Solar panels on suburban roofs. Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

How to tackle car inequalities fairly?

08 June, 2022

Noel Cass

Reading time: 5 minutes

Latest blog from Noel Cass asking how unfair inequities in car use might be fairly tackled. Car use policy could focus on enabling social practices to be accomplished differently.

Three members of the High consumers/Excess team had a chapter published in the Research Handbook of Energy and Society, which focused on ‘Social divisions in energy justice in the transport sector’, based on data and writing on personal car ownership and use.

Our book chapter opens with a cavalcade of sobering statistics about (especially large, i.e. SUV) cars and their disproportionate impact on the climate, which combine with Transport’s status as the only societal sector with still rising emissions, to justify the need to tackle car use as a disproportionately impactful social practice. Its central focus, however, is on moving beyond an analysis of inequalities in car ownership and use, to include mobility justice issues, and thereby explore how the unfair inequities in car use might fairly be tackled.

It proceeds by highlighting that mobility justice is not a straightforward matter of equality: mobility needs are personal, social and context-driven, and so everyone travelling the same amount would not be an ‘optimum’ or fair solution, especially given net-zero targets. Urban/rural contexts, age, gender, life stage, and of course income can all be seen to influence both the likelihood of owning and using cars, and therefore contribute to inequalities in them. Analysis of trip purposes reveal that the narrow policy focus on commuting ignores the main practices for which cars are used across all income levels: leisure, and ‘other’ trips including escorting and shopping. Just car use policy could focus on how such social practices could be accomplished differently, rather than obsessing about how economically productive units transport themselves to their places of work. Of course, much car use is precisely ‘necessary’ in order to tie all these different trips together.

The chapter therefore then dives into the issue of enforced mobility, which we usually encounter as ‘car dependency’, of people (especially the poor), areas (especially the peri-urban areas), or specific practices: 22% of the population drive 70% of all car miles for food shopping travel. The area of mobility justice linked to car dependency is well-trodden but in thinking of fairness, freedoms, and social in/exclusion, it is important to remember that “lack of car access does not always create limited accessibility or vulnerability to social exclusion, and neither does access to a personal car guarantee accessibility and inclusion”. What matters are travel needs, and how we satisfy them.

The inequitable distribution of costs as well as (the automatically assumed) benefits of car ownership and use are also important. And in the High consumers/Excess project we consciously tried to shift the focus to overconsumption as a targetable issue. Therefore the chapter turns its attention to identifying who the high-end ‘consumers’ of car mileage are, to see how their consumption might be fairly targeted. (Although we already know that those who drive the most are disproportionately wealthier, professional, white, male, and middle aged, often with company cars!) The distribution of car mileages is similar to the ‘wineglass’ pictures for personal travel, global emissions and air travel: “the 50 per cent least mobile account for only 8 per cent of the total car mileage, whilst 50 per cent of car mileage is done by 15 per cent of the sample, and the 8 per cent most mobile individuals account for 30 per cent of the total mileage”. The chapter therefore uses the mileage data to assess the impact on different income groups of setting different mileage levels as ‘rations’ or allowances. A 10,000 mile limit would affect 16% of drivers, of 15,000 miles, 8%, and of 20,000, only 4%. Such blanket policies would catch some poorer (and therefore more genuinely dependent?) drivers, but the data displayed allows different policy ‘thought experiments’ to be judged according to who they would target and affect. Although the chapter does not push the point, when we talked to Greater Manchester about the usefulness of our analyses we pointed out that a ‘free mileage allowance’ (as floated in recent government discussions of road pricing) set at 11,000 (twice the mean) would encompass all but a minority of outliers from poorer households.

The chapter ends by exploring the policy options for fairly targeting car use, before drawing its key conclusions, that “access to transport resources, especially but not limited to cars, is distributed inequitably”, that “the hyper-mobile consume a hugely disproportionate number of miles with their concomitant energy and emissions impacts”, and that the costs are “unfairly distributed onto vulnerable social groups and in peripheral areas”. Our analyses are at an aggregated level, and therefore miss much of the nuance of travel needs which qualitative research would reveal, however the chapter’s summation is worth repeating in full:

“Simplistic as they may seem, the most equitable policy options would appear to be to improve access to the less impactful alternatives across social and geographical divisions, by investing in public transport, to address transport and other household energy consumption levels through direct taxation on income, and to impose blanket measures which do not attempt to operate through neo-liberal policy obsessions with choice. Examples of these include parking and congestion charges, strict mileage rationing, or bans on SUVs… people will only reduce their demand for travel when they are able to easily facilitate their daily activities locally and this demands a far more fundamental rethink about how we organise land uses and economies to better enable this to happen.”

Banner photo credit: Louis Reed on Unsplash