Car Dependence, Sustainability and the Transport Policy Stalemate: The Potential Trade-offs between Intra- and Inter-generational Equity

Giulio Mattioli

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The sustainability concept, as originally defined, comprises three meta-goals: growth, intra-generational (social) equity and environmental protection (that is, inter-generational equity). In this context, while the potential trade-offs growth vs. environment and growth vs. intra-generational equity have been frequently addressed, the possible tensions between intra-generational and inter-generational equity have received only limited attention. This is true also for studies on “sustainable transport”, often concerned with the seemingly unstoppable rise of car ownership and use. This latter process is, on the one hand, a major determinant of environmental unsustainability; on the other hand, however, it entails a crucial intra-generational equity dimension, related to the differential in accessibility to services and opportunities between car users and non-car users. Accordingly, in this paper, I argue that the very nature of car dependence–defined as a dynamic and self-reinforcing macro-social process with systemic properties–urges scholars to focus on the trade-offs between intra- and inter-generational equity. Indeed, every increase in the level of car dependence widens the disadvantage gap between those who are part of the car system and those who are left out of it, but at the same time reduces the number of the latter. For this reason, its implications for intra-generational equity are very equivocal. On the other hand, most of the policies envisaged to fight car dependence are feared to have negative impacts on intra-generational equity, and thus often meet strong resistance. This is likely to bring to a “transport policy stalemate”, where no serious attempt is made to reduce car use and all hopes are concentrated on a “technological fix” to eventually solve all problems. In this scenario, inter-generational equity is likely to be sacrificed in favour of other goals.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-57
Number of pages13
JournalThe International Journal of Sustainability Policy and Practice
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2013



  • Car Dependence
  • Intergenerational Equity
  • Social Sustainability
  • Sustainable Transport
  • Car Use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Transportation

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