do in which they point out, maybe in a humorous way, some of the ridiculous mental gymnastics that we do to allow ourselves to not see cars.

Aaron: The honking PSA script writes itself. You know, you would never walk—like, just people walking up behind someone else at the grocery store or on the sidewalk.

Doug: I think there’s a video that exists of exactly this, of someone in a grocery store just behaving like a monster, and then sort of the tag being that you would never do this in a grocery store, why would you do it on the roads? I mean, to get those PSAs, however, you need the mindset change in elected officials and the people who produce the PSAs. They’re never gonna think that that’s wrong.

Aaron: Right. Like, they don’t even think any of this is a problem.

Doug: Right.

Aaron: Like, this is the motonormativity. This is the car brain talking.

Doug: This is the water that they are swimming in.

Aaron: Yeah.

Sarah: This is a question about living in this society where we have to make all these compromises, and we have to live with all of these situations that maybe make us feel morally uncomfortable because of the systemic nature of many of the injustices that we live in. That there is systemic racism, systemic misogyny, all of these things, and yet we have to live inside the society. And I hear a lot of people, when you start to challenge them about cars and why they’re using cars, you know, you can see that they just sort of feel like I don’t have the capacity to ask myself those questions on a daily basis, an hourly basis. I’ve got too much else going on. I have to assume that this is the way it ought to be so that I can function in it. But I guess I’m interested in you talking about the way that we protect ourselves from moral injury, that we protect ourselves from the knowledge that what we’re doing is destructive through these fallacies. Like, how does that help us to function in a daily context? And how do you then try to talk to people in a way that acknowledges that struggle without minimizing the actual moral weight of what they’re doing?

Ian Walker: Yeah, and that’s a really, really good question. There’s gonna be multiple parts to this. On the one hand, actually to talk about something that I’ve done a lot of work on myself, there’s a habitual component to this. You know, habits are behaviors that are triggered automatically by the situation you find yourself in. That’s what a habit is, and I’ve done loads of work on this in terms of energy consumption and how people behave in showers and things like this. And the car is a familiar environment. The places you drive are often familiar. Certain behaviors happen without you thinking about it in certain settings just because they’re triggered by where you are or when it is and so on. So I can kind of understand how these things happen in some context.

Ian Walker: Context itself is also very important. You know, there are certain norms that like I said earlier, we just copy from other people around us. We see other people doing a thing and we unconsciously imitate them, and without really thinking about it. Now that’s all mechanisms by which these things might happen in the first place, but in terms of combating it, I think perhaps one of the most powerful things we should be exploring would be to really explicitly make people aware that what they’re doing in those situations, although we can charitably say we can understand how it’s happening, we can understand that yeah, you’ve grown up seeing other people being a dick to one another in public and therefore you think it’s okay, but maybe we need to challenge this by drawing attention to the fact that what you are doing, if you think about it, is actually completely against the values you hold in any other setting.

Ian Walker: I can give you an example from my own experience. A couple of years ago, I was cycling up the road near my house and some guy passed me incredibly close in his car. And obviously, as always happens, I caught up with him at the junction in a hundred meters and I said, “What was that?” And he said, “You don’t pay for this road.” So let’s think what he’d actually done there. He’d seen someone in the street, a complete stranger, and in a moment, he’d said—he’d invented a fake fact about how streets are funded and said, “This person who I’ve just seen for the first time has broken this invented funding for streets that I just made up in my head. I’ll just kill him.”

Aaron: [laughs] Right.

Doug: Right.

Ian Walker: And this happens all the time. And I think one of the things we have to be exploring is showing people this. Look, I’m sure in every other context of your life, you are a lovely person. You would never dream of committing violence in any other setting. You would never dream of demanding that other people get out of your way in a shop or a supermarket. You would never murder a person because you’ve taken a slight dislike to them in half a second. And yet in this context, you are doing that. And we need to be calling this out, I think. And I think that’s got to be one of the most powerful tools available to us.

Aaron: You know, Ian, one of the things that I love about your work and what you’re doing is I mean, you’re a social scientist and you’re studying our relationship to cars and our relationships to each other when we’re out on the public right of way, and it occurs to me, like, there aren’t many other social scientists like you. Is that right? This seems like a huge realm of study. Like, we spend so much of our lives in and around cars. Cars are everywhere. It’s clearly like an enormous social phenomenon. Is there, like, sort of a blind spot in social sciences for the study of this stuff, or am I just not seeing much of it except for your material?

Ian Walker: There is a certain amount of this. I’m not alone. There are other people. I would immediately mention people like Rachael Aldridge at Westminster University in London who does great work on sociology of these things. Over in the States, you’ve got people like Tara Goddard at Texas A&M. She does incredible work. So there are other people around. Having said that, I would probably suggest having been to quite a lot of conferences and so on, a majority of social scientists and psychologists who work in traffic tend to be more on the how can we help drivers end of things. How can we encourage drivers to use automatic driving features? How can we encourage them to pay attention a bit more? It tends to be a little bit more in that direction, unfortunately. I wish there were more people looking at the wider social consequences and how we effect change.

Doug: So Ian, here’s a question a bit out of left field, not related to your work, although perhaps it is, you are a world record-holding ultra-distance cyclist. Tell us about the record that you hold.

Ian Walker: Oh well, this was four years ago, three and a half years ago, back in 2019. Off the back of—well basically, I’ll tell you the slightly longer version. Just on the eve of my 40th birthday, a friend invited me to do this ultra-distance running race in five months. And I kind of went, “Fuck, yeah! Fuck it, why not? Let’s do it!” And in five months, I went from nothing to running this really mountainous, ultra-distance, 50-mile race. And I kind of got hooked on this. I suddenly discovered that after 40 years of believing I had no sporting ability, I was actually quite good at doing things for long distances.

Ian Walker: So I spent several years running and did fairly well, and then discovered ultra distance cycling. And the thing with the running, what I loved about ultra-running is Ann Trason, who’s an American ultra-distance runner, an incredible athlete, she had this wonderful phrase where she said, “If you run 100 miles, it’s like living your life in a day,” which is a very good description of what 100-mile races feel like. You basically—what you do is you can take your life and you put it on a shelf for a day, and you completely go to a different place and you become a different person. All of your cares disappear because all you’re thinking about is food and blisters. And it was that escapism that grabbed me. Then when I discovered ultra-distance cycling and realized that here was a world where you didn’t put yourself on a shelf for a day, you put yourself on a shelf for two weeks or more, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to try that.” And so I entered a race across Europe, which was unbelievable. I did so much better than I thought I was going to do. And the following year, I entered another trans-European race. And to my genuine surprise, I won it. And so in 2019, I thought, “Well, what next?” And I took on the record for crossing Europe as fast as possible. I went from the northernmost to the southernmost point, and did it in a little under 17 days.

Aaron: How many miles or kilometers a day is that?

Ian Walker: It was very close to 250 miles a day.

Sarah: Wow!

Aaron: Oh, my God!

Doug: I’ve done marathons, and it is like living your life in a day because you want to die at the end.

Sarah: [laughs]

Ian Walker: [laughs]

Sarah: But it’s probably really a good way for someone in the social sciences to cultivate that habit of mind, that beginner’s mind that helps you to get outside of these big questions and then formulate the questions that need to be asked. So it makes total sense to me.

Ian Walker: There is a weird number of people in the ultra-running world with PhDs.

Sarah: [laughs] That makes sense.

Aaron: PhDs and ultra-running, ultra-cycling, it’s all—it’s all masochistic, you know? Like, people who like to suffer for long periods of time in their pursuits.

Sarah: But they achieve something.

Aaron: They do. They sure do. That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Dr. Ian Walker, thank you for joining us.

Ian Walker: Thank you.

Aaron: We’ll put a link to Dr. Walker’s research in the show notes. As always, if you want to support The War on Cars and get ad-free access to regular episodes as well as exclusive bonus episodes, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and become a Patreon subscriber today.

Sarah: Thanks to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York, Virginia Baker, Martin Mignon and Mark Hedlund.

Doug: Thanks also to Cleverhood. For 15 percent off the best rain gear for walking and cycling, visit Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter code CLEVERLOVE at checkout.

Aaron: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Design. I’m Aaron Naparstek.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Aaron: And this is The War on Cars.