Our Mobility, A Research Project

Our mobility—whether it’s walking to a corner store, commuting by bus, driving across town, or flying across the globe—says something about our social advantages and disadvantages, culture, geography, goals, responsibilities, health, and well-being. Learning about the diversity of our mobile lives is one of the motivations behind my research project, Our Mobility. For some people, daily mobility is a choice or combination of multiple transportation options, and for others, it’s a single option. For people who are transportation-disadvantaged, mobility can be a financial burden, a source of worry, an unpleasant or unsafe experience, or a waste of time. Once we’ve settled on a place to live and a way to get around, our daily mobility can be taken for granted, and valued once it becomes difficult or impossible to do on our own.

Routine travel may seem mundane, but there is so much that happens before, during, and after every trip we take. First, there is some purpose that motivates us to travel, then there is planning, perhaps drawing on previous experiences or researching the best way to navigate to our destination. These are all executive functions, which entail using our cognitive skills and working memory to formulate a plan. Once we are in motion, we may face challenges that demand mental flexibility and self-control. And when we arrive, the experiences we had along the way have a tendency to affect our psychological state while we’re at home or work, or somewhere else. The design of our travel environment, social encounters with strangers, traffic, delays or lack of punctuality can all impact our psychological state. The repetition of these conditions can influence how we conduct our daily lives or lead us to unhealthy patterns.

We know a lot about how race and class cause transportation disparities, and there are qualitative studies that illustrate the travel experiences of people with disabilities, but the variation of disability—which cuts across race, class and age—is not so easy to generalize or measure. A few years ago for a statistics course geared towards analyzing big data sets, I searched for national travel and time-use surveys and discovered that disability was usually not included as a demographic variable. If it was included, it was a single binary category (i.e. Do you have a disability, yes or no?), despite the fact that the Census has six categories of disability. I was excited to finally find a regional transit survey from 2011 sponsored by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council that had data for different types of disabilities. Unfortunately, only 5.3% of the study population had any kind of disability, while the national prevalence is around 20%. Despite my best intentions, I still had to analyze disability as a binary category and had a difficult time drawing meaningful conclusions from the survey.

Social scientists who are interested in mobility have called for more qualitative research to better understand passenger experiences and choices. A handful of researchers and entrepreneurs have answered that call, developing mobile apps that track location information while asking experiential questions. The cost to access these tools is also prohibitive, so my pilot will test the usability of two free apps which can collect similar information. Google Maps Timeline records location history which can be saved and shared, and PACO (Personal Analytics COmpanion) is a programmable survey tool meant for personal experiments. I want to learn more about how people deal with obstacles and delays and if people with disabilities encounter transportation challenges at a disproportionate rate, so I’ve customized the survey accordingly.

Participants will receive a personal report of their survey answers and a summary and visualization of their travel history for the week that they take part in the study. In an age of self-measurement, I am curious if participants will learn something about their own mobility if they see it summarized in this manner. In testing the applications myself, I know I was surprised by some of my own data, so I hope the same will be true for my pilot participants.
The pilot study is hopefully just the beginning. I want to conduct a much larger study in the future, and find collaborators who may be interested in using these tools and methods for their own research questions. Contact me at jmurray@gradcenter.cuny.edu for more information, or visit ourmobility.org if you’re in the NYC Metro area and want to participate! Recruiting for the pilot phase will end on Sunday, February 18, 11:59 EST.

This blog post was previously published on HASTAC.org

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