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Project Blog: USA

IMG_1530smallDenver Union Station (credit: Julia Hildebrand)

imagineTrains Workshop in Philadelphia

June 8-9, 2015

For the past year a team of sociologists, urban planners, and anthropologists in the United States has been studying the imagination of passenger rail travel and High Speed Rail in America. This project, imagineTrainsUSA, is supported by the Mobile Lives Forum, and has participation from researchers and graduate students at Wayne State University, Drexel University, and the University of Michigan.

We have now conducted numerous interviews, reviewed many documents and media productions, and have developed a preliminary conceptualization of the American imaginary of rail, spanning different regions. We are now in the phase of analyzing our data and forming some preliminary conclusions.

To review and discuss these conclusions, the US team is organizing an imagineTrains workshop on June 8 and 9 with decision-makers and influencers from the rail industry. The event will be held in Philadelphia at The Hub at Cira Center, adjacent to Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, and will begin with a dinner and social hour on June 8, and then a full day of intensive discussion on June 9. Rapporteurs will capture the discussion and the entire team will use it in the development of our final product.

We anticipate that our discussion of the imagination of rail transport and High Speed Rail will make a significant contribution to the American conversations over transport and infrastructure.

The event is by invite-only. If you are interested in attending, however, please write an email to Julia Hildebrand:

Workshop Schedule

 June 8

3 PM to 6 PM Participants arrive
6 PM to 8 PM Reception at The Hub, Cira Center: Light buffet dinner and drinks; Informal powerpoint feature: Media Study (Maria Roti)

 June 9

8 AM to 9 AM Continental Breakfast at Venue
9:00 AM Workshop convenes: Welcome and Introduction (Mimi Sheller)
9:10 AM Go-Around (who you are, your relationship to trains – 1 minute each)
9:40 AM Introduction to the project and charge to the workshop (Allen Batteau)
9:55 AM Practicalities (Julia Hildebrand)
10:00 AM Summary of Findings I: Northeast (Mimi Sheller), Midwest (Maria Roti), California (Komal Anand)
10:40 AM Questions from the Participants (Susan Zielinski)
11:00 AM Break
11:15 AM Summary of Findings II: Journalistic Review (Allan Batteau)
11:30 AM Open Mic for participants (Susan Zielinski)
12:00 AM Break for Bistro Sandwich Buffet Lunch
1:00 PM Re-convene and recap on charge to the workshop (Allen Batteau and Susan Zielinski)
1:15 PM Session 1: The Future of Rail in the US
2:15 PM Report back to the group
2:30 PM Break
2:45 PM Session 2: The Dynamics of Decision Making in the US
3:45 PM Report back to the group
4:00 PM Debrief and final discussion (Allen Batteau)
4:50 PM Wrap-Up (Mimi Sheller)
5:00 PM Workshop concludes



What we are reading:

Railway by George Revill (review)


by Frederick Gamst

ABSTRACT With literary flair, geographer George Revill creates a fresh, lyrical composition concerning the technology of railroads in world cultures, emphasizing those of the Anglophone sphere. Frequent illustrations taken from photographs, paintings, drawings, films, posters, and maps are cannily selected. They are a must-see, even apart from the engrossing narratives. Pictures range from Raymond Loewy on his Pennsy S1-class engine to a poster for John Ford’s 1924 movie The Iron Horse.


Four of five thematic chapters portray what one could call railscapes for the mind. First, Revill explores how railroads transformed from being an astonishing, perturbing technology to one that was prosaic and blended into the landscape. Second, he traces the processes through which railroads became a governmental instrument for internal administration and foreign incursions. Third, he explores the individual’s railroad-fostered mobility and how it influenced everyday experiences and senses of the self. Fourth, he examines the intertwining of art, engineering, and commerce in the total railroad product. Railroads are at once historical heritage and hope for the future. Last, he sketches a “cultural ecology” of railroads, from their role in the creation of the anthropocene of disrupted environments to their recent revival as green(er) alternatives to automobiles and aircraft.

One of the book’s strengths is its exploration of the inspiration that railroads gave the arts, including novels, poetry, paintings,music, film, and, informally, myths. From “high art,” such as Charles Dickens and Albert Bierstadt, to staples of kids’ popular culture such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Casey Jones, railroads loom large in the imagination. Expressions of the railroad across the arts relate to the technologically shaped modern society, which railroads helped create. Perhaps the greatest imprint of railroading on the development of modern culture is the standardization of precise time and the necessity of and requirement for timely behavior.

Soaring metaphors, imagery, and possibilities resound in the fifth chapter. However, no narrative recognizes the unromantic railroading of numbing, sometimes hazardous, toil, for example on steam engines in summertime throughout the North American deserts and plains. There, after sixteen hours on duty, climbing down with limp muscles off the scorching monster-machine, a “rail”mumbles, “I’m so hungry that I can hardly keep my eyes open.” Today in the United States, harsh reality finds conservative budget hawks obstructing passenger rail projects and the Union Pacific demanding $1 billion from cash-starved Amtrak for restoring the frequency of one train, the Sunset Limited, from three times a week to daily. The Obama administration put legal teeth into requirements for on-time performance by freight railroads in dispatching passenger trains; the carriers protested to Congress and had the administration apologize for its “mistaken,” now withdrawn, regulation.

Beyond the above views from the footplate, George Revill deftly produces a remarkable cultural tapestry of the railroad, one with many nuanced strands of insight. It includes ideas from innumerable depicters of railroads, from John and Alan Lomax to Henry Thoreau. In all, Revill’s book is a precious, memorable contribution to those interested in railroads and in the rail foundations of modern society.

Dr. Frederick Gamst is a retired member of Tropico Division 660 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. He once fired steam and has worked for, researched about, and consulted regarding railroads since his “student trips” in May 1955.


What we are thinking about: 

The Historical Context of the Imaginary

by Allen W. Batteau

January 30, 2015

An imaginary is a durable element of any community’s collective existence. It is far from the fleeting fantasies spun by individuals in their idle moments. Rather, it is a shared inspiration that draws its power less from empirical correspondence than from its ability to carry us away from the here and now toward an idealized, more perfect place. The imaginary whispers in our ears, “let yourself go” – toward idealized possibilities, toward our highest achievements, toward our noblest aspirations.

The imaginary obtains this power from its roots in our shared history, going back to our shared beginnings: whether the beginnings of nationalism after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the New World created in 1492, the birth of the First New Nation in 1776, the beginnings of republicanism in 1789, or the American Century announced by Time magazine editor Henry Luce in 1941. These events represent the resolutions of cultural and cosmological conflicts, whether the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, the opening up of what Leslie Fiedler called “The world without a West” prior to Christopher Columbus, or the final curtain on American isolationism at the beginning of World War II. Even as the historical specifics of each of these are probably known only to historians and antiquarians, and the popular understanding vastly oversimplifies historical complexities, the cultural structures that they established carry considerable force. These include the potent force of nationalism around the world, the “American Dream” of shared opportunity, the French mission civilisatrice, or the assumptions of American exceptionalism in contemporary politics. To understand this force, we have to hear its echoes in history.

For contemporary Americans, mobility is central to our self-definition and self-determination. “See the USA in your Chevrolet” was a very successful advertising slogan in 1952, wrapping together post-War prosperity, the American landscape, personal mobility, and industrial prosperity. Until recently, Americans have understood themselves as “a nation on the move,” both socially and geographically. Yet to understand the meaning of movement, we should place it in a broader context of what mobility has meant in human history.

The earliest humans were roving foragers, hunters and gatherers, whose exploitation of local ecosystems was determined by their available toolkits and their relationships with their neighbors. With the coming of the Neolithic Era and the beginnings of agriculture, humans began living in fixed settlements, and the rise of cities and the state gave sacred force to fixed settlements. The earliest cities were religious centers, and then citadels of political and military power. Palatial architecture served as much a monumental statement of the ruler’s glory as it did a functional or administrative purpose. Commercial purposes in the form of markets and craftsmen’s shops came only much later, and for most of history were an appendage to their political and religious functions.

Over the last 6000+ years, as urban functions have changed from religious and political to commercial and industrial, the meaning of mobility has changed from pilgrimage and tributary offering to economic advancement. Although the industrial city today is mostly a 19th century relic, with both factories and numerous enterprises now located in the suburbs, the commercial and financial center, is today the dominant form: the main architectural contribution of America in the second half of the 20th century is, of course, the suburban shopping mall.

One could refine this with a typology of contemporary cities and their functions: New York City is a hub of communications and finance, Chicago is a hub of transportation and commodity trading, and Washington DC is an imperial capital. Philadelphia, the “cradle of liberty,” is a historical shrine to America’s founding fathers, and Boston lives on as a center of learning. Although these characterizations may be over-simplified, the civic culture of each, from Wall Street and the Big Apple to the City of Broad Shoulders is still shaped by their historic function.

Understanding the meaning fixity, of these settlements, is central to understanding the meaning of movement, whether seeking employment opportunities, administering far-flung state and corporate institutions, surveying the American countryside, re-uniting families, worshipping at civic or religious shrines, or pursuing education and cultural development. The August 28, 1963 March on Washington, bringing together 250,000 Americans, black and white, in support of civil rights for African Americans, was less a political rally and more a pilgrimage to one of the most important shrines of the American nation, the Lincoln Memorial. Similar monuments and historical locations, also sites of pilgrimage, exist in many other lands, whether the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, or the Bronze Horseman located in Decembrist Square in St. Petersburg, the site of an early uprising against the Russian czar.

19th century American urbanism was about a manufacturing revolution, first begun in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the early part of the century, and accelerating as railways united coal mines with urban centers and tied together local economies into regional economies. Throughout the 19th century the interplay between the rise of urban and manufacturing centers – signals of prosperity – and the closing of the frontier, drove American progress. As America became increasingly urbanized, nostalgia for the frontier increased, resulting in a unique 20th century art form, the “Western.” Although the Commissioner of the Census Bureau officially declared the frontier “closed” in 1891, identification with the frontier and its attributes of bold adventure and self-reliance, remain potent forces in American civic life, even into the 21st century.

At the beginning of the 19th century America was a nation of “island communities” (in Wiebe Bijker’s phrase) – small, self-sufficient rural settlements, for whose residents a monthly excursion in the family wagon to the county seat was typically the limit of their travels. Any movement beyond that – “Go West, young man,” in Horace Greeley’s words associated with America’s Manifest Destiny – was an injunction to seek new settlement, not for mobility as such. It was only in the 20th century, particularly the post-War years, that America became “a nation on the move,” with frequent mobility (for jobs, for leisure, for uniting families) now an expectation.

Before America became a nation on the move, distant travel (aside from transcontinental wagon trains striking out for the frontier) was almost exclusively by rail, and railway architecture, from palace cars owned by the wealthy to palatial railway stations used by all,[1] were monuments to American splendor and abundance. In larger cities the railway stations – Grand Central Station in New York City, Union Station in Chicago, or San Antonio’s Sunset Station, were focal points of civic life, along with City Hall, universities, and monuments to war heroes. In George Revill’s words, “Iconic city stations are both objects of civic pride and socially heterogeneous gateways to the promise of a better urban life.” Even today, far-flung train stations, such as Durand, Michigan, designed by the architects Spier and Rohns, or the Beaux Arts masterpiece of New Haven’s Union Station, echo the grandeur and dignity once associated with rail travel.

The irony here is that as transport became industrial, first through railways and tramways but later through automobiles, it changed the character and meaning of the city, from the place where a civilization was concentrated, in Lewis Mumford’s phrase, to an urban agglomeration of commercial and administrative functions. Fundamental changes in the appreciation and appropriation of space, in Henri Lefebvre’s analysis, came with this transformation of transportation. Our sense of place, space, and pace owe much to rail transport and its successors, yet are now so deeply ingrained that, like the oxygen we breathe, they seem just natural.

Today, unlike throughout most of our history, rail travel must compete with both automobiles and with air transport, and travel choices balance off convenience, efficiency, scenic appreciation, and social companionship. Air transport, for example, in the 1950s was an elite experience and an opportunity for status display. Since 1979 air travel has become a drudgery, and airlines have made passenger discomfort a calculation in their business model. The exception to this is the ownership of a private jet, the 19th century equivalent for which was the ownership by wealthy industrialists of their own private railway cars.[2]

Travel choices in other words are made in a space that balances off multiple values and preferences, embracing not only the purpose of the trip but also the traveler’s self-definition. Even today, although bus rapid transit might offer the greatest comfort and convenience, many shun it because public buses are at times thought of as “loser cruisers.” Successful transport systems, whether private automobiles on interstate highways or certain Amtrak lines, have been able to find optimal balances between passengers and purposes.

Travel is always associated with civic purpose, whether striking out for the frontier, seeking education and opportunity, administering businesses and institutions, or the cult-like appreciation of a sublime landscape such as the Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. Even the stereotypical, lighthearted Sunday afternoon drive in the country is not just a whim, but a celebration and re-intensification of family unity. To comprehend l’imaginaire we have to understand travel as part of la vie sérieuse in Émile Durkheim’s phrase – tied to important purposes of family, city, and nation. In our exposition, we have to achieve a balance between the specific developments in American history that give force to l’imaginaire, and the superficial articulations through which these are popularly appreciated. As we inventory the different purposes of rail and other travel over the twentieth century, we will find behind this shifting kaleidoscope of experiences and appreciations, the broad currents of a changing understanding of American civilization.



[1] Although Negroes might be assigned to separate cars, entrances and waiting rooms, at least before the 1960s. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, on the other hand, provides a rich history of this subaltern group, particularly under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, an early civil rights pioneer.

[2] To continue the thought in the previous footnote, stratification and status display are always in the background of l’imaginaire mobile, whether in the type of car one drives, where one sits on the train or the plane, what deck one occupies on a cruise, or how easily one can command the conveyance.

Findings from our research on car users in the US

Research dairy from 20 February 2020

We recently conducted a study of car users in the US to examine how a mobility mode that is deeply ingrained in the cultural imaginary of the US could be connected to notion so of sustainability. The findings from this study, which was published on 27 November 2019 in the journal Sustainability, is reproduced below.


The following article can be cited as follows:

Bergman, Z. (2019). Trains in the Land of the Car: A Case Study of Mobility as Agency in the United States. Sustainability, 11(23), 6710.


Recent studies have shown that self-efficacy—the belief that individuals are able to execute behaviours that lead to desired outcomes—is a key factor for adopting more sustainable travel modes and practices. Also crucial are societal values and policies associated with sustainability, which guide individual mobility behaviours. Thus, sustainable travel research and policies are divided into hard and soft approaches. This study applies Albert Bandura’s concept of personal agency and his model of triadic reciprocal causation (TRC) to explore mobility as agency from the perspective of 32 car users from regions, which no longer have an adequate passenger rail infrastructure. The aim is to investigate the applicability of TRC theory in a US context, as well as a substantive study of how car users make sense of their mobility practices in relation to trains. Based on hermeneutic content analysis, a mixed-method analytic framework, findings reveal that Bandura’s agentive pathways associated with individual and proxy agency define the mobility practices of interviewees. By exploring the underlying structures of salient agentive pathways, this study traces the links between agency and (un)sustainable travel within a US American mobility culture.

Keywords: Sustainable travel, Albert Bandura, agency, model of triadic reciprocal causation (TRC), mixed methods, hermeneutic content analysis (HCA), multidimensional scaling (MDS), car users, trains, USA.


I’ve heard so many times that the reason we don’t have them is because we’re so big. And yet, all the rest of the world has trains and they’re used all the time. (12: 14)

The main aim of sustainable travel is to reduce car use and to promote more sustainable modes of transportation (Bergman & Bergman 2019; Black 2010; Ettema et al. 2013; Proost & Dender 2008). Yet, mobility interventions are contingent on the ability and willingness of individuals to adopt new behaviours. Accordingly, individuals need to value sustainable travel and embrace relevant policies (Banister, Pucher, & Lee-Gosselin 2007). To achieve sustainable travel, research and policies tend to focus on hard and soft approaches. Hard approaches emphasise structural and regulatory interventions, such as developing or improving public transport, creating bicycle infrastructure, introducing road-pricing initiatives, or providing monetary incentives (see for example Tillema, van Wee, & Ettema 2010; Arnott et al. 2014; Herring & Roy 2007; Cellina et al. 2019). These strategies aim to nudge people toward more sustainable mobility practices, which in turn are aimed at reducing car use (Skarin, Olsson, Friman, & Wästlund 2019). Soft approaches consist of cognitive-motivational interventions that target affect, beliefs, and attitudes to encourage adoption of sustainable behaviours (Cellina et al. 2019; Steg & Tertoolen 1999; Graham-Rowe, Skippon, Gardner, Abraham 2011; Chatterjee & Bonsall 2009). Self-efficacy—the belief that individuals are able to execute behaviours that lead to desired outcomes—is a significant predictor of behavioural change (Skarin et al. 2019). In line with the soft approach, interventions often focus on reinforcing beliefs aligned with sustainable travel via group discussions, role-play, and information campaigns (Olsen, Huck, & Friman 2018; Diniz, Maria de Fátima, Peres, de Oliveira 2015; Rose 2008). In recent years, many innovative projects have capitalised on evolving sustainability values, national or local policy frameworks that prioritise environmental concerns, or high-density cities with established or expanding public transport infrastructure to implement more sustainable travel (see for example Cellina et al. 2019; Olsen et al. 2018; Olsen, Maier, & Friman 2019; Skarin et al. 2019). However, what happens in contexts where the relevant values, policies, or infrastructure associated with sustainable travel are absent or have been superseded?

The United States lags far behind other developed nations in adopting sustainability measures, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreement (Zhang, Chao, Zheng, & Huang 2017). In large parts of the country, low-density, sprawling communities are the norm (Banister et al. 2007; de las Heras-Rosas & Herrera 2019; Urry 1999, 2004), and mobility of US Americans continues to be intertwined with private cars. Cars are synonymous with comfort (Banister et al. 2007), convenience (Banister et al. 2007; Westman et al. 2017), pleasure, freedom, satisfaction, and status (Jakobsson 2007; Steg 2005; Mokhtarian & Salomon 2001). According to Banister and colleagues (Banister et al. 2007, p. 7), the car is culturally rooted: “Free roads, free parking, cheap petrol, and universal, cheap driver licensing are widely viewed as a natural right”. Unsurprisingly, private car use continues to increase annually (Deloitte 2019), average occupancy continues to decline (OECD 2013), and as purchasing choices continue to shift toward light trucks and SUVs (Bailo 2018) it presents a formidable challenge to addressing the transport sectors’ Triple C’s—climate change, congestion, and casualties (Geerken et al. 2009; Bergman & Bergman 2019; Olsson et al. 2019). The urgency for change is widely discussed (de las Heras-Rosas & Herrera 2019; Bergman & Bergman 2019; Urry 2004; Banister et al. 2007; Banister 2011), yet investigations examining the agency potential for sustainable travel in the US context are rare. This study explores how car users in regions without developed passenger rail infrastructure in the US make sense of their mobility practices. The aims are to explore the potential of a sophisticated theoretical framework, Bandura’s triadic reciprocal causation (TRC), to make relevant contributions to the study of sustainable travel, to explore how current mobility practices connect to more sustainable alternatives in the US, and to understand how links between agency and mobility policies relate to sustainable travel.

Theoretical Background

Mobility as agency offers a conceptual framework for linking personal agency to the mobility domain (Bergman, Bergman, & Thatcher 2019; Bergman et al. forthcoming). According to Albert Bandura’s model of triadic reciprocal causation (1986, see also 1989, 2001, 2006), individuals continuously negotiate ever changing environments because of their unique ability to “designedly conceive unique events and different novel courses of action and choose to execute one of them” (Bandura 2001, p. 5). He termed this personal agency, and the conceptual dimensions and pathways of agency according to TRC are visualised in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Personal agency according to Bandura’s Model of Triadic Reciprocal Causation.

Personal agency begins with the intentions to be mobile, which are the strategies or action plans individuals formulate to achieve a desired outcome (Bandura 2006, 2001). Because intentions form the basis of future actions towards realising a particular goal or desired outcome, intentions, goals, and desired outcomes are essentially the same but manifest at different points in time (Bandura 2006, 2001). Actions separate our intentions in the present from achieving a desired outcome or goal in the future (Bergman, Bergman, & Thatcher 2019; Bergman et al. forthcoming). Turning intentions into goals involves various options and considerations. Bandura proposes three distinct modes of agency: Individual, proxy, and collective. Individual agency denotes the process whereby individuals guide their own behaviour to achieve their goals (Bergman, Bergman, & Thatcher 2019; Bandura 2001). Proxy agency refers to instances where someone else assists us in achieving our goals by acting on our behalf. Collective agency refers to situations where individuals work together to achieve their goals through interdependent effort (Bandura 2006, 2001).

Using a private car to reach a desired destination is an example of individual agency. Petitioning local government to develop public transport is an example of enlisting the help of a proxy to achieve mobility goals. Organising a lift club or carpool are examples of collective agency—mobility goals are achieved through interdependent effort. The three modes of agency are embedded in, and dependent on, a range of environmental factors, which facilitate or constrain individuals’ abilities to act. Bandura distinguished between selected, constructed, and imposed environments. A selected environment is characterised by choice. Here, individuals have access to a variety of options, such as a car, bus, and train, and they select the option that enables them to achieve their desired goal. The constructed environment does not exist in the present and thus requires concerted effort to create. Examples are campaigning for the development of public transport infrastructure or creating a car-pool community. The imposed environment introduces the most restriction. Here, individuals are constrained by their environment, and their action potential is limited to choosing whether to accept, protest, or move from one environment to another (Bergman, Bergman, & Thatcher 2019; Bandura 2001). Examples are being unable to afford a car or being stuck in traffic.

Dimensions of agency and environment interact in complex ways, and they are managed through intra-personal deliberation (Bergman, Bergman, & Thatcher 2019; Bergman et al. forthcoming). In this process, individuals assess how environments, which are selected, constructed, or imposed, can facilitate or constrain their action potentials, and how they could utilise different modes of agency, such as individual, proxy, or collective agency, to achieve their goal. Individuals choose the mode of agency according to their understanding of a given environment, which is believed to secure a desired outcome (Bergman, Bergman, & Thatcher 2019; Bergman et al. forthcoming; Bandura 2001). According to TRC, an appropriate course of action is selected and implemented based on these complex and dynamic deliberations, as “internal personal factors in the form of cognitive, affective, and biological events, behavioural patterns, and environmental influences all operate as interacting determinants that influence one another” (Bandura 2006, p. 6).

The highlighted agentive pathway in Figure 10 represents individual agency. Based on established research and the predominance of car-use in the US (Jakobsson 2007; Steg 2005; Mokhtarian & Salomon 2001; Westman et al. 2017; Urry 2004), we expect this agentive pathway to be the defining feature of mobility as agency in the US. However, how does this choice connect to agency and environment in relation to alternative modes of transport, especially trains? Specifically, two research questions guide this inquiry:

  • What is mobility as agency from the perspective of car users in the US?
  • How do trains specifically and sustainable travel more generally relate to their mobility choices?

Materials and Methods

Thirty-two narrative interviews were conducted with individuals residing in states that currently do not have a developed passenger rail infrastructure, including Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, and Texas. Like most US Americans, interviewees are highly mobile, having grown up or lived in a number of other states. The age of the men (n = 15) and women ranged between 19 and 78 years (m = 38; sd = 19). Interviewees occupied all socioeconomic strata and included homemakers, administrators, an artist, a construction worker, an electrician, a social worker, educators, a restaurant waiter, a bartender, an IT specialist, a soldier, security personnel, an account manager, small business owners, and retirees. While these interviewees are not representative of a larger population, the goal of this study is to assess the applicability of TRC, specifically how Bandura’s concepts of agency and environment relate to US mobility contexts and culture. Interviewees were selected based on convenience or snowball sampling. Interviews were conducted immediately or at a time and place that was convenient for the researcher and interviewees. The interviews took place in cafes, restaurants, parks, university campuses, libraries, and other public places. Data were analysed using hermeneutic content analysis (HCA; Bergman 2010), a mixed-methods approach that has been employed in the fields of psychology, sociology, sustainability studies, business and management studies, business ethics and corporate sustainability, and mobility studies (Bergman, Bergman, & Thatcher 2019; Bergman et al. forthcoming; Bergman, Berger, Leisinger, Zhang, Liu, & Bergman 2015; Bergman, Berger, Leisinger, Bergman, Liu, & Zhang 2017; Bergman, Bergman, Fernandes, Grossrieder, & Schneider 2018). This method has also been used to study mobility in South Africa (Bergman, Bergman, & Thatcher 2019) and China (Bergman et al. forthcoming). HCA consists of three steps: The first, qualitative step consisted of identifying, sorting, and classifying agency and environment dimensions in accordance with Bandura’s typology and as illustrated in detail in the first results section. To explore the interrelations between dimensions identified in the first step of HCA, a second, quantitative step, specifically multidimensional scaling (MDS), was performed. The similarity matrix of the co-occurrences of the dimensions was calculated using the Jaccard Index. Of the two most frequently used indices for similarity matrices of co-occurrence data (Association Strength and Jaccard; see for example Borg, Groenen, & Mair 2012), the latter provided the most stable solution with the least amount of stress. The analysis was based on thectar (Berger forthcoming) and smacof (Mair et al. 2015) in R. A non-metric procedure with a primary approach to ties was used and the comparison was done at the code-level (n = 1071). At 0.06, stress was much lower than for a random sample, estimated at 0.22 (Spence 1979). The findings from this analysis are presented in the second results section. To improve interpretation of the MDS results, the third step of HCA consists of a re-contextualisation, where structures and patterns in the MDS map are interpreted with reference to the interview transcripts.


HCA Step 1: Linking mobility as agency to mobility practices

The aim of the first analytic step was to connect Bandura’s tripartite model to the mobility experiences of interviewees. This entailed identifying mobility-related vignettes in the data and their coding according to agency and environment dimensions as proposed by Bandura, which included intentions, types of agency and environments, environmental facilitators and constraints, action potentials, and desired mobility outcomes. The following is an illustrative example:

Interviewer: When you say a car is more convenient, why is that?

Interviewee: It’s just, like I said, I guess not having one [a train] here, there as always just the car in the driveway as opposed to having to do something else. I guess you would have to take a car to get to where you would ride a train as well. So there are all those things, I don’t know. I guess it’s just more convenient to skip the train all together and take the car. Probably more costly cause you gotta pay for gas. (19: 4)

The mobility intention in this excerpt relates to convenience, but it also denotes the mobility goal because the interviewee’s intended mobility choices and desired outcome are interrelated. The mode of agency is individual because agency is limited to the interviewee’s own ability to act. Of the three types of environment proposed by Bandura (selected, constructed, and imposed), the lack of train infrastructure (“not having [a train] here”) represents an imposed environment, while “to skip the train all together and take the car” exemplifies the ability to select the best environment. These environments link to constraints and facilitators. Not having access to a train, having to travel to the station before taking a train, and the costs associated with using a private car are examples of environmental constraints that contribute to a negative action potential. Always having a car in the driveway is exemplary of an environmental facilitator that supports a positive action potential, which enables the interviewee to achieve a desired outcome: To maximise convenience.

The agency and environment dimensions in the excerpt illustrate mobility as agency and exemplify the suitability of TRC as a theoretical framework. Overall, an analysis of 1071 mobility vignettes in the interviews revealed the following: First, the agency and environment dimensions as proposed in TRC adequately accounted for the mobility experiences of interviewees. Second, mobility experiences could be differentiated between individual, proxy, and collective modes of agency. Of these, individual and proxy agency dominated, while collective agency was only mentioned 12 times. When it occurred among the 1071 vignettes, it did not connect well to TRC because the collective in the data referred to shared experiences with family or friends while enjoying a train journey (especially touristic steam trains) or experiences in the interviewees’ childhood. Thus, it could be argued that collective agency in Bandura’s sense did not occur in the data. Finally, the two dominant dimensions of agency interconnected with the three dimensions of environment, representing complex, intra-personal deliberations as individuals assessed how various environments facilitated or constrained their potential to act, and how activating different modes of agency could help achieve desired mobility goals. The next analytic step examined how agentive pathways unfold across environments in the US mobility context.

HCA Step 2: Mapping Agentive Pathways

Multidimensional scaling (MDS) was used to map the relations between agency and environment dimensions as identified in step 1. Based on how frequently dimensions co-occur in the interviews, MDS visualises the relationships in an n-dimensional space. In this step, the collective dimension was excluded on theoretical and methodological grounds because, as stated above, it was rarely mentioned by interviewees and because it did not match TRC’s conceptualisation of collective agency. In accordance with Bandura’s tripartite model, the action potential and desired outcomes were divided into their positive and negative constituents (‘action potential positive’ and ‘action potential negative’, and ‘desired outcome achieved’ and ‘desired outcome impeded’). The corresponding MDS map is presented below.

Figure 2 is an MDS map of mobility as agency from the perspectives of the interviewees. Each point in the map represents one of the dimensions associated with agency and environment as proposed by TRC. The distance between points represents the frequency with which dimensions co-occur in the interview data. The closer points are situated to one another in the MDS map, the more frequently the corresponding dimensions co-occur in the narratives, and the further apart the points, the less likely the dimensions co-occur. For example, the dimensions ‘desired outcomes impeded’ and ‘negative action potential’ located in the centre of the cluster on the left are in close proximity, which means that the corresponding dimensions frequently related to one another in the narratives of interviewees. In contrast, the dimensions ‘constructed environment’, located at the top of the cluster on the left, and ‘individual agency’, located at the bottom of the cluster on the right, are maximally distant to one another, indicating that they rarely co-occurred in the narratives. The lines between points illustrate how dimensions cluster together. The line represents links between the most frequently co-occurring dimensions. The clustering of dimensions in MDS are interpretable and provide insight into the conceptual space of interviewees in ways that would not be possible through a qualitative analysis.

Figure 2. Multidimensional scaling (MDS) map of the agentive practices of car users in the US. Code-level comparison, n = 1 071, model parameters: A non-metric procedure, primary approach to ties, stress = 0.06. The colours in the map indicate the pair of themes each theme most frequently co-occurs with and helps to illustrate more clearly how themes cluster together.

According to the MDS map, the TRC dimensions identified in step 1 form two distinct clusters, located on the left and right. The cluster on the left contains ‘imposed environment’, ‘environmental constraints’, ‘negative action potential’, ‘impeded desired outcome’, ‘proxy agency’, and ‘constructed environment’. Two noteworthy characteristics define this cluster. First, it contains all negative dimensions associated with mobility: An imposed environment constrains the action potential of individuals to the extent that they are unable to achieve their desired mobility goals. Second, the negative dimensions are associated with proxy agency and a constructed environment: It is a proxy agent’s failure to construct a viable environment that results in negative mobility outcomes. This agentive pathway represents the breakdown of mobility as the proxy imposes limits on the mobility environment, which results in a negative action potential and unattained mobility goals.

The cluster on the right contains the dimensions ‘individual agency’, ‘selecting an environment’, ‘desired outcome achieved’, ‘facilitating environment’, ‘positive action potential’, as well as ‘intentions to be mobile’. In contrast to the cluster on the left, this cluster contains all positive dimensions associated with mobility: The ability to select between different mobility environments facilitates a positive action potential that helps secure desired mobility outcomes. The overall positivity of the cluster is associated with individual agency. This configuration indicates that mobility associated with individual agency consists of an agentive pathway, where interviewees are able to select between different mobility options to facilitate their mobility potential and desired mobility goals.

The central position of the dimension ‘intentions to be mobile’ in the MDS map indicates that it shares important relations with both clusters. In a sense, ‘intentions to be mobile’ forms a bridge between the positive individual and negative proxy pathway. The link to the individual agentive pathway represents the successful transition from mobility intentions to desired goals. The proximity between ‘intentions to be mobile’ and the negative proxy cluster on the left indicates that mobility intentions remain present but are unfulfilled by the proxy.

The final step of the analysis connects agentive pathways, as identified in the MDS map, to the narratives on the mobility experiences of interviewees.

HCA Step 3: Mobility as Agency from the Perspective of Car Users in the US

The proxy agentive pathway: A re-contextualisation analysis of the mobility vignettes revealed that the proxy was mainly associated with the local and federal government, and that mobility references associated with government predominantly connected to passenger trains. Interviewees referred to either a lack of political will or public need to construct rail infrastructure in the areas where they live. This is due in part to trains being viewed as expensive and unprofitable, and government as inefficient and uninterested in investing into mobility infrastructure that would primarily benefit the poor, the elderly, or families. Here are some examples:

I keep hoping that they start laying more track. It’s so damned political. When the West opened up, the land was here for the taking. It wasn’t owned by anyone. So the railroads had their way of finding the easiest routes, but now it’s a little more complex. I wish the government would get involved in this. Whether they, whatever they need to do, I think we need more railroads. (2: 1)

But because our city doesn’t wanna bend. So you know, some people just don’t wanna do what’s best for a lot of people. (20: 2)

Yeah but it’s like the rest, you know the train system is just a reflection of the rest of our infrastructure. Talk about it, talk about it, but never put enough money or time into it, you know. (7: 7)

The individual agentive pathway: The mobility vignettes associated with the individual agentive pathway predominantly concerned mobility expectations of individuals’ daily mobility practices. Mobility expectations comprise three components: Convenience, comfort, and freedom of movement. Convenience is associated with speed, flexibility, and affordability. Whatever the mode of transport, it should be fast and reach the intended destination within the shortest possible time. Mobility modes should be flexible, which means that they ought to work around the individual and their family’s needs and activities including shopping, errands, and work and leisure. They should accommodate not only unique situations and lifestyles, but also momentary changes of plan. Finally, mobility modes should be cheap.

Beyond expectations of safety, comfort refers to access to wifi, food, entertainment, and beautiful scenery. Comfort is furthermore associated with personal space: Many interviewees place a premium on privacy to ‘do whatever they want’, listen to music as loudly as they like, and ‘get in the zone’. They specifically dislike being in crowded places, or having to deal with negative, aggressive, or annoying people. In other words, a train journey should mimic as closely as possible the comfort, flexibility, and privacy of an idealised car journey—devoid of traffic jams, bad weather, or unwanted company. Freedom of movement was mentioned most frequently. It denotes the ability to “go wherever you want, whenever you want” (18: 11), a phrase mentioned nearly verbatim by many. It represents at its core a desire for independence, spontaneity, immediacy, and individualism. Here are some examples:

So I would definitely not, no, I’m enough of an American that I would not give this up. I love the freedom. Like today, if I wanna go to town, I can. If I wanna go to Austin today, I can. It takes me twenty minutes to get everything together and go. (12: 8)

Interviewer: You mentioned earlier that you like to look at [trains] when they go by.

Interviewee: Yes, they fascinate me. You think of this idea of freedom. But in reality you lose your freedom. So there’s a conflict. Maybe it’s the possibility of freedom. You know, maybe it’s the wrong word, freedom. Maybe it’s adventure or wanderlust rather than freedom because this [she points to her vehicle] represents freedom. I can go wherever I like. And as long as I can afford the gas, I can go. (11: 8)

Intentions relating to convenience, comfort, and freedom of movement: Convenience, comfort, and freedom of movement form the basis for mobility expectations. It defines interviewees’ intentions to be mobile and guides the strategies they use to select mobility options. Private car use becomes the paragon of mobility practices. It enables interviewees to do what they want, when they want, in exactly the way they want. This benchmark constitutes the expectations interviewees have of the role of the government. According to them, government would have the resources to prioritise the development of public transport infrastructure, and the government ought to provide convenient, fast, comfortable, easy-to-use, and cheap public transport. Here are two examples:

I think they should make it more accessible to people to be able to take trains. At the very least to make it more accessible for people to take it from city to city. I know you can’t have a station in every little town, but I mean like College Station to San Antonio or to Dallas. Like I feel like that would be a lot better. That would be a lot more beneficial to people too because not everybody has a car and some people are just not gonna get on a plane. So I feel like that would be, give them—a lot of people a better option and give a lot of people like a better way to stay connected too. Yeah, so I definitely think it’s a good idea to try to bring trains back. (11: 6)

…infrastructure maintenance you know that there are train systems and that they’re kept up. That they are kept clean, that they’re kept safe, that they’re kept comfortable. Those things, but you know, again, of course they have to be affordable and now I am asking the impossible. I just don’t see it any other way you know. I don’t see a minimalist service that is not safe or clean. I don’t see that working and I don’t see a train system working that has all these wonderful things that is very expensive—working so it’s some kind of magic. A magic compromise that maybe train decision makers have to work on. This magic, how to make this magic work? (28: 18)

On the one hand, the above excerpts illustrate how interviewees use their mobility benchmark to evaluate other modes of transportation. Essentially, interviewees would like to transpose all the comfort, convenience, and freedom in their private cars onto trains. On the other hand, they consider it the government’s responsibility to create a mobility environment, which includes comfort, convenience, and freedom across multiple mobility modes. Where does this benchmark of mobility expectations come from, and why is the maintenance of this benchmark the responsibility of the government? This final excerpt traces the origins and perpetuation of such mobility expectations:

I think it goes back to the 50s and earlier, cause it wasn’t until the late 40s, early 50s that I remember a lot of people having cars. You know, during the war you couldn’t get a car. Basically, before that, during the depression, a lot of people couldn’t afford it, and in the 50s, you know, Eisenhower started to build the interstate system, made travelling throughout the country easier. The car companies came out with reasonably priced, nice cars that the average family could afford, and everybody found that freedom of movement. (7: 9)

Historically the government created a mobility environment that enabled convenience, comfort, and freedom of movement to serve an increasingly individualistic and consumer-oriented society. In the process, it also created the most formidable economy in the world. Over time and through institutionalisation, individuals appropriated this benchmark: To own the freedom of movement, which maximises individual expressions of taste and lifestyle, as well as personal comfort and convenience. Convenience, comfort, and freedom became the quintessential cultural markers in the US, including and transcending individual mobility practices.

Discussion and Conclusions

The aims of this study were to explore the potential of TRC as a theoretical framework for studying the links between agency and mobility practices, to make a relevant contribution to the study of sustainable travel, to explore how current mobility practices connect to more sustainable alternatives in the US, and to understand how links between agency and mobility policies relate to sustainable travel. Mobility as agency constitutes two distinct agentive pathways: One connected negatively to a proxy and the other connected positively to individual agency. Interestingly, collective agency as proposed by TRC is largely absent among US car users. The government as a proxy agent is ostensibly incapable or unwilling to invest in appropriate public transport infrastructure, which imposes limits to the US mobility environment. Many participants are critical of the government’s failure to develop mobility infrastructure that would benefit either themselves or, to a limited extent, society. The latter is synonymous with the poor, the elderly, and families.

The failure of agency derived from the proxy contrasts with the positivity of individual agency as associated with individual expectations, goals, and practices. Here, individual agency is embedded in encultured mobility expectations—comfort, convenience, and freedom, which guide interviewees’ assessment of and selection between different mobility modes. This benchmark ostensibly enables individuals to ‘do what they want, when they want, in exactly the way they want’.

The primary contribution of this study relates to how this benchmark defines individual and proxy agency in relation to mobility as agency. The horizon of mobility choices and their practice is limited by comfort, convenience, and freedom. Just as collective agency did not feature in how interviewees conceptualise mobility as agency, so is sustainability or sustainable travel absent in daily mobility thought and practices because both would fail the benchmark assessment. Instead, the mobility domain is constrained by mobility modes which best secures or exceed benchmark expectations: Does a possible mobility alternative improve on the convenience, comfort, and freedom of an idealised car journey? The role of the government is limited in that it is relegated to the development, provision, and maintenance of a mobility environment that aligns with this benchmark. The failure of the government is not the inability to provide access to passenger trains, but a failure to extend the mobility benchmark to other modes of transport. According to this logic, the potential for behaviour change to more sustainable practices are conditional on the basis that (a) modalities fulfil these benchmark requirements and (b) the government provides alternative mobility modes to individuals without interrupting lifestyles and at no extra cost. In the present and near future, trains in the US are understood as an occasional travel alternative, not a replacement of cars. This has profound implications on the potential for sustainable travel, which is dependent on the societal embeddedness of sustainability values on the one hand, and policy interventions to implement sustainable travel on the other. While interviewees apparently desired access to trains, the support for extending public transport infrastructure is expected to conform to benchmark expectations. The consequences on designing soft approaches to change mobility behaviour in this context are significant. While most studies have emphasised reinforcing or aligning beliefs and values with sustainable travel through group discussion, role-play, and information campaigns (Olsson et al. 2018; Diniz et al. 2015; Rose 2008), the findings indicate that sustainability values will be subordinated to benchmark expectations for the near future. Hard approaches such as developing public transport infrastructure that fulfil the prevalent benchmark become a prerequisite for change in the mobility domain. This context encourages especially elected decision makers to continue investing in existing, car-centric infrastructure, and a disincentive to explore sustainable alternatives. But even if sustainable travel enjoyed greater public and political support, the vast, low-density landscape in the US presents a formidable challenge to develop large-scale public transport infrastructure. Of course, the same could be said about China, the current world champion in public transport infrastructure development, but its historical and cultural roots are very different, as are the position on a socioeconomic development trajectory, public expectations, and governance model. The question of how to make mobility in the US context sustainable is something that research and policy have not addressed adequately. For now, the most feasible solutions depend on technological innovation that do not interfere with predominant travel preferences, identity markers, or lifestyles of US Americans (Banister et al. 2007), nudging models that do not enjoy public or political support, or information campaigns that seem ineffective for now. The absence of more sustainable alternatives, the disincentives against developing them, and the presence of existing institutionalised norms and values create a stalemate.

In some sense, the current divisive political landscape in the US reflects on a grand scale what is observed in a microcosm. A conflict wherein the old untenable and unsustainable world imposes its values and rules on a new world that, still nameless and shapeless, is becoming more present with each political and climate emergency. Faced with rapid economic, social, political, and environmental changes, politics and society retreat into familiar comforts. For the car users who participated in this study, addiction to comfort, convenience, and an imagined sense of freedom limits their ability to reimagine lifestyles and consumption. Thus, even when asked about an imagined, ideal future, their addictions define mobility along the contours of the past 70 years. Yet, finite resources, the increasing frequency and significance of climatic events, and its consequences require significant adaptation from individuals and societies. The world must find ways to travel more sustainably, and, for better or worse, the US will continue to play a disproportionate role in the 21st century.

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