Applying the concept of wellbeing to the transport domain
Lessons and recommendations from a study of dutch national transport policy

07-09-2022 | Artikel

The concept of wellbeing (in Dutch: brede welvaart) is gaining momentum in many policy domains including the transport domain, both in the Netherlands and abroad. Wellbeing not only refers to more traditional welfare measures such as income or employment, but also includes aspects such as (access to) opportunities, health, safety, social connections, personal development and environmental quality. This study explores the concept of wellbeing in relation to the transport domain, and applied these insights to recent Dutch national transport policy schemes and national transport budgets.

Transport and wellbeing: four key aspects

Transport contributes to various aspects of wellbeing, by enabling people to reach key destinations and activities, and can contribute to their physical and mental health. However, transport can also negatively impact wellbeing, through traffic unsafety, noise and air emissions, and through environmental pollution and contributing to climate change. We identified four key aspects of wellbeing related to transport: access (e.g. to jobs, amenities, and social contacts), safety (traffic and social safety), health (both physical and mental) and physical environment (e.g. climate change, pollution). Some aspects of wellbeing are generally included in Dutch national transport policies, in particular those related to facilitating demand or reducing congestion and those related to emission or traffic safety constraints. However, incorporating wellbeing in transport policies would require full incorporation of both access to key opportunities, safety, health and environmental aspects.

Distribution of costs and benefits matters

Furthermore, we discuss and apply distributional principles to these aspects of well-being, based on three distinct ethical perspectives: utilitarianism (maximizing the utility for the largest group), egalitarianism (reducing differences between people) and sufficientarianism (a minimum level for everyone). While the utilitarian perspective dominates transport policies, we argue that this principle neglects how transport affects aspects of wellbeing for different groups of people. The egalitarian and sufficiency perspectives provide a better basis for wellbeing in the transport domain, as they explicitly shift the focus in transport policies to wellbeing of different groups.

Seven policy recommendations

We conclude that the concept of well-being has important consequences for transport policy, for which we elaborated seven policy recommendations:

  1. Well-being as basis for transport policy requires a wider view: It should include the full scope of the four aspects of access to key opportunities, safety, health and environment.
  2. Transport is a means to an end: not the travel itself or the transport system is pivotal, but the extent to which transport contributes to people’s well-being.
  3. Capabilities to utilise transport matter. Beyond mere physical access to transport, this includes the skills needed to use the transport system and the actual appropriation of transport supply.
  4. A wider scope increases options to improve well-being. Not every transport problem needs a transport solution and some transport issues may prove to be less relevant than other problems.
  5. Make explicit how you weigh up conflicting aspects of well-being, not all aspects of well-being related to transport can be served simultaneously.
  6. It matters which ethical principles are used. Currently, the utilitarian perspective dominates transport policies, while the egalitarian and sufficiency perspectives provide a better basis for well-being in the transport domain.
  7. New indicators and policy instruments are needed. ‘It matters what you measure’ (Stiglitz et al 2009).