Philosophy, transport and fairness: the right not to drive?

14th December 2022

Author: Bettina Lange, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands / Nottingham, UK

Philosophy and transport don't go together – or do they? Philosophy analyses assumptions and helps us rethink them. Transport is influenced by assumptions; for example, the assumption that what is good for the environment will also be good for people – often not true.

Electric cars for example mitigate climate change (somewhat) but don't help those who can't afford them or don't drive. So what makes transport fair and to whom? Establishing criteria for fairness is a philosophical task. In this blog I highlight assumptions underlying current transport arrangements, explain how they are unfair, and suggest criteria for making transport fairer.

Most people regard it is as fair if everyone receives what they deserve. What people deserve could be their share of a social 'good' – reward for effort or talent, for example. Accessibility is an important social good in relation to transport. Our current transport systems largely assume that people have access to a car, but many don't – for medical, legal or financial reasons. This is regarded as unfair (see e.g. Lucas, van Wee and Maat 2015; Martens 2017) because it is not in the individuals' control.  Not having access to a car is regarded as a form of disability (of people "dependent on public transport"), and it is assumed that no-one would choose this.

Let me be clear: I don't disagree that unfairness resulting from factors not chosen by those affected should be addressed. But my argument is first that unfairness can also result from people's choices and that this unfairness deserves to be addressed too, and second that this only applies to legitimate choices.

What counts as a legitimate choice is influenced by what is considered worth valuing in a particular society. UK society has a broadly liberal-individualist value orientation. Individuals are assumed to be capable of deciding what kind of life they want to lead. Two rights are then attributed to individuals: an unqualified right to devise such a 'life plan', and a right to implement this plan limited by the right of all other individuals to implement theirs.

Some people, and an increasing proportion of younger people, are choosing to live without personal access to a car. According to liberal values, an individual's choice is valid and generates a right for respect by others provided it does not harm others. Living without personal access to a car harms others less than living with car access, due to effects such as air pollution, noise and road accidents.

This harm principle generates 'liberty rights' (what individuals are free to do) and 'claim rights' (what the rest of society has to provide). Living without personal access to a car is a liberty right (it is allowed). This creates obligations for others, starting with the right to have the choice to live without personal access to a car respected as legitimate. It could be argued for example, that the social claim right to respect is violated when those without personal car access (especially men) are portrayed as somehow not fully grown up. A liberty right can create more extensive claim rights. For example, a child's right to education generates obligations on society to provide education. Those liberty rights which require resources only available as a result of society-wide arrangements generate a claim right to the provision of resources necessary to exercise the rights. A liberty right is not meaningful if social arrangements prevent its exercise – in the case of the right to live without personal access to a car, if the poor alternatives to car travel and the car-centred planning of key infrastructure such as for employment or socialising mean anyone choosing this option will have a really complicated life with reduced scope, as is currently the case in many parts of the UK.

Therefore, transport policy should be changed to create more equitable opportunities for those choosing to live without personal access to a car. It could be objected that creating better opportunities for those living without personal car access will diminish opportunities for those choosing to live with car access. This is true but justified according to the harm principle – the less harmful option generates a greater claim on social resources than the more harmful one.

The re-orientation of transport policy is likely to have the added benefit that as opportunities become more equitable, living without personal access to a car becomes an easier and more respected choice, more people are likely to make this choice, creating a virtuous circle, which would also help address environmental issues including climate change and air pollution.  

Suggested sources: 

1.    On transport fairness: 

Lucas, van Wee and Maat (2015). "A method to evaluate equitable accessibility: combining ethical theories and accessibility-based approaches". Transportation: 1-18. 

Martens, (2017) Transport justice: designing fair transportation systems. New York/London, Routledge.

2.    On liberty rights and claim rights: section 3.b 

3.    On the harm principle

About the author:

Bettina Lange's background is in Philosophy, which she has been teaching in adult and university education for many years. She has also for almost as long, been trying to influence transport policy in the UK in the direction of greater environmental sustainability and social fairness. Bettina is currently working on her PhD thesis developing principles for a fairer distribution of transport-related autonomy opportunities. More information can be found on LinkedIn.

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