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Still Feeling the Car – The Role of Comfort in

Sustaining Private Car Use

Jennifer L. Kent

To cite this article: Jennifer L. Kent (2015) Still Feeling the Car – The Role of Comfort in
Sustaining Private Car Use, Mobilities, 10:5, 726-747, DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2014.944400

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Published online: 09 Sep 2014.

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Mobilities, 2015
Vol. 10, No. 5, 726–747,

Still Feeling the Car – The Role of

Comfort in Sustaining Private Car Use

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Faculty of Science, Department of Environment and Geography, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW,

ABSTRACT In 2004, Mimi Sheller highlighted that emotions and sensations play a key part
in sustaining the dominant culture of automobility. Sheller’s work ‘Automotive Emotions’ has
been followed by a decade of technological, social and cultural developments, many of which
have enhanced the way we dwell in, and seek comfort from, the private car. Ten years on we
are still ‘feeling the car’. This paper draws on empirical research on the journey to work in
a large auto-dependent city. It explores the function of sensory experience in sustaining
automobility through contemporary impracticalities such as constraints on carbon and
increased congestion. A practice theory frame is used to unpick this role and feeling the car
is positioned as a subtle yet integral element cementing the practice of driving.

KEY WORDS: Automobility, Practice theory, Sydney, Affect

The endemic use of the private car, often referred to as automobility (Featherstone
2004), engenders scathing critique for its relationship with global physical, social
and ecological harms such as climate change (Banister 2011) and ‘epidemics’ of
lifestyle diseases including obesity (Florez Pregonero et al. 2012). As a result, auto-
mobility is regularly situated as a problem that needs urgent attention.
Ways to be physically mobile without the use of the private car are increasingly
promoted in multiple regulatory arenas to allay anxieties around automobility
(Docherty and Shaw 2008). Collectively labelled alternative transport, these substi-
tute modes include public transport (such as rail and bus transport) and active trans-
port (such as walking and cycling). Despite ongoing attempts at its promotion,
however, there remains resistance to alternative transport (Sheller 2012). In many
cities, mobility based on the private car continues to dominate as the preferred way
to satisfy requirements and desires to be mobile.
Popular preference for the private car is traditionally conceptualised as motivated by
rational and utilitarian factors, such as the desire to save time or increase reliability (for
e.g. Hensher 2004; Brownstone and Small 2005). More recently, focus has trended

Correspondence Address: Jennifer L. Kent, Faculty of Science, Department of Environment and Geography,
Macquarie University, NSW, 2109, Australia. Email:

© 2014 Taylor & Francis

Still Feeling the Car 727

towards the role of the psychological appeal of the automobile, with an emphasis on
the way the car fulfils various symbolic and emotional needs (e.g. Steg 2005; de Groot
and Steg 2007; Bergstad et al. 2011). The new mobilities literature has developed con-
current to these more conventional ways of understanding automobility’s endurance
(Cresswell 2006; Hannam, Sheller, and Urry 2006). This literature often positions the
car as instrumental to a socio-technical system, determining not only the way we travel
and the spaces in which we travel, but also ‘the formation of gendered subjectivities,
familial and social networks, spatially segregated neighbourhoods, national images and
aspirations to modernity and global relations ranging from transnational migration to
terrorism and oil wars’ (Sheller and Urry 2006, 209).
This paper treads the line between these existing conceptualisations of enduring
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car use. It has its focus on one particular aspect through which automobility is moul-
ded, shaped and governed. It revisits Sheller (2004) to centre the body as a site of
attachment to the private car and propose that the physical sensations associated with
being in, and in control of, the car, need to be considered in any challenge to its
ongoing authority. Empirical evidence on the journey to work in Australia’s largest
city, Sydney, is used to explore this proposal. As a low-density city characterised by
a dispersed geography of employment, Sydney’s 4.6 million residents are highly reli-
ant on the private car for day-to-day mobility (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011).
This reliance endures despite attempts to regulate and plan for the use of other
modes, and, in some cases, the availability of time competitive alternative transport
(New South Wales Bureau of Transport Statistics 2012). Accordingly, the study has
an intentional focus on those who continue to drive in the face of expedient alterna-
tives. This approach has enabled development of the multilayered understanding that
informs the central proposition that individual decisions to drive are, in part,
sustained by the private car’s appeal to the body.
As a way to conceptualise the place of feelings in sustaining private car use, this
paper applies theories of practice (Schatzki, Knorr Cetina, and von Savigny 2001;
Reckwitz 2002; Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012). Inspired by Thrift’s longstanding
concern with the ‘sensuousness of practice’ (Thrift 1996, 1 and also Thrift 2004), the
paper positions ‘feeling’ as an important element of the practice of being mobile. It
describes the way the positive sensuous experiences facilitated by the modern day
automobile contribute to popular preferences for car-driving. This approach provides a
way of thinking about mechanisms by which feeling the car has contributed to the rou-
tinisation and cementing of automobility in day-to-day ways of being in modern life.
The paper opens with an exploration of ‘feeling’. Drawing on psychological, cultural
and design research, the concept of feeling is moulded into a format suitable for use in a
practice theory framework. Empirical work derived from a series of in-depth interviews
with people who drive to work is then used to demonstrate the way feelings continue to
be associated with the private car in modern life. The paper progresses to employ
contemporary conceptualisations of social practice theory as a way to explore this asso-
ciation’s contribution to automobility’s endurance. It concludes with some reflections
on the implications of feeling the car for challenges to its ongoing hegemony.

On corporeal feeling
There is much to debate about how to conceptualise feeling and this paper cannot
hope to review this complex area of scholarship in any detail. There are, however, a
number of key concepts which need to be clarified.
728 J.L. Kent

First, while the terms feeling and emotion are sometimes used interchangeably in
the literature (see for e.g. Hochschild 1979), feeling in this paper is positioned as a
bodily sensation – for example, feeling hot, cold, tense or relaxed. Use of the term
feeling in this instance does not refer to an emotional response – such as feeling
empowered, free, constrained or angry. There is a fine line, and an obvious relation-
ship, between what it is for a body to feel and any emotion associated with that feel-
ing. The inevitably ever-changing mediation of this line is undoubtedly of interest to
an array of research on the endurance of automobility (see for e.g. Rhodes and Pivik
2011; Waitt and Harada 2012; Helander et al. 2013). This paper, however, purpose-
fully pursues a conceptualisation of feeling as exclusively corporeal in an effort to
explore in depth the power of the humble human quest for comfort in cementing pri-
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vate car use.

Second, in seeking to contextualise the role of feeling in the sustenance of any
kind of social practice, it is helpful to explore some of the theoretical frameworks
that suggest the way we feel is both biologically instinctual, as well as open to soci-
alisation. In her earlier explorations of the development of feeling rules, Hochschild
(1979) recognises that feelings cannot be extricated from the social structural dimen-
sions within which they occur (Thamm 2006). This recognition stems from the idea
that we cannot examine feelings ‘in abstracto’ (Hochschild 1979, 560), but instead
even sensory experience is interpreted by the individual within a cultural context.
Feelings are pleasurable or undesirable somewhere in between the bodily and social
world, with all of its discursive and symbolic meanings (Jensen 2011). Physiological
preferences are therefore ‘generated by collective cultural patterns’ (Sheller 2004,
223) with feelings sensed through embodiment yet regulated by cultural conventions
that determine various boundaries of sensory acceptability (Bendelow and Williams
While acknowledging that sensory experience is open to socialisation, this paper
seeks to emphasise that any practical expression of feeling is both socially
constructed and biologically predetermined. Feelings are culturally interpreted, yet
experienced in a profound and often exclusively corporeal way by the individual. It
is worth acknowledging, therefore, that many problematic practices plaguing the
modern world contain components of immediate sensory appeal. Daily showering
(Shove and Walker 2010), the use of air-conditioning (Strengers and Maller 2011),
indulgence in fastfood (Cummins and Macintyre 2006) and increasingly sedentary
lifestyles (Shibata et al. 2009) – have, in part, become routine practice because, in a
very visceral way, to feel clean, thermally comfortable, satiated and/or rested,
actually feels good.
In many modern societies, the collection of sensory experiences provided by the
private car has become the standard of comfort that is desirable when practising
mundane physical mobilities. The enclosed cocoon of the car is therefore now a
space where contemporary rules of feeling are both lived out and defined (Sheller
2007; Jensen 2009). Consideration of the way feeling the car interacts with some of
the other appealing elements of car-driving could therefore be helpful in understand-
ing its endurance. How, for example, is resistance to transport alternatives shaped by
the enjoyable sensory experiences provided by the private car? How do these sen-
sory experiences enable automobility to successfully compete against alternative
modes of mobility? How have the positive sensations associated with driving con-
tributed to the routinisation of driving as a practice? These questions position feeling
as an ‘element’, or a part of, a troublesome and routinely performed social practice.
Still Feeling the Car 729

Social practice theory provides an interesting way of thinking about routinely per-
formed activities as collective constructs of elements which coordinate to evolve as a
social practice. If corporeal experience is conceptualised as one of these elements,
practice theory can be used to explore the role of feeling in sustaining automobility.
The following section of this paper provides a review of practice theory to provide a
scaffold for the ensuing analysis of empirical data.

Feeling in practice
Theories of social practice have become increasingly popular in scholarship on
sustainability and have been used to explore ways of moving beyond automobility
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(Birtchnell 2012; Waitt and Harada 2012; Watson 2012). Whilst there remains debate
about the precise character of practice theory and its value (see Shove 2010), it is
relatively settled that a practice lens can shed considerable light onto the persistence
and fracturing of automobility (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012; Kent and Dowling
Practice theory especially critiques the view that behaviours are the result of an in-
dividualised and linear decision-making process (Urry 2012, 533). Instead, routine
human action is understood as a product of collective social practices influenced as
much by the environment as it is by personal preferences or processes of deliberation
(Hitchings 2011). Practices, rather than the individuals who carry them out or the
social structures that seemingly host them, become the core unit of analysis. For
example, in undertaking a study to understand why people take a morning walk, a
behaviouralist might focus on the attitudes of individuals to walking. A structuralist
might look at the role walking plays in reducing government healthcare costs and
how this affects support for its uptake. A practice theorist, however, would focus on
the actual day-to-day practice of walking. She would look at the elements of walk-
ing, including the skills (such as negotiating pathways), images (such as of freshness
and health) and materials, (such as shoes and a hat) involved in its practice. She
would explore the way the practice of walking connects with other seemingly
unrelated practices, such as the need to rise early to make time available for walking.
These connections would be explored for clues as to their role in shaping the
practice of the morning walk.
Practice theory views everyday tasks, like walking, as complex constructions of
interconnected and interdependent ‘elements’. These elements have been listed in
various formats throughout the literature. For example, for Shove, Pantzar, and
Watson (2012, 8) they are ‘competences’, ‘meanings’ and ‘materials’. Elements
combine to form a practice which cannot then be reduced to any one single item
(Reckwitz 2002). It becomes an entity which has an enduring existence that extends
beyond individual instances of action, the cumulative performance of which consti-
tute a pattern which becomes a practice sustained over time (Shove and Walker
2007; Birtchnell 2012).
The idea of using everyday practices, and the intersections between them, as the
location and locator of the social in social phenomena has been explored by many
social theorists, although these authors do not all use the term ‘practice theory’.
Bourdieu published his ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’ in 1977 (Bourdieu 1977),
while Foucault’s interest in regimes of practice and an emphasis on bodies, agency,
knowledge and understanding is also understood as praxeological (Dreyfus 1996).
Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the body and later on flesh in lived experience also
730 J.L. Kent

theorises practice (Merleau-Ponty 2008) and Thrift is explicitly interested in the ‘sen-
suousness of practice’ (Thrift 1996, 1). Distinctions are also often drawn between
actor network theory and practice theory, particularly for practice theory’s approach
to materials (see e.g. Thrift’s (1996) discussion of actor network theory, 23–27).
Practice theory explicitly recognises the role of things (objects, technologies,
non-humans) in the socialisation process.
More recently, practice theory has been formalised by German sociologist Andreas
Reckwitz (2002) and American social theorist Ted Schatzki (Schatzki 1996;
Schatzki, Knorr Cetina, and von Savigny 2001). It has subsequently been applied in
various ways to different agendas, including transition to more environmentally sus-
tainable ways of living. Hargreaves (2011), for example, compares the placement of
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the social in practice with the focus on the individual promoted by psycho-social the-
ories of behaviour change as applied to pro-environmental transitions in the work-
place. Shove (2003, 2010), Shove and Walker (2007, 2010), Pantzar and Shove
(2010), Maller, Horne, and Dalton (2011) and Spaargaren (2011) have also used
practice theory explicitly in examination of the uptake (or otherwise) of sustainable
practices including showering, ‘green’ home renovations and sustainable consump-
tion more generally. Hitchings has applied a practice approach to examine the way
different social and demographic groups use green space (2010), air conditioning
(2011) and heating (Hitchings and Day 2011). Related more specifically to mobility,
Watson (2012) combined practice theory with systems theory to analyse the uptake
of cycling.
Practice theory provides tools and perspectives which are potentially powerful
when applied to explorations of mobility behaviour. This is firstly because of the
way it explicitly recognises that individual everyday life practices are interconnected.
Practice theory is a theory of process – it seeks to explain by tracing the stream of
events through which a process unfolds (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012, 144).
The interconnectedness of people’s everyday practices is seen as just as influential as
more conventional structures of regimes and systems (Hargreaves 2011). Second,
everyday practices may also be reinforced through the relationships between differ-
ent elements of a practice (Shove and Pantzar 2005). Practice theory allows for a
conceptualisation of the way transport practices are dependent on the active integra-
tion of various elements (Watson 2012), such as skills, materials, meanings and feel-
ings. Exploring mobility requires an unravelling of these elements to look at the way
its practice may be both supported and discouraged by the complex orchestration of
the parts of a whole. Third, the practice approach to routine is useful in conceptuali-
sations of automobility’s endurance. In practice theory, the individual becomes the
agent of practices as he or she convenes and re-convenes to carry out a practice.
Practices are not merely sites from which to view the social, but are ‘ordering and
orchestrating entities in their own right’ (Shove and Walker 2010, 471). It is the
day-to-day practice of car driving and the way it bundles together and around other
routines that sustains automobility.
It is unfortunate that in practice theory’s aversion to the ‘undersocialized methodo-
logical individualism of the behavioural models’ (Hargreaves 2011, 82), subjective
experiences of practices are often avoided. Despite a call from Reckwitz to view the
‘individual [as] the unique crossing point of practices, of bodily-mental routines’
(2002, 256), the individual doing the practice is subtly neglected by practice theorists
as a space from which to glean insights into the relationships between practices and
other concepts such as identity and sensibility. Subsequently, the emotional and
Still Feeling the Car 731

sensory components of practices are as yet underexplored sites of fixity, despite the
possibility that these feelings sustain deeply entrenched ways of doing and being in
modern life, including automobility. The way we live and interact in practice can
sometimes be determined by what we feel – the ‘embodied dispositions’ structured
by, and structuring of, practice (Thrift 2001, 36). Feelings can reveal rich
understandings into what motivates practices, yet practice theory does not generally
consider sensory experience as anything but socialised. Elizabeth Shove’s now well-
known deconstruction of the practice of showering (Shove 2003; Shove and Walker
2007; Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012), for example, does not incorporate the idea
that showering is sustained because, in a very visceral and embodied way, feeling
clean feels good.
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The dialectical relationships that exist between sensibility and automobility have
been touched upon by the psycho-social literature on mobility behaviour seeking to
prove a predisposition to car supported sensations such as empowerment, self-
esteem, safety and superiority (such as Steg, Geurs, and Ras 2001 and Steg 2005).
However, there remains a need to explore the ways these supposed endogenous psy-
chological preferences are ‘generated by collective cultural patterns’ (Sheller 2004,
223). Once again, we are drawn to the idea that feelings are sensed through embodi-
ment, yet there are also regulated cultural conventions that determine the boundaries
of sensory acceptability (Bendelow and Williams 1998). Indeed, automobility sup-
ports a geography of sensibilities that are ‘seemingly instinctual yet clearly a cultural
achievement’ (Sheller 2004, 225). These individually experienced and culturally
moderated sensibilities are as central to understandings of the persistence of the car’s
hegemony as rational-instrumental and other approaches emphasising the car as
technically and politically cemented.
This idea has been explored in a raft of research on the way, for example, the
sound systems (Bull 2004), cocooned privacy (Hiscock et al. 2002) and ergonomics
of the car (Laurier and Dant 2012) are used. Yet there remains scope for more expli-
cit theorisation of how these sensibilities support enduring attachments to the car.
Inclusion of feeling as an element of practice enables practice theory to offer a way
to bridge the gaps between biological conceptualisations of car-supported sensibili-
ties, their technological facilitation and enculturation, and resultant routine expres-
sion in practice. A focus on practices enables explorations of the ways feelings are
‘elicited, invoked, regulated and managed’ through culturally influenced ‘expecta-
tions, patterns and anticipations’ (Sheller 2004, 226). And a more explicit consider-
ation of the role of feelings in sustaining or shifting practices might give clues as to
ways that problematic practices might be challenged.
An understanding of the role of the body in sustaining automobility requires
knowing how feelings and emotions interconnect with other elements of the practice
of driving a car and how the practice of driving is connected with other practices
such as parenting, working and socialising. There is a range of different means
through which a focus on feeling as an element of practice can illuminate the ways
sensibilities become socialised and practices such as automobility come to endure.
This paper uses empirical data to focus on three of these mechanisms. The first is
the way the sensory experience of the car interacts with other elements of driving.
The second is the way the sensory experience of driving as a routine practice is inex-
tricably bound with other, seemingly unrelated, practices, such as working in close
proximity to colleagues and interacting with family and friends. The final mechanism
732 J.L. Kent

is the way feeling the car becomes routinised and subsumed into the background of
practical experience.

The data presented here are a brief snap-shot of that gathered for a larger qualitative
project analysing resistance to transport alternatives to the private car (Kent 2013a,
2013b). The primary method used for data collection was a series of semi-structured
in-depth interviews. A particular emphasis was placed on the selection of participants
for interview. As established above, the car’s unrivalled speed, ability to cover dis-
tance and, by implication, time saving capacity is often identified as a barrier to
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alternative transport use. What if, however, people could travel using alternative
modes in the same amount of time as it takes them to drive? What then would be
the barriers to alternative transport? To answer this question, this study selected par-
ticipants who could travel to work using alternative transport modes in the same
amount of time as it currently takes them to drive by private car.
Finding participants who fit this very particular selection criterion required a
detailed and relatively manual analysis of a cohort of journeys to work. Recruitment
for this analysis was initiated in May 2011, when employees of three large private
companies in outer suburban Sydney, Australia, were invited to fill out a web-based
questionnaire. The questionnaire was designed to illicit the minimum information
about the respondent’s journey to work required to undertake a trip substitution anal-
ysis. This included trip mode, duration, time of departure, origin and trip chaining
behaviour. Respondents were advised that the questionnaire formed part of a larger
study and that they may be contacted at a later date to participate in a series of face-
to-face interviews.
After analysis of 119 journeys, 26 respondents were identified who could substi-
tute their current car journey to work with an alternative mode that would take less
than five minutes more than the time they perceive it takes them to do their existing
car journey. These 26 participants fit the key selection criterion for in-depth inter-
view and were sequentially contacted with an invitation to participate in the second
phase of the study.
In total 15 people participated in 30 interviews lasting between 55 and 70 min.
Some participant details are described below, with other details contained in Table 1.
All but two of the participants had a university degree of bachelor or higher. The
remaining two participants were technically trained as an administrator and computer
technician, respectively. The average household gross income for participants was
AU$106,000 per annum. This is slightly above the median household income for
greater Sydney which is AU$75,244 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011). All par-
ticipants worked full-time.
As per the method employed for purposive sampling, all participants consistently
travelled to work as a single occupant of a private vehicle. All participants either
owned outright or were in the process of paying off their own cars. All lived in
households where the number of licenced drivers matched the number of cars at
home. There was no pattern to the type or size of cars owned by each participant.
Some participants took obvious pride in their cars while others struggled even to
name their car’s make and model.
The alternative trips prescribed through the process of trip substitution analysis
were extremely variable. Again, some details are contained in Table 1. Three of the
Still Feeling the Car 733

Table 1. Selected participant characteristics.

Current commute Current commute Composition

Age time (minutes – distance (kilometres – of substituted
Participant* bracket Gender approximate) approximate) trip

Anthony 55–64 Male 25 8 Walk, Bus,

years Walk
Ben 18–34 Male 95 47.5 Cycle, Train,
years Walk
Chrissy 18–34 Female 55 14.6 Cycle, Train,
years Walk
Chris 35–54 Male 55 19.4 Cycle, Bus,
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years Walk
Daniel 18–34 Male 15 3.8 Cycle
Diane 35–54 Female 65 18.4 Cycle, Bus,
years Walk
Frederick 55–64 Male 65 21.8f Walk, Train,
years Walk
Harry 55–64 Male 45 15.6 Cycle, Train,
years Walk
Jackie 35–54 Female 55 20.3 Cycle, Bus,
years Walk
Larry 35–54 Male 85 31.3 Walk, Train,
years Bus, Walk
Leroy 35–54 Male 75 30.2 Cycle, Train,
years Walk
Melissa 18–34 Female 25 2.1 Walk
Megan 18–34 Female 65 36.7 Cycle, Train,
years Walk
Rebecca 18–34 Female 85 36 Cycle, Train,
years Bus, Walk
Steve 35–54 Male 15 4.5 Cycle
*Participant names have been changed.

participants lived close enough to access the workplace by a single-alternative mode.

This was usually by cycling although one participant lived close enough to walk to
work in the same time it currently takes to drive. Seven participants were able to
access their workplace by two mode changes. That is, they would walk or cycle to a
public transport mode and then walk from that mode of public transport to their
As each participant agreed to take part in the study, the trip that had been mapped
as his or her alternative trip was ‘ground truthed’ by the author. This entailed going
into the field and ‘doing’ the alternative trip at the same time of the day and week
anticipated for each participant. This process allowed the efficacy of the trip substitu-
tion method to be tested. In each case, it confirmed that the alternative trip would
indeed take a similar amount of time as each participant’s self-nominated car-based
journey. It also allowed the author as interviewer to speak knowingly about the alter-
native trip as it was introduced to each participant. For example, the topography of
the streets, the condition of the roads and footpaths, the location and design of the
734 J.L. Kent

bike parking, the exposed or otherwise design of the station platform, and the domi-
nant demographic of fellow travellers were all recorded during the ground truthing
process and could be described in some detail. Throughout this entire process of par-
ticipant selection, ground truthing and participant interview, a journal of reflective
memos was maintained which were subsequently incorporated into the data analysis
process described below.
Interviews were conducted by the author and were in-depth and semi-structured.
Participants were first asked to describe the way they drive to work, including
details on the specific route or routes they take. They were asked to talk about
the traffic en route, as well as the way they occupy their time in the car. The
interview progressed to ask participants to describe what they do at work, their
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home life and the structure of their typical day. They were also asked about their
aspirations in life and encouraged to speak without restriction and in detail about
the things that were important to them, exploring ideas they had about where
they’d like to be in the future, how they work towards these goals, as well as
their priorities, values and special interests. By opening with an interest in driv-
ing, progressing to frame this practice with details on other routines and insights
into each participant’s goals and values, a layered appreciation of the way the use
of the car for the journey to work is embedded in each participant’s lifestyle
could be developed.
The second interview was conducted between six days and two weeks after the
first. It was purposefully more structured. At the beginning of the second interview,
participants were asked about the type of car they drove, the age at which they’d
obtained their drivers’ licence and the basic travel patterns of their household. The
alternative trip developed from the trip substitution analysis previously described
was then outlined in detail. The participant’s reactions were subsequently explored.
Potential benefits and barriers relevant to the substitute trip were then discussed, both
entirely as perceived by the participant.
With permission from participants, interviews were recorded with a digital
voice recorder. Systematic coding of all data from interviews using the CAQDAS
(computer-aided qualitative data analysis software) program QSR NVivo 9 was
undertaken at the completion of each interview. Methods for coding the tran-
scripts involved constant comparative analysis of data against emergent themes
(Charmaz 2006). Data analysis began during the data collection phase, in an
effort to maintain the dialectic between theory and data consistent with a
grounded theory approach. A series of themes emerged through a process of
topic, initial, primary and axial coding (see Saldaña 2009). The themes tell vari-
ous stories of automobility as a barrier to the uptake of alternative transport.
Confirming a raft of existing literature on private car use, they cover ostensibly
utilitarian motives, including efficiency and autonomy, as well as appeals to nor-
mality. Many of these stories also contain descriptions of routinised and positive
sensory experiences provided by the car. From its provision of a cocoon of air-
conditioned comfort, to the way the vehicle negotiating traffic facilitates a body
that is in movement, participants in this study consistently affirmed that driving
and sitting in the car simply feels good. The following section expands on this
particular theme by exploring the way positive sensory experience is associated
with the routine practice of driving.
Still Feeling the Car 735

The car and sensory experience

Feeling action – the moving body
Study participants regularly expressed a yearning for their bodies to be on the move.
This yearning was articulated in many ways. For example, it was common to take
alternative routes to the workplace which may take just as long, if not longer, but
which are preferable because they avoid the threat of motion interrupted associated
with traffic congestion:

Diane: … there’s still traffic but it’s flowing traffic, as opposed to ‘stop’ – I hate
stopping in traffic. So it might take me a little bit longer … but you feel as
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though you’re doing better because you’re not stopped.

This sense of repugnance for the body interrupted has been recognised in the lit-
erature in the context of automobility (see Sheller 2004, 228) as well as in the con-
text of energy expenditure for active modes (Nixon 2012). It can be related to the
well-conceptualised relationship between automobility and freedom, in that car use
fulfils a yearning to move unimpeded (see for e.g. Fleiter, Lennon, and Watson
2010; Popov 2012), and is tied intrinsically to the fundamental role of power and
feelings of empowerment in sustaining automobility (Böhm et al. 2006; Paterson
2007; Merriman 2009; Jensen 2011). It also touches upon the notion of car-driving
as a place where the tactics of modern life are mastered and expressed (Laurier
The way this study’s participants emphasised the need for the body to be mov-
ing, however, was slightly nuanced. It was expressed as simply a need to be
moving, and not necessarily a need to be extrinsically empowered through move-
ment. Participants regularly insinuated that a body that is held up in some way is
a body that feels uncomfortable, whether that be a body waiting for a bus con-
nection, dressing for a bike commute or sitting amongst congested traffic. Urry
famously describes, however, the way the car driver, though moving, is relatively
physically motionless ‘once strapped into the driving seat’ (Urry 2008, 127,
emphasis in original). This is not, therefore, even actual bodily movement, as
much as it is the complex physical sensation that comes from a body that is car-
ried, yet remains in control of that carriage. For study participants, this positive
sensation of a moved body had been facilitated time after time by the private car,
affirming a routinised and automatic association of car driving with the satisfac-
tion of movement.

Feeling effortlessness – the body unburdened

Participants juxtaposed their yearning for movement against a desire for things to be
physically easy. Driving the car was often labelled the best way because it was per-
ceived to be the ‘easiest way’ (Chrissy), requiring less expenditure of physical
energy. If driving is the easiest way, alternative transport was very much positioned
as something that is physically difficult. An interesting example identified by some
study participants was the way that many types of alternative transport require the
body to carry various objects that would not otherwise need to be carried for a
commute by private car. This includes the helmet, clothes, bike, bike lock, towel and
toiletries associated with a bike ride to work.
736 J.L. Kent

Jennifer: So, what do you think stops you riding in more?

Dan: Probably the helmet to be honest, that’s a big barrier to riding more. The
helmet is just another thing, one more thing when I get to work to worry

Steve is also a keen cyclist and had a detailed appreciation of the things his body
would need to shoulder on the ride to work:

Jennifer: What stops you doing it [riding to work] more?

Steve: Just my schedule, things I have to do … plus it takes more effort to get
organised, carrying my bag, making sure I have a change of clothes, getting
my shoes and that sort of stuff, prepare, make sure I carry my towel [pause]
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that’s the painful part … so it’s just easier to drive from home. It’s only four
or five kilometres.

Ben works through the details of an alternative transport trip described to him.
The trip consisted of riding a bike to a train station and catching the train to work:

Ben: Yeah, I like the idea of it, but, [pause], I could just picture the logistics of
carrying the bike on the train, taking it up the stairs to the platform, carrying
it back up, that’d be a difficult part to it I think.

Active transport, including cycling, requires the expenditure of energy by defini-

tion – whether that be energy to actually mobilise the bike or, as described above,
less obvious energy expenditure, such as the physical effort required to handle the
objects associated with the ride. Indeed, personal energy expenditure is commonly
identified as one of the benefits of cycling for transport (see for e.g. Frank,
Andresen, and Schmid 2004; Wen and Rissel 2008). Dan, Steve and Ben described
how a particular element of personal energy expenditure is an uncomfortable sensory
experience – that is, the need to carry and negotiate various objects. They indicate
that this requirement acts as a barrier to the uptake of a bike-based commute because
‘it’s just easier to drive from home’. In short, a cycling trip necessitates the expendi-
ture of physical energy and endurance of physical hardships that can be avoided by
a commute by car.

Feeling comfortable – the relaxed and secluded body

The way the car is associated with comfort and the maintenance of personal space
often surfaces in literature on its appeal (for e.g. Hiscock et al. 2002; Ibrahim 2003;
Petkewich 2005; Basmajian 2010). Participants confirmed this research and listed an
array of sensory assaults associated with the use of alternative transport. To travel
without the car is to endure a sense of close proximity to strangers, to be with people
you would not normally choose to be with, to be out in the weather, to have to climb
over people and be ‘squashed together’ (Ben). Many participants made direct com-
parisons of the way they feel in the car to previous times in their lives when they’ve
used alternative transport:

Larry: When I was going into the city there were a lot of times when I caught pub-
lic transport. But then there were a lot of times when the trains were
crowded, the weather was crappy, there were just days when you think
‘nah, I don’t want to do this’. Sitting in the car, I rarely get that feeling.
Still Feeling the Car 737

Jackie: Pre-children days, when I was single, I was the public transport queen but
then I just remember that it wasn’t comfortable. I remember having to stand
up and there were always hot and sweaty people. But when you’re in the
car you have the aircon, you can listen to the radio, it’s just a lot more com-
Harry: It’s more comfortable in the car, especially in winter, if there’s a southerly
blowing, I like sitting in the car, even in summer. Because I have caught
public transport and it gets sweaty in summer and there’s people knocking
you around when it’s busy.
Chrissy: It’s [public transport] inconvenient, and the comfort – if it’s hot and you’re
sweating or it’s raining so you get wet, or [pause], it’s just not comfortable.

Participants gave quite detailed descriptions of feeling comfortable in their cars. The
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way people set themselves up in the car, and the way they use the car as an exclusively
private space is linked to this appreciation. This confirms existing research from vari-
ous fields which attributes the appeal of the car, in part, to the way it provides a time
and a space for performance of various activities. At a very utilitarian level is research
describing the way people use their travel time in the car productively. Jain and Lyons
(2008), for example specifically conceptualised travel time as a gift instead of a bur-
den and Bull (2004) also describes the way the car offers ‘temporary respite from the
demands of the other’ (249) – a respite which is only enhanced through personalisa-
tion of sound within the cocoon of the car. Other relevant studies include Laurier
(2004), Laurier et al. (2008) and Laurier and Dant (2012), as well as the prolific works
of Patricia Mokhtarian and colleagues who have explored and modelled the way peo-
ple use travel time (see Mokhtarian, Salomon, and Redmond 2001; Mokhtarian and
Salomon 2001; Redmond and Mokhtarian 2001; Mokhtarian and Chen 2004).
Of relevance to this study are the various embodied consequences of being able to
use the car as a comfortable and private space. How does this make people feel and
how does this then contribute to the appeal of the private car? Participants described
using their cars for many different activities, many of which require the physical sep-
aration provided by the car. Cars are ‘listening rooms’ (Larry), a place to talk to the
kids (Jackie), listen to audio books, music and university lectures (Chris), a place to
call parents (Diane) and catch up with friends (Chrissy), a place to connect to the
world through talk-back radio (Anthony), as well as a place to chill out, relax and
de-stress after work (Ben). When asked directly whether the phone calls and other
activities undertaken in the car could be performed on public transport the answer
was generally negative. Many participants indicated that the conversations they have
are private and others wondered whether they would be able to hear properly in a
packed train. Larry cited the idea that the acoustics in the car were far superior to
those on headphones and therefore better for listening to music. Others mentioned
that they often felt travel sick when reading on public transport while some had an
aversion to the use of headphones, finding them physically uncomfortable.
The car is therefore explicitly perceived and felt as a very personal and private
space. It is a place where the body is shielded from others, and from the biophysical
environment. It is subsequently a place that can be used to do things which would
not otherwise be possible in modern lives characterised by rush and publicness. For
participants in this study, this sensory experience of an isolated, protected and com-
fortable body was a strongly appreciated aspect of automobility. Sitting in the car
was described as enjoyable, to the extent that it was often elevated to the status of
being a primary motivation for the drive to work:
738 J.L. Kent

Anthony: … you know, I enjoy it. I don’t mind sitting in the car. Actually, I like
sitting in the car and yeah, that’s my primary motivation [to drive to work].
Frederick: … in terms of viability, it [alternative transport] would get me to work. But
in terms of comfort, I really prefer the car. I am being selfish because I am
in my car and on my own … In life, we have so many stressful situations.
And it is not stressful for me to drive. It feels good, just sitting there,

This section of the paper has provided a very brief snapshot of data collected from a
group of regular car commuters whose decision to drive was not particularly related
to utilitarian factors, particularly the need to save time. It has described some specific
examples of the various ways car use is associated with positive bodily sensations.
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Taking from the description of practice theory and feeling as an ‘element’ of practice
outlined above, the following section proposes a series of ways these positive bodily
associations contribute to automobility’s endurance.

Automobility’s fixity: distilled to a practice

Automobility as Practice: On the integration of elements
Practice theory views everyday tasks, such as driving to work, as complex intercon-
nections of elements. Reiterating Shove et al.’s (2012, 24) ‘streamlined approach’,
these elements can be viewed as ‘Meanings’, ‘Materials’ and ‘Competences’ (Shove,
Pantzar, and Watson 2012, 14). Attention to these interconnections between elements
can reveal clues as to why a practice endures. By examining the way sensory experi-
ence (as an element) interacts with the other elements that assemble automobility, a
series of sites of fixity are exposed. This study’s participants revealed a number of
ways their feeling the car combines with other integral elements to the practice of
driving to make automobility ‘stick’. The following section provides two examples
of these combinations.

Materials and feelings: shifting energies and feeling tired

Participants spoke of alternative mobility as ‘just one more thing’ – an additional
burden on lives already filled with the stress of modern life. They expressed desires
to take the ‘easiest way’, avoiding the physicality of riding a bike, the corporeal
interruption of changing transport modes or the need to be weighed down by a back-
pack filled with towels, toiletries and a change of clothes. This indicates a very sub-
jective and embodied desire to avoid any unnecessary expenditure of physical
In expressing this aversion, study participants are demonstrating the way the rela-
tionship between the material objects and bodily sensations involved in the practice
of mobility can create resistance to alternative transport. One less obvious ‘object’
implicated is energy in its material form. The practice of alternative transport often
requires substitution of the material energy that currently powers the car (e.g. the
object of petroleum) with the material energy that powers the cognitive and physical
processes of the body (e.g. the objects that might be associated with a good night’s
sleep). For people accustomed to automobility, this tension between types of material
energies forms a barrier to the uptake of alternative transport. There is an aversion to
the expenditure of bodily energy and subsequent acceptance of reliance on other
Still Feeling the Car 739

forms of material energy to power mobility. This is an aversion that is biologically

influenced. It is born out of an innate and very human desire to rest and nurture the
body. Yet it is also culturally inculcated, in that self-nurture through the conservation
of bodily energy while being mobile is considered a culturally acceptable trade for
the problems associated with fossil fuel use. Resistance to alternative transport is
therefore, in part, an attempt to negotiate energy expenditure and maintain a body
that feels at ease and rested rather than a body that is tired and burdened. Feelings
here are inculcated in the way material energy is expended, binding the body to con-
serve its own energy stores in favour of the expenditure of those sourced from the
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Meanings and feelings: the meaning of automobility-related sensation

Many of the sensory experiences associated with automobility are linked to what it
means to be automobile in modern life. For participants in this study, the feelings
associated with driving to work and what it means to drive to work combined to
form particularly robust barriers to transition away from private car use. How do the
feelings associated with automobility relate to the meanings inherent to its practice?
As outlined above, participants echoed the results of previous research demonstrat-
ing a strong appreciation for the car as a comfortable place to be. They spoke in
depth about the positive feelings associated with the airconditioning, personal space
and acoustics of the car. The beginning of this paper discussed the way this appeal
has been positioned as a ‘seemingly “instinctual” disposition’ (Sheller 2004, 227)
towards the object of the car. The way this sensory experience can be both biologi-
cally and culturally constructed was examined. Existing literature that uses this inter-
play between culture and feeling to explain the naturalisation of car driving as a
human desire was explored. Practice theory enables conceptualisation of the inter-
play between cultural meanings and bodily dispositions associated with the car as
the intermingling of elements of practice. Being in the car feels good. Yet what does
it mean in modern life for people to feel good?
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman concludes his Letters from the Liquid Modern
World with the assertion that striving to maintain high self-regard is an inevitable
aspect of human existence (Bauman 2010, 182–184). Perhaps Bauman under-esti-
mates the cultural construction of the need to value the self, or at least the way this
ambition is played out in modern life. It is no accident that many of the cultures
characterised by private car-based automobility are also those which foreground indi-
vidual interests and promote the maintenance of an independent identity that is free
from others, ‘autonomous, unique, and focused on the maintenance of high self-
esteem and the pursuit of its own goals’ (Boiger and Mesquita 2012, 225). For some,
car comforts are experienced as a logical way to nurture the self. The avoidance of
the feeling of discomfort is a practice of self-care which maintains a sense of self-
pride and appeals to culturally inculcated desires for freedom and security. Driving
the car, avoiding the rain and hot weather, the sweaty people on the train, the danger
of riding a bike and the inconvenience of waiting, are all practices of self-nurture –
they have become what it means in modern life to look after oneself.
The very embodied elements associated with mobility, such as the sensory experi-
ences of heat, sweat and confinement, are combining and, in part, defining, the ele-
ment of what it means to drive a car to work. Participants in this study viewed
automobility, and the comforts and securities it provides, as a right. They regularly
740 J.L. Kent

expressed through practice the belief that to travel by car is a very basic part of mod-
ern society that should not be compromised. The idea of a culturally constructed,
politically played and economically reinforced right to automobility has been
explored in detail in previous literature (Paterson 2007; Jensen 2011). The contribu-
tion here is refinement of a particular element of automobility’s ensemble which has
become an acutely robust expression of this sense of self-entitlement. In this case,
the sensory experiences provided by the car are now loaded with meanings such as
entitlement which have become cemented by the system of automobility.
The discussion above has used two examples of the way feeling combines with
other elements of the practice of driving to feed its endurance. It was shown how
automobility is reinforced by the way material energy combines with feeling tired
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and the way feeling comfortable and normal combines with meanings of self-protec-
tion and entitlement.
Of course, feeling as one particular element of the practice of driving cannot be
prioritised. Other elements, such as the skills and materials involved in private car
use, also ensure its endurance. An example is the development of increasingly
sophisticated technologies that make the acquisition of the skills required to drive a
surprisingly simple process (Laurier and Dant 2012). The point is that the practice of
driving depends on a series of combinations of elements, and that these combina-
tions include sensory experiences. As automobility has evolved to heighten the sen-
sory experience of driving, these elements, and the relationships between them, have
shifted to endow car driving with the hegemony it now enjoys in many cities around
the world.

Automobility as practice: feeling the car shapes automobility in the context of other
Practices of mobility are particularly linked to other practices, often in complex co-
and inter-dependent ways (Watson 2012; Jensen, Sheller, and Wind 2014). The prac-
tice of driving a car to work is clearly related to a wide range of other practices,
from those of transport planning and road building, to those related to working, visit-
ing, parenting and consuming.
Practice theory enables conceptualisation of the way the feelings convened as an
element of one practice might be bundled into, and compare with, other practices
and their constituent elements. For example, for some people, sitting in the
ergonomic comfort of the car, feels ‘better’ when compared to the sensation of sup-
porting one’s own weight while standing on a train. This favourable comparison of
car stimulated over train stimulated sensory affect contributes to preferences for auto-
mobility. Consideration of the way the feelings experienced in one practice compare
with those experienced in other practices can therefore also be used to shed light on
the way one practice endures over another. Two of these relationships are discussed
below – the way positive sensations experienced in the car compensate sensory defi-
cits in other areas of life and enable the car to successfully compete with alternative
transport modes.

Study participants revealed a number of ways the sensory experience of the car
enables the practice of driving to work to compensate sensory shortfalls, or
Still Feeling the Car 741

experiences of discomforts, associated with other practices. The comfort of the

cocoon of the car is regularly positioned as a relief from the stresses associated with
modern life (Hiscock et al. 2002; Mann and Abraham 2006; Jain and Lyons 2008).
Car driving provides both spatial and temporal privacy – a partition between the self
and ‘the gaze of the outside world’ (Brown 2000, 63). This privacy is experienced in
modern lives that are often besieged by prolific surveillance (Luhmann 1998; Ellis,
2013). Our affinity with observation has thrived on technologies that can now not
only monitor sound and place but also movement (Koskela 2000; Klauser 2013).
Workplace surveillance provides a good illustration of the erosion of privacy in
day-to-day life. In the year 2000, Professor of Management, William Brown, wrote
on the arrival of constant surveillance in the workplace, describing the new ways
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employees’ phone calls, e-mails, timesheets and movements are increasingly tracked
by the ever vigilant employer (Brown 2000). Surveillance technologies have devel-
oped rapidly since Brown’s article and these developments have further eroded
employee privacy in the workplace. Indicative of this erosion is the increasing popu-
larity of a workplace layout based on ‘hot-desking’ – office organisation systems
which involve multiple workers using a single physical work station at different
times (Millward, Haslam, and Postmes 2007). There are varying degrees of the
removal of privacy at work, with the relatively novel concept of ‘hot-desking’ at the
extreme end of the spectrum. Overall, it seems that privacy, in the immediate work
environment is increasingly considered dispensable, a sentiment reproduced in other
domains of modern life. Many car dependent cities, for example, are pursuing poli-
cies of urban consolidation, ironically in an attempt to encourage the use of alterna-
tive transport modes. Increased residential density, however, often results in reduced
privacy. An unintended consequence of increased density, therefore, is that it poten-
tially heightens appreciation for other spaces that present opportunities to retreat
from the social gaze.
Participants in this study concurred with existing research in this area (such as
Mann and Abraham 2006) to describe the car as such a place. It is a place for ‘me
time’, a place to be oneself, to ‘zone out’, a place to own, and a place where they
are not forced to interact. In this sense, the feeling of privacy supported by the space
of the car, increasingly enhanced by technologies of personalisation (Cohen 2012),
compensates experiences of surveillance in other areas of life, such as in open plan
offices and higher density housing. And removal of this car-sponsored sensation of
retreat takes on new significance when the car is conceptualised as one of the last
bastions of private space in the modern world. The way privacy is felt through the
practice of driving to work compensates for the privacy eroded from other day-to-
day practices, providing a relatively obvious yet complex foothold for the endurance
of automobility.

The positive feelings provided by the car assist car driving to successfully compete
with other practices for time, energy and space. This includes practices of alternative
mobility. For some people, feeling the car elevates the driving experience when com-
pared to the feelings ‘endured’ on crowded trains and cycle routes. The car competes
with alternative transport modes for their time and energy, and for participants in this
study, it is victorious in part because it provides a superior sensory experience. Feel-
ing the car, however, also enables automobility to be prioritised over other practices
742 J.L. Kent

where self-nurture and empowerment are demanded or are the desired end. The feel-
ing of privacy and relief experienced in the car competes with, and may replace, the
practice of relaxation in other areas of life. As an example, participants cite using the
privacy of the car to listen and relax to music which they otherwise might not have
had the opportunity to experience (see e.g. Larry’s use of the car as a ‘listening
room’ above).
Sensory experiences provided by the car therefore can enhance car driving’s
ability to compete with an array of other practices. This is a conceptualisation of
automobility’s endurance as the car, bolstered by its sensory charm, ‘winning’ the
day-to-day tournament of practices that compete for a practitioner’s time, space and
energy. The decision to drive, however, is not one that is made from day to day. It is
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a practice in part because it is a routine, performed by a cohort of loyal practitioners

on a regular basis. The next section addresses the way feeling the car contributes to
its routinisation.

Automobility as practice: on the routinisation of driving

Practices consist of a multitude of elements which convene in a recurrent way to
figure as an ‘entity which can be spoken about’ (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012,
7, emphasis in original). Practice theory therefore allows for explorations of the ways
feelings become routinised and how ‘feeling rules’ (Hochschild 2003, 82) might be
established through repeated collective performances.
A large body of research demonstrates the way that car use is strongly attached to
habit (Domarchi, Tudela, and Gonzalez 2008; Thøgersen 2009; Chen and Chao
2011). This study’s participants affirmed existing research examining the car and
driving as simply a routine. From a practice perspective, automobility can be concep-
tualised more as a collective pattern performed, rather than an individual habit per se
(Reckwitz 2002). This subsequently ritualises driving’s sensory experiences. Recur-
rent encounters with the car’s climate control, for example, establish expectations of
‘how much’ control over climate is acceptable when being mobile in modern life.
The collective orchestration of the journey to work supports frequently felt sensory
movement. And the repeat performance of driving to work positions the positive feel-
ings experienced in the car within the realm of dailiness. This acts to cement both
automobility and the associated feelings it generates. The fact that driving is a recur-
rent practice has reinforced the appeal of car comforts, such that they are now an
expectation rather than an extravagance. Feeling the car, reinforced through collective,
every day performance, therefore contributes to automobility’s self-perpetuation and
ultimate endurance.

This paper opened with the proposal that automobility is, in part, sustained through
contemporary impracticalities as a result of the private car’s appeal to the body.
Drawing on empirical research on the journey to work in a large auto-dependent city,
the role of sensory experience as both individually felt and culturally constructed
was explored. Practice theory was applied as a way to examine this role in the con-
text of ongoing allegiances to the private car. It was shown how driving to work can
be construed as a practice filled out by a variety of elements which include the way
the car is felt by the body. Relationships between sensory experience and other
Still Feeling the Car 743

elements, such as what it means to drive and the material energy implicated in being
mobile, were unpicked. Finally, the way feeling the car shapes the relationships driv-
ing inevitably encounters with other practices, and its routine, recurrent performance,
were used to clear space for the integration of sensory experience into considerations
of automobility’s endurance.
This is an exploration of one way by which automobility is reproduced rather than
an attempt to provide solutions to its antagonisms. Nevertheless, the paper concludes
with a note on the implications of feeling the car on automobility’ ascendance into a
carbon-constrained and congested future. The findings of this research suggest a
need to look beyond automobility as either structured by external systems and infra-
structures or as a product of individual choices and behaviours. Instead, the endur-
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ance of the car can be examined as a practice resulting from the interplay between
systems and individual agents where elements, including feelings, provide the build-
ing blocks of practice. For many people in automobile cities, the prospect of travel-
ling by any mode other than the private car challenges a series of deeply embedded
notions. These include long held cultural beliefs that one has the right to be as com-
fortable as one can afford to be. To foster transition away from private car based
automobility, we need to understand what it would mean for people to do this. What
does it mean for an individual to knowingly subject themselves to a state of physical
discomfort that is incongruent with their expectations? The solution inevitably
requires a degree of coercion; however, this paper suggests that this coercion needs
to be administered in the context of a society that remains physically attached to the
private car.

Disclosure statement
The author declares no actual or potential conflict of interest in preparation of this

The author is indebted to the useful comments of two anonymous reviewers as well as
Professor Robyn Dowling who provided helpful guidance in the initial preparation of
this manuscript.

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