Mental car dependency in urban areas in Flanders: meaning, origin and development

Research, Ongoing

Internally funded 22/02/18 → 21/02/2024

Flanders is perceived as a very car-dependent region. High car ownership and – except for some core cities – a low share of public transport and active modes in the modal split, scattered land-use, ribbon development and a very extensive road network all contribute to this perception. So far, policy failed to bring about significant changes in travel behaviour. Attempts to make the transport system more oriented towards public transport and active modes (for instance in some core cities) are by definition accompanied by the emergence of highly polarized debates. Apparently, residents in Flanders are not very willing to let go of their car.
The central objective of the PhD-research is to broaden and deepen our understanding of the origin and development of car dependency in Flanders (Belgium), mainly in urban areas. The research is structured around three main research questions. Firstly, the research aims to uncover the multilayeredness of car dependency and questions how the notion can be conceptualized and decomposed, combining an urban planning, psychological and sociological perspective. So far, there is neither an overview nor a comprehensive picture of a region that touches upon all these approaches simultaneously. The PhD-research is an attempt to close this gap addressing car dependency in Flanders.
From there, the question arises what areas in Flanders we can define, from the perspective of accessibility, as car dependent. By mapping car dependent regions based on several land use & transport characteristics and comparing these findings with the actual travel behavior, we can assess the extent to which accessibility and travel behavior resonate with one another. As the proximity and diversity of amenities and the availability of public transport and cycling infrastructure in cities enable inhabitants of urban environments much more to travel by other modes of transport compared to their counterparts living in suburban and rural areas, car dependency in urban settings demands a deeper elaboration. Building on social theory and approaching car dependency as a social practice allows us to uncover the different elements it is composed of (in the literature these elements are defined as ‘meaning’, ‘competence’ and ‘material’), and how these elements integrate and disintegrate in space and time. Within this framework, the research attempts to understand how mental car dependency develops in urban areas in Flanders. In short, we describe mental car dependency as the inability to imagine a satisfying life without the private ownership of a car. This part of research has a quantitative and a qualitative component. The quantitative section develops a methodology that enables us to measure mental car dependency and finalizes in a ‘matrix of car dependency’ whereas the qualitative part aims to understand what urban dwellers actually mean when they state that ‘they need their car’.
As a final objective, the envisioned outcomes of the research will be translated into policy recommendations with respect to urban and transport planning and can be used to inform policy makers who are seeking for strategies to develop car-free neighborhoods, and to develop guidelines for less car-dependent development.