Decarbonising Transport - whose equity1  matters

Tom van Vuren scaled 1 600x600

The case has been made by others that a decarbonised transport system, less dependent on car ownership, should also be able to deliver equitable benefits to many currently disadvantaged groups. After all, and according to the National Travel Survey, in 2022 the percentage of adults living in households without a car or van was three times as high in the lowest income quintile than in the highest quintile.  But also, the percentage of adults living in households without a car or van was twice as high in the Black, African, Caribbean or Black British ethnic group than in the White one, and they make around 10% fewer trips. This immediately suggests to me that a decarbonisation policy that mainly aims to electrify the car fleet will do little in terms of transitioning equitably.

Travelling less, and providing alternatives to (electric) vehicles must be a better way forward for co-benefits such as equity to also result from decarbonisation. Often the debate has focused on income and gender disparities but, as illustrated above, ethnicity should also feature in this debate. And a recent report by the KIM National Institute for Policy Analysis illustrates that even the Dutch struggle, particularly when considering the bicycle as a solution.

Around 1 in 4 residents of the Netherlands has a migration2 background: of its 17.5 million inhabitants, 2.5 million are migrants and 2 million their children. Like in the UK, migrants live mainly in the major cities, with fewer living in rural areas, so that in principle alternatives to the car should already be available. As in the UK, migrants and their children are less mobile than people without a migration background. They stay at home more often on any given day, but at the same time, the distance that they travel between home and their place of work is longer than for others.

The travel differences between groups of migrants are also large, so that generalisation is dangerous. Compared to the UK, many of the migrants in the Netherlands are from Mediterranean countries, who came to work and live in the country during the construction boom in the 1950s and 1960s. Bicycle use among people with a Turkish or Moroccan background is 30-40% less than for non-migrants, even for the second generation. Across all groups there is a greater dependence on public transport. Driving licence holding is also lower, although that difference almost disappears for the second generation.

Unsurprisingly, there are further travel differences between men and women. This applies to the entire population but particularly to people with a migration background, and most strongly affecting driving licence holding and bicycle use.

The summary of the report sets out the issue clearly: “In particular with regard to the possession of a driving licence and the frequencies of use of certain modes of transport, migration background adds significant value in explaining observed differences”. We would be well-advised to take these differences in consideration when designing inclusive decarbonisation strategies:

  • Continue to support public transport services, particularly for medium to longer distance commuting trips.
  • Carefully consider who can adjust their daily lives (or where they choose to live) to benefit from 15 minute neighbourhoods, and ensure that these benefits are spread fairly across all population groups. The report suggests that longer commutes but also longer travel times for other trip purposes happen because people with a migration background face greater than average difficulties in both the housing and labour markets.
  • Accompany cycling investment with improvements to the pedestrian environment as well: people in households without access to a car make around 15 more cycling trips per year than those in households with access, but over 100 extra walk trips.

UK statistics on travel by vehicle availability, income, ethnic group, household type, mobility status and socio-economic classification are found here:, and an English summary of the Dutch report I referred to here:


  1. I use equity rather than equality, as an equitable transition, recognising that each person has different circumstances, should reach an equal outcome for all by allocating the appropriate (and inevitably different) resources and opportunities needed to do so.
  2. Analysis by migration status rather than ethnicity alone provides a richer basis for analysis, for example by recognising that travel patterns may be different for all those born outside of the UK, and that travel behaviour of second and later generations tends to converge towards the average for the whole population.

Tom van Vuren is Policy Director at the Transport Planning Society, a Visiting Professor at the University of Leeds, and a Strategic Business Partner at Amey.

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