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Carbon reduction and travel behaviour: Discourses, disputes and contradictions in governance


  • Marsden, Greg
  • Mullen, Caroline
  • Bache, Ian
  • Bartle, Ian
  • Flinders, Matt


Prospects for mitigating climate change require decarbonisation of the energy sector over relatively short time periods, coupled with significant changes to the way we consume energy. This is particularly true in the transport sector given the current levels of transport-related greenhouse gas emissions, the heavy dependence on fossil fuels, and the uncertainty surrounding transition pathways to ultra-low carbon vehicles. There are policy responses aiming to reduce carbon emissions by changing travel behaviour, but prominent approaches share a common theme of seeking to change behaviour by focusing on the individual and their choices. These are the object of critics who maintain that effective change requires collective action at the social, economic and cultural levels. This paper questions whether decision-makers are relying on these choice-based approaches to change travel behaviour and, if so, how effective they expect them to be. We address this through analysis of over 50 interviews with policy stakeholders in England and Scotland. We find dominant policy approaches do focus on individual choices, but significantly it is not because decision-makers have faith in their effectiveness. These approaches persist in policy on carbon reduction for two reasons. One is appeal to a politically powerful, but incoherent, discourse of individualism. The second is that decision-makers do not want significant behavioural change. There is an imperative of economic growth and a firm belief that a strong economy is linked to higher traffic levels, and that to reduce the demand for travel is to risk economic damage. We argue that these beliefs about the relation between travel demand and prosperity are narrowly defined and contestable for empirical and normative reasons. If there is to be a significant change in the approach to intervening in travel demand there is an urgency to engage in the politics of behaviour change – a meta-level behaviour change challenge.

Suggested Citation

  • Marsden, Greg & Mullen, Caroline & Bache, Ian & Bartle, Ian & Flinders, Matt, 2014. "Carbon reduction and travel behaviour: Discourses, disputes and contradictions in governance," Transport Policy, Elsevier, vol. 35(C), pages 71-78.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:trapol:v:35:y:2014:i:c:p:71-78
    DOI: 10.1016/j.tranpol.2014.05.012

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Gowdy, John M., 2008. "Behavioral economics and climate change policy," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 68(3-4), pages 632-644, December.
    2. Pooley, Colin G. & Horton, Dave & Scheldeman, Griet & Mullen, Caroline & Jones, Tim & Tight, Miles & Jopson, Ann & Chisholm, Alison, 2013. "Policies for promoting walking and cycling in England: A view from the street," Transport Policy, Elsevier, vol. 27(C), pages 66-72.
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    5. Bonsall, Peter, 2009. "Do we know whether personal travel planning really works?," Transport Policy, Elsevier, vol. 16(6), pages 306-314, November.
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    7. Kjell Arne Brekke & Olof Johansson-Stenman, 2008. "The behavioural economics of climate change," Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Oxford University Press, vol. 24(2), pages 280-297, Summer.
    8. Rajan, Sudhir Chella, 2006. "Climate change dilemma: technology, social change or both?: An examination of long-term transport policy choices in the United States," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 34(6), pages 664-679, April.
    9. repec:eee:jotrge:v:24:y:2012:i:c:p:522-532 is not listed on IDEAS
    10. Vij, Akshay, 2013. "Incorporating the Influence of Latent Modal Preferences in Travel Demand Models," University of California Transportation Center, Working Papers qt7nq9p0cv, University of California Transportation Center.
    11. repec:eee:jotrge:v:24:y:2012:i:c:p:503-511 is not listed on IDEAS
    12. Vij, Akshay, 2013. "Incorporating the Influence of Latent Modal Preferences in Travel Demand Models," University of California Transportation Center, Working Papers qt7ng2z24q, University of California Transportation Center.
    13. Vij, Akshay & Carrel, André & Walker, Joan L., 2013. "Incorporating the influence of latent modal preferences on travel mode choice behavior," Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, Elsevier, vol. 54(C), pages 164-178.
    14. David Banister, 2012. "Transport and economic development: reviewing the evidence," Transport Reviews, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 32(1), pages 1-2, January.
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    1. repec:kap:transp:v:45:y:2018:i:6:d:10.1007_s11116-018-9946-8 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. repec:eee:jotrge:v:51:y:2016:i:c:p:170-179 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. repec:eee:jotrge:v:69:y:2018:i:c:p:196-206 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. repec:eee:trapol:v:59:y:2017:i:c:p:165-173 is not listed on IDEAS
    5. repec:eee:jotrge:v:56:y:2016:i:c:p:92-101 is not listed on IDEAS
    6. repec:eee:jotrge:v:49:y:2015:i:c:p:9-15 is not listed on IDEAS
    7. repec:eee:transa:v:105:y:2017:i:c:p:42-53 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. Dowling, Robyn & Kent, Jennifer, 2015. "Practice and public–private partnerships in sustainable transport governance: The case of car sharing in Sydney, Australia," Transport Policy, Elsevier, vol. 40(C), pages 58-64.
    9. Cass, Noel & Faulconbridge, James, 2016. "Commuting practices: New insights into modal shift from theories of social practice," Transport Policy, Elsevier, vol. 45(C), pages 1-14.
    10. Mercier, Jean & Carrier, Mario & Duarte, Fábio & Tremblay-Racicot, Fanny, 2016. "Policy tools for sustainable transport in three cities of the Americas: Seattle, Montreal and Curitiba," Transport Policy, Elsevier, vol. 50(C), pages 95-105.

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    Carbon; Economy; Philosophy; Behaviour change; Choice;


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