Research on car dependence exposes the difficulty of moving away from a car-dominated, high-carbon transport system, but neglects the political-economic factors underpinning car-dependent societies. Yet these factors are key constraints to attempts to ‘decouple' human well-being from energy use and climate change emissions. In this critical review paper, we identify some of the main political-economic factors behind car dependence, drawing together research from several fields. Five key constituent elements of what we call the ‘car-dependent transport system’ are identified: i) the automotive industry; ii) the provision of car infrastructure; iii) the political economy of urban sprawl; iv) the provision of public transport; v) cultures of car consumption. Using the ‘systems of provision’ approach within political economy, we locate the part played by each element within the key dynamic processes of the system as a whole. Such processes encompass industrial structure, political-economic relations, the built environment, and cultural feedback loops. We argue that linkages between these processes are crucial to maintaining car dependence and thus create carbon lock-in. In developing our argument we discuss several important characteristics of car-dependent transport systems: the role of integrated socio-technical aspects of provision, the opportunistic use of contradictory economic arguments serving industrial agendas, the creation of an apolitical façade around pro-car decision-making, and the ‘capture’ of the state within the car-dependent transport system. Through uncovering the constituents, processes and characteristics of car-dependent transport systems, we show that moving past the automobile age will require an overt and historically aware political program of research and action.

Automobility, Automotive industry, Car culture, Carbon lock-in, Road building, Transport
Energy Research and Social Science
School of Public Policy and Administration

Mattioli, G. (Giulio), Roberts, C. (Cameron), Steinberger, J.K. (Julia K.), & Brown, A. (Andrew). (2020). The political economy of car dependence: A systems of provision approach. Energy Research and Social Science (Vol. 66). doi:10.1016/j.erss.2020.101486