Car use is associated with substantial health and environmental costs but research in deprived populations indicates that car access may also promote psychosocial well-being within car-oriented environments. This mixed-method (quantitative and qualitative) study examined this issue in a more affluent setting, investigating the socio-economic structure of car commuting in Cambridge, UK. Our analyses involved integrating self-reported questionnaire data from 1142 participants in the Commuting and Health in Cambridge study (collected in 2009) and in-depth interviews with 50 participants (collected 2009-2010). Even in Britain's leading 'cycling city', cars were a key resource in bridging the gap between individuals' desires and their circumstances. This applied both to long-term life goals such as home ownership and to shorter-term challenges such as illness. Yet car commuting was also subject to constraints, with rush hour traffic pushing drivers to start work earlier and with restrictions on, or charges for, workplace parking pushing drivers towards multimodal journeys (e.g. driving to a 'park-and-ride' site then walking). These patterns of car commuting were socio-economically structured in several ways. First, the gradient of housing costs made living near Cambridge more expensive, affecting who could 'afford' to cycle and perhaps making cycling the more salient local marker of Bourdieu's class distinction. Nevertheless, cars were generally affordable in this relatively affluent, highly-educated population, reducing the barrier which distance posed to labour-force participation. Finally, having the option of starting work early required flexible hours, a form of job control which in Britain is more common among higher occupational classes. Following a social model of disability, we conclude that socio-economic advantage can make car-oriented environments less disabling via both greater affluence and greater job control, and in ways manifested across the full socio-economic range. This suggests the importance of combining individual-level 'healthy travel' interventions with measures aimed at creating travel environments in which all social groups can pursue healthy and satisfying lives.
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