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Challenging the dominant mobility paradigm

How can we, as a sector, help mobilise change, quickly and at scale, to effectively challenge the dominant mobility paradigm in the UK? Sandy Moller, Senior Consultant, ITP, asks what we can learn from observing wider socio-economic, cultural and political contexts in shaping car-dominating mobility culture

Sandy Moller
19 February 2020
How many cars does one home need?
How many cars does one home need?


In the 1970s, the seeds of the Netherlands’ envious bicycling culture were sown on the back of the ‘perfect storm’; the OECD oil crisis, the Stop De Kindermoord road safety protest and an impassioned debate driven by environmental and political activism. Enter 2020. The UK public has placed climate action highest on the list of long-term government priorities.

The impact of organising groups, particularly Extinction Rebellion, has provoked changes in our relationship with the natural world and an extractive economic system; with reverberations being felt across society. Are we therefore about to finally challenge the dominant mobility paradigm in the UK almost five decades after some of our European counterparts?

Our tendency as a sector to operate within a transport ‘vacuum’ ignores the influence of the wider political-economic conditions that shape our dominant cultural beliefs and norms. The commercial ideology that upholds ‘markets’, ‘competition’ and perceived ‘rationality’ within our society has rarely been brought into question. Is it therefore any coincidence that change has been limited when this belief system has extended into the public’s consciousness and shaped our individual expectations?

Cars R Us

Maybe the answer lies in how our car culture has come to symbolise the changing face of British society. Cars continue to be marketed as individual-focused ‘lifestyle goods’ that offer freedom, choice and empowerment – often at the expense of public goods. These individual and aspirational imperatives align to lock-in demand for car use and lead to a Tragedy of the Commons that plays out on the highways of most UK towns and cities each day. 

The way we choose to move and the vehicles we occupy, have become inseparable from our personal identity; to the point where confronting travel behaviour is challenging ones means of expression.  In this respect, an incumbent car industry is continually reinventing itself to portray idealistic lifestyles in an attempt to appeal to the masses and retain market share. Is the arrival of electric vehicles the next to roll of the profit production line? 

The more challenging dilemma is whether people can change course. Land use planning has made driving convenient and simultaneously helped car-based lifestyles become the new norm. This has taken place under the auspices of ‘economic growth’; a motto that remarkably withstands the test of time. The combination of physical changes to the built environment and the ‘time-space desynchronization’ afforded by the car, has helped fuel our ‘hypermobile’ lifestyles. The irony is this has led to a dependency on the car for fulfilling all means of journeys. Can people really change so far down the line?  

People v Cars?

It is interesting to contrast the transport culture in the UK to another country, Denmark. Today the country has benefitted from a virtuous cycle of sustainable mode share and substantial cycling investment for over four decades; yet to what extent has this been shaped by deep-rooted political-economic and societal norms? Beyond bricks and mortar there is a strong sense of collective responsibility as one of the cornerstones of a ‘good’ society. Could this go some way to help explaining why different routes were taken at that time in each country and why change has been so difficult to come by in the UK?

The answer of course is more complex and may partly lie in the prominence of societal institutions and etiquettes that are still inherent to the way of life in the country today. As an agricultural country, reference can be found to Andelsbevaegelsen, the Danish farmer co-operative movement, which was founded on the principle of comparative advantage; the values of frisind; where the ‘free mind’ is encouraged to embrace tolerance and challenge prejudice; and Janteloven, ‘the Law of Jante’ which rebuffs hierarchal dominance.

Each of these principals share common themes of participation and shared consciousness and the contribution of the collective in shaping broader civic discourse. All celebrate the individual but uphold notions of equality, co-operation and ‘social good’.

There are ways in which dominant beliefs and values are also reflected through legislation.  Take the scale of taxation placed on purchasing vehicles (in the absence of an incumbent car industry) as a tool to influence purchasing behaviour or to ‘internalise’ the externalities of driving. Whilst this is proven not to hinder levels of car ownership, the tax generates substantial resources for investing into public services with state representatives entrusted to use the resources to protect public interests.

Greater municipalisation and relinquishment of both decision-making powers and financial resources to the ‘local level’ may also foster healthy deliberation and participation in daily civic life. These ingredients together allow a greater ability to take back control of decisions relating to the street outside.   

Where are we going?

Let us ask ourselves again; are we really surprised that travel behaviour is difficult to change in the UK? Whilst recent ‘commitments’ across the UK seek to improve air quality, improve urban spaces and encourage sustainable travel, this vision will inevitably grate against a set of cultural norms and expectations fostered over the decades. This is also where the climate movement currently stands. The next question is whether then this process is ‘owned’ by local populations and rooted in popular discourse, or whether business-as-usual will continue to prevail? 

More pressingly, the question is how we, as a sector, can help mobilise change, quickly and at scale, to effectively challenge the dominant mobility paradigm in the UK. This will mean championing the conditions and processes for change as a pre-requisite for plan making and thinking creatively around fostering a shift in our relationships to each other and to society. Legislatively, this should translate into greater municipalisation and participatory forms of democracy to re-construct civil relationships and a new transport narrative from the ground upwards. Only then may we experience substantial shifts in travel behaviour and unlock the associated benefits.

The views of the author expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of ITP


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