Car dependence: micro-, macro- and meso-approaches to the study of social barriers to sustainable transport

Giulio Mattioli

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


The notion of ‘car dependence’ provides a useful framework to study of so-called ‘social barriers’ to sustainable transport. While the concept is used in variety of contrasting ways in the literature, there are arguably only three different understandings of car dependence. The micro-social understanding sees ‘dependence’ as an attribute of individuals and is concerned first and foremost with questions of agency. This makes it akin to what Shove has critically defined as the ABC (attitude, behaviour and choice) paradigm of climate change policy. The macro-social understanding sees dependence as an attribute of (local) societies, and is thus concerned with the structural drivers of increasing car ownership and use. In this context, the relationship between the built environment and travel demand has received considerable attention. Also, researchers have shown that increasing car dependence is a self-reinforcing and path dependent process, which is very difficult to reverse. The meso-social approach to car dependence is arguably the least developed, but also the most interesting for the DEMAND Research Centre. It sees dependence as an attribute of trips – or rather of the activities that people need to travel to. This resonates with theories of social practice, aiming to shift the focus of attention away from individuals and toward practices, without prioritizing either agency or structure. While previous research on sustainable practices has mostly focused on driving as a practice per se, I argue that it is more productive to focus on ‘mobility intensive’ and ‘car dependent’ practices. The latter can be defined as practices where the car has become an essential element in the integration between materials, competences and meanings (e.g. the weekly shopping expedition, the escorting of children). In the presentation, the macro- and micro- approaches will be illustrated with findings from previous research projects. With regard to the meso-approach, I will argue that semi-automated activity pattern extraction techniques applied to the analysis of time-use data have the potential of revealing variations in ‘mobility intensive’ and ‘car dependent’ practices in British society. This contributes to Research Theme 1 of the DEMAND Centre.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 20 Nov 2013
EventDEMAND Seminar Series - DEMAND Research Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom
Duration: 20 Nov 201320 Nov 2013


SeminarDEMAND Seminar Series
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • car dependence
  • car use
  • motorisation
  • car ownership
  • sustainable transport
  • built environment
  • social practice
  • attitude measurement
  • Sustainability
  • transport and social exclusion


Dive into the research topics of 'Car dependence: micro-, macro- and meso-approaches to the study of social barriers to sustainable transport'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this