Mattioli, M., D. Roberts, J.K. Steinberger and A. Brown (2020) The political economy of car dependence: a systems of provision approach. Energy Research and Social Science.


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.