Navigating a car-dependent society: the case of Flanders (Belgium)

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This research starts from the observed phenomenon of car travel being considered inevitable for many individuals, both for daily obligations and leisure activities. Its main objective is to contribute to ongoing academic discussions concerning the production and reproduction of the car-dependent society, with a main focus on the role of car owning households. The central research question guiding this dissertation is: How, where, and by whom is the car-dependent society produced and reproduced?
The dissertation is grounded in the land-use transport feedback cycle and the reciprocal relationship between transport and land use. Additionally, it introduces novel concepts and integrates insights from diverse disciplines to unravel the intricate dynamics at play. Beyond empirically investigating the reciprocal relationship between travel patterns and land use patterns, the dissertation highlights car-use disparities and unravels who can participate and who is marginalised in the car-dependent society. It also explores aspects like the perceived elements of car dependence and engages with sociological theoretical frameworks.
The dissertation critically assesses the conceptualisation of car dependence in the existing academic literature, identifying methodological, empirical and theoretical gaps. Furthermore, it employs four case studies: two in Flanders (the northern region of Belgium), one in the urban areas of Flanders and one in the city of Ghent. These case studies explore various aspects of car dependence on different geographical scales.
The study finds that the emergence of the car-dependent society gained momentum during the latter half of the 20th century and continues to persist. Despite some efforts, particularly in urban areas with favourable conditions for alternative modes of transport, this production and reproduction continues unabated. The car-dependent society is not confined to areas associated with high car dependence in terms of accessibility but also extends to places considered to have limited or low levels of car dependence from a land use perspective. The research shows that the spatial distribution of the car-dependent society is nearly ubiquitous, except within inner cities. In essence, this implies that the places where the foundation for a car-independent society is being laid today, or where it has already partially materialised, are predominantly limited to inner-city areas. Concerning the land-use transport feedback cycle, it is crucial to recognise that urban areas are not isolated but exist within a broader geographical context. When this larger context predominantly favours car travel, it influences the dynamics of the feedback cycle within urban areas. This skewed influence tends to favour the car when multiple modes of transport are available.
The car-dependent society is a collective construct, albeit a far from a neutral concept. Highincome households disproportionately perpetuate it, making it inherently exclusive and exclusionary, benefiting some more than others. Consequently, not everyone can seamlessly navigate within this society. In that sense, the general classification of ‘car drivers’ is essentially problematic. The strong association of certain ordinary social practices underscores the deeprooted presence of the car in daily life, resulting in a degree of messiness that is challenging to untangle.
Providing a definitive answer to the question of whether Flanders is car-dependent is not straightforward. The car-dependent society is inherently multi-dimensional, characterised by complexity, spatial and social disparities, unequal participation, prevailing meanings, and a reliance on capacities that are not evenly distributed throughout society. This situation calls for a layered understanding of the car-dependent society.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • Boussauw, Kobe, Supervisor
  • Fransen, Koos, Co-Supervisor
Award date5 Feb 2024
Publication statusPublished - 2024


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