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Social practice theory and sustainable mobility: An analysis of the English local transport planning as a system of provision

Williams, David

Social practice theory and sustainable mobility: An analysis of the English local transport planning as a system of provision Thumbnail


David Williams


The UK Government is committed to reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. Reducing emissions from motorised transport and changing travel behaviour of people wishing to travel are two possible means of achieving this. To support schemes designed to change behaviour the UK Government provided a five year funding stream to local authorities in England (excluding London) called the Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF). The LSTF funding creates an opportunity for people to change the way they travel, through the provision of new infrastructure and training. This research is designed to understand how the transport system influences creates this opportunity.
This thesis investigates an alternative approach to the existing dominant behaviour change paradigm of behavioural economic theory, favoured by the UK Government. The research examines using the potential benefits of applying the sociological method of Social Practice Theory (SPT). SPT is different to psychology-based approaches as it considers the ‘practice’ that is being undertaken, rather than focusing on the individual undertaking the action. The research explores Shove et al.’s (2012) 3-Elements model, an accessible representation of the complexities of SPT, to demonstrate whether the materials, meanings and competences that make up a social practice are reflected in the design of the sustainable transport bids for LSTF funding and, if not, how the bids could be improved by incorporating the SPT perspective. The research applies SPT in two ways. Firstly, an analysis was undertaken of LSTF bid documents to understand what elements of the practice(s) of travelling the proposed schemes were trying to alter. Secondly, it examines the practices of transport planning itself (in the context of the LSTF).
Through the development of the research it became evident that the 3-Elements model would not provide a sufficient explanation of the practices of transport planning. A new conceptual model was therefore created incorporating Fine and Leopold’s (1993, 2002) Systems of Provision (SOP) model to identify the structures, processes, agents and relationships that exist within the Transport Planning SOP (TPSOP) that influence how practices are performed and how this ultimately influences the practices of travelling.
The research has been developed from a critical realist perspective and constructs a narrative to explain what the 3-Elements and TPSOP conceptual models tell us about the transport planning sector and the practices of travel. As such does not seek an absolute truth as to the influences on the practices of travelling. The research uses a mixed methods approach to gathering data. This includes content analysis of all 145 LSTF bid submissions, a survey of the bid managers and semi-structured interviews with 23 transport professionals from across the TPSOP.
The analysis of the results from the data collection found that the meanings within transport planning of what is defined as a sustainable transport initiative come from national government and this meaning has a direct influence on the types of schemes that were bid for by Local Authorities (LAs). The findings also identified that the national government exerted its power through the provision of funding to LAs who met their vision of what is defined as a sustainable transport scheme.
Using the TPSOP conceptual model it was possible to demonstrate the importance of funding as a process, used to exert power. The research found that although the national government was able to exert this power through the delivery of sustainable transport initiatives, the use of funding only created the opportunity for change to occur, rather than creating change.
The thesis provides a contribution to knowledge by exploring the applicability of the 3-Elements model to understanding the practices of transport planning and how they ultimately influence how travelling is performed. For example if funding is provided for the construction new carriageways to enable people to drive private motor vehicles, then this is how the practices of travelling are likely to be performed. The 3-Elements model is therefore a more useful tool for use in the design stage of transport initiatives to ensure the meanings that the initiative will create are better understood and mitigated at an earlier stage of the process.
The research also demonstrated that the TPSOP model provided a means of describing the underlying mechanisms that exist within the complexes of practices, as defined by Shove et al. (2012). This is because the TPSOP model is able to highlight power relations and the processes used to control the system when attempting to create change.
In addition to these conclusions the research identified changes required within the TPSOP to improve the performance of sustainable transport initiatives. These include changing the type of funding supplied to LAs to deliver sustainable transport initiatives to include more consistent funding for revenue based schemes to provide marketing, training programmes and the subsidising of key public transport services. Alterations are also required to the evaluation process for transport schemes to place a far greater emphasis on social, environmental and health impacts of transport.


Williams, D. Social practice theory and sustainable mobility: An analysis of the English local transport planning as a system of provision. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date Jun 6, 2019
Keywords social practice theory, systems of provision, local transport, sustainable transport, local authority, behaviour change, practices, 3-elements
Public URL
Award Date Dec 7, 2014


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