Passenger mobility transition pathways in the UK and the Netherlands

In the PATHWAYS project, empirical transition pathways have been compared to ideal-type transition pathways. All analyses use the multi-level perspective (MLP) to explain similarities and differences between the different countries. One of the domains considered is land-based passenger mobility, with empirical transition pathways from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

The Domain report 3: Mobility transitions in the UK and the Netherlands has been prepared by Bruno Turnheim (University College London) and Mike Hodson (University of Manchester). The report (part of Deliverable D2.4) can be downloaded from the PATHWAYS project website: Deliverables page.

The report presents a comparative assessment of the current feasibility of sustainability transitions in the land-based passenger mobility domain in two national contexts: the UK and the Netherlands. The report suggests five key similarities and four significant differences between the mobility trajectories of the UK and the Netherlands.


The five similarities with regard to the trajectories in the UK and the Netherlands are:

  1. Ongoing commitment to automobility. In both contexts, land-based passenger mobility remains wedded to a continued reliance on and commitment to automobility. This is the case despite some weakening of cultural attachments to automobility, particularly among younger demographics, which nonetheless still remains marginal at this point.
  2. Emphasis on ‘greening’ over fundamental re-orientation. Though there are differences in the specifics of momentum in relation to niches in each context, what is common in both the UK and the Netherlands is that change in the land-based passenger transport system emphasises incremental and substitutional change. This is particularly true concerning strategies in automobility, where a ‘greening of cars’ strategy is the dominant narrative embraced by most actors involved (in both countries). This bears resemblance with developments in other domains, where ‘win-win’ solutions related to efficiency improvements are preferred, without consideration of the potential for further lock-in and the difficulties such paths present for achieving environmental objectives in the immediate and long term.
  3. Global drivers, local enactment. This can partly be understood through the similar positions that the UK and the Netherlands occupy in the global division of labour of the automobility industry. Though the countries are of a very different size (in terms of population) both are reliant on non-domestic (and largely multinational) automobile companies to produce and supply vehicles and as sources of economic activity. Turbulence in the global economy and efforts to reduce the carbon emissions attributable to cars has resulted in domestic policymakers working closely with EU decision-makers and global automobile industry interests to create amenable conditions for the protection of the automobile industry and its development of incremental efficiencies. There is a strong lock-in of the automobility regime in both the UK and the Netherlands, and this is largely related to global regime aspects, nonetheless mediated, co-constituted and actively reproduced through practices in local settings.
  4. ICT developments as backdrop for challenges and opportunities. Both the UK and the Netherlands are confronted with broader trends related to the ICT ‘revolution’ and the challenges this poses for land-based passenger transport systems in terms of the ‘smart’ integration of mobility and ICTs, as well as the opportunities this may present (e.g. in terms of efficiency gains or supporting new mobility behaviours). Changes outside of automobility – e.g. in homeworking, online shopping, the economic challenges for Generation Y – have implications in both contexts for land-based passenger mobility.
  5. Leadership discourses. In both countries there is an aspiration that they are at the forefront, or a leader, in sustainable mobility. There is, though, more tangible manifestation of this in the Netherlands, where it is underpinned by coordinated strategies, consistent long-term involvement with alternatives, and dynamic local innovation clusters. In the UK the symbolic policy promotion of sustainable mobility has been very weakly realised in practice.


The four main differences between the mobility trajectories in the UK and the Netherlands are:

  1. Momentum and embeddedness of alternatives. There is a difference between the UK and the Netherlands in that most niches, generally, seem to have more momentum in Netherlands than the UK. In particular, what distinguishes the Netherlands from the UK is that there is more momentum in the niches that do not deal with greening automobility but which deal with alternatives to automobility – to such an extent that for the most part they no longer are considered niches but alternative regimes. There is a greater emphasis on inter-modality in the Netherlands and public transport. Also, car sharing appears to have more momentum in the Netherlands. There is, in short, a broad spread of niches with momentum in the Netherlands whereas those in the UK with momentum are much more focused on greening automobility.
  2. Spatial variety and selectivity. Though there is this general difference between the UK and the Netherlands, in the UK there is a spatial variety to the momentum of niches, with many niches that do not have momentum at the level of the UK generally having significant momentum in Greater London for example. This is the case in terms of intermodal ticketing, urban bikesharing and the compact city. This spatial selectivity that is apparent in the UK is in contrast to a view emphasising more spatial integration in the Netherlands, which has been a strong emphasis of planning over many decades but also perhaps a product of more ‘manageable’ and uniform spatial conditions in the Netherlands.
  3. Policy styles, collective infrastructure, and coordination in public transport. There is a further contrast between deeply fragmented rail, bus and cycling regimes in the UK versus strong public transport and cycling regimes in the Netherlands, supported by strong emphasis on universal accessibility and the encouragement of take-up by certain user groups (students, pensioners) but also commitment to far-ranging and pioneering infrastructure investments. Over the last three decades an ideological commitment to competition has been infused into these regimes in the UK.
  4. Difficulties of coherent governance under fragmented circumstances. The fragmentation of these regimes also highlights the difficulties of effective governance in the UK, in particular, meaning that effective collaboration between national and local scales of policy and political activity is difficult. This highlights why political promises are being made in relation to sustainable mobility in the UK that have not been realised.


The main reason for these similarities and differences is that there remains a dominant national pathway, in both contexts, promoting the defence of auto-mobility. Though there are significant differences in the development of alternative mobility pathways between the UK and the Netherlands this should not be over-stated – it remains the case that specific, narrow elements of ‘generic’ transitions pathways pre-dominate in both national contexts. Specifically the prioritisation of auto-mobility and its defence by pre-existing configurations – particularly, ‘the national’, understood through policy-industry coalitions is part of this defensive configuration. The report highlights the strength of seeing the national in this way of mediating generic transitions possibilities. It also highlights a second role for the national as a co-constitutor of contingent socio-technical mobility experiments. The report suggests the need for much greater dialogue between these two approaches.

The Domain report 3: Mobility transitions in the UK and the Netherlands has been prepared by Bruno Turnheim (University College London) and Mike Hodson (University of Manchester). The report (part of Deliverable D2.4) can be downloaded from the PATHWAYS project website: Deliverables page.

PATHWAYS project logo This article is an output of the EU-funded PATHWAYS project.

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