Customer experience and the family perspective on modal choice and car ownership

The decision to stop using a privately-owned car is not one to be taken lightly – especially when the user has a family to consider and support. In this article, Francesca Ciuffini, Head of Infrastructure Marketing and Integrated Services Development at Rete Ferroviaria Italiana, argues the need to consider the mobility needs of an entire household rather than just individuals in order to affect change in modal choice and car ownership.

Customer experience and the family perspective on modal choice and car ownership

Thinking of getting rid of your private car? My family did, and what follows are some of my personal ‘customer experiences’ as a walker, bike rider and public transport user, including the steps towards being a car-free family, and how to reduce car dependency in our towns and cities – tempered with the awareness that in many cases this is still an absolute privilege.

As a transport planner and researcher, I propose a family perspective in the analysis of modal and car ownership choices. These choices are not individual but strongly connected to the family condition, and life general decisions therein. For example, modal choice can depend on:

  • The specific urban context in which the family has decided to live, or can afford to live: downtown or outskirt, in dense, scattered or rural areas, close to nodes of public transit or not
  • The extent the family’s usual destinations are spread out (e.g. workplaces, schools, possible post-school and post-work activities, relatives, friends) and how far they are from home
  • The family’s income and consequent ability to own and maintain a car
  • The family members’ ages
  • Sensitivity to sustainability issues or, conversely, an unconditional reliance on privately-owned car utilisation
  • The pull of new lifestyles or, conversely, a more traditional attitude
  • The family’s general mobility education.

With these considerations in mind, I propose a conceptual model, “The Family Split”, which identifies four types – or clusters – of families that cross car ownership and usage with the freedom to choose. The aim is to develop a tool and an approach:

  • To identify the possible inclinations of different family clusters towards modal choices
  • To frame, according to these clusters, targets, actions and expected outcomes of planning and policy making that have the potential to reduce car dependency.

Focusing on families’ modal choice issues and the possible factors affecting their choices, this article is a contribution to the customer centric approaches that transport providers must adopt, moving first from the knowledge and framing of customer needs to better identify and target planning and policy actions, to more general policy goals of environmental and social sustainability.

How my family and I stopped owning a car

We live in Rome, so such a choice may appear odd. As a matter of fact, living without a car is still far away from easy where we live, especially for those living on the outskirts or in areas without high-density public transport.

Actions to reduce car dependency should altogether lead to reduced car use (that means fewer cars moving on the streets) as well as reduced car ownership (fewer cars left in parking lots)

We didn’t definitively decide to never drive again, but we also did not want to spend time in traffic, so we have tried to structure our lives around choices that are in reachable proximity to our regular activities (e.g. school, post-school, post-work), enabling us to walk, ride bikes or use public transit for our commutes. For the same reason, we opted to rent rather than own a house (contrary to 80 per cent of other Italians) because the latter option would have meant moving to the city’s outskirts to find something affordable. This would have placed us too far from our jobs and potentially in a location not as well served by public transit as our current neighbourhood is.

With these arrangements in place, our car was eventually used only a few times a year, mostly for evening and leisure displacements during holidays or weekends or to carry heavy loads, as when leaving for camping. When shared mobility options began to be introduced in our town, our car became unnecessary – perhaps even a burden at times – and we decided to give up on even its residual use. With the enormous cost savings that came from being car free, we were able to consider an additional basket of possible modes, for example taxis and ride-hailing services, or car renting for occasional or leisure displacements in instances where these journeys are not possible (or are too complicated or unattractive) via rail and public transit.

We were able to get rid of our car because of our choices and lifestyle, but the ability to make the decision to give up privately-owned cars should be fostered by strong urban multimodal planning and policy making working in tandem with urban and land planning. This should not only apply to urban and suburban areas, but also to outskirts, aligning transport planning with land use decisions and vice-versa. Too many people are still bound to car use, with privately-owned cars their only option, regardless of family organisation and other possible arrangements.

The Family Split

The question is how to connect modal choice and the potential to ditch a privately-owned car to a family’s specific set of circumstances, for example, the transport options open to them and where they live. The idea is to cross car ownership and usage with the freedom to choose, identifying four possible family clusters.

Car split

Figure 1

Cluster 1 – Car Free Families

For the first cluster, being car free is a choice, generally due to external factors as well as family inclinations. These families must have a high level of services and urban functions available to them, as well as high accessibility offered by the multimodal transport system in the area in which the family lives. Cluster 1 also has the ability to walk or ride, no bias towards using public transit or even an appreciation of being “chauffeured” by it, rather than being exposed to the difficulties of self-driving.

Car-free living is becoming a new trend in cities with excellent public transport, and also among younger generations who prefer sharing to ownership and like having more free time as opposed to status symbols

Children of car-free families become more used to walking and usually develop a better sense of direction as a result. Being more used to public transport, they can grow up to be more autonomous, as they won’t have to rely on their parents for lifts, wait for a driver’s licence or become reliant on a car.

Cluster 2 – Carless Families

Conversely, for the second cluster, the absence of a family car is not a choice but mainly because of economic reasons. Age is another possible explanation, when elderly people are no longer able to drive, or no longer feel confident on the road. When they need to get from A to B, the only options for this family cluster are walking, cycling or using public transit – even if the transport services are low quality or low frequency. If reliable transport services are missing, the possible range of that the family can travel is limited.

The difference between being car free and carless is down to semantics: one is a release from a burden, while the other is the deprivation of something that is needed. For each of these two clusters, the modal choice excludes privately-owned cars and the family’s modal split will be reasonably varied (with different possible proportions of walking, riding, and existing options within the multimodal system), according to the relative attractiveness of these options towards specific demand features as: the distance of different destinations, the frequency and repetitiveness of the journeys, their reason (e.g. work, leisure), the time of the day, the day of the week, the weather and so on.

At the cross section of the first and second cluster are families that don’t own a car for economical needs, but also don’t suffer in its absence, with their transport system being adequate and attractive for them to make their necessary journeys. We can call this cross section ‘Happy Without’.

Cluster 3 – Car Captive Families

Third cluster families need to use their own car due the absence of alternatives. This can occur when the family house is far away from urban functions or service centres (so motorised journeys are needed) but also far away from any kind of transport (so a private car is needed). This is the situation found in many rural, low-density areas, as well as in some dense urbanisations connected only by roads (Gilet Jaunes fit into this cluster). These types of areas can exist for a number of reasons, such as depopulation, scattered settling models and poor urban design (not connected to transport planning), but also because of family location choices and the possibilities offered (at least on paper) by privately-owned cars.

This is a social sustainability issue in many areas because of the exclusion of people from services and social life

In families like this, children and teenagers are usually chauffeured by their parents until they are older enough to get their own driver’s licence and cars or mopeds.

At the overlapping of the second and third clusters, we have the “Immobility Paradox”, where families who cannot afford a car live in a car dependent area and are excluded from mobility access.

This is a social sustainability issue in many areas because of the exclusion of people from services and social life – an issue that is deepened by depopulation of more rural areas and aging in general. A lack of access to mobility in this scenario may mean – not only in extreme cases such as in poor rural areas in some of the southern hemisphere – no access to work, health, education and other common services.

Cluster 4 – Families with free modal choice

The final cluster represents families whose modal choice is completely unrestricted: no constraints from either not owning a car or from living disconnected from the multimodal transport system. All options are open, except for those with a bias against shared transports modes, whose rejection of public transit almost acts as a physical constraint to using anything other than a car. For this reason, they overlap with the captive car users in the third cluster.

Depending on the ‘motorisation index’ of the family (e.g. how many cars they own), as well as their individual inclinations, we find in this cluster an analogue split as seen for families:

  • Those without their own car, or who have a car being used by relatives
  • Those forced to use a car – not because of their trip origin, but because their destination lays too far from the transport network
  • Those that need to make multi-purpose journeys that are difficult or impossible without a car, for example for business, professional needs or family care and commissions
  • Those who decided to give up on their car and reduce the number of family cars because of the attractiveness of alternative transport services
  • Those able to have a car at their disposal but without being constrained to using it.

Exclusion from mobility, at the overlapping of second and third cluster, may only include individual members of the family – stay-at-home parents, for example, in instances where a household’s only car is used by the “breadwinner” and the family’s house is out of reach from the transport network.

For these people, having different options at their disposal, the modal choice will depend on the kind of trip they’re taking and the relative competitiveness of different modal options as seen for the first two clusters, but with one additional option: their own car.

The difference between being car free and carless is down to semantics: one is a release from a burden, while the other is the deprivation of something that is needed

The factors that can influence such a choice generally relate to spatial and time accessibility, speed and reliability of the transport services, price, and quality factors such as comfort, space at their disposal and cleanliness. Safety and security can also impact modal choice, and in many cases are a precondition.

Coming back to the family as a whole and looking at the overlapping fourth and first clusters, we have families that are very infrequent users of cars, though still owners of them. They prefer walking or biking for typical journeys to destinations not far from their house, and use public transport for longer journeys, finding it is more convenient and time saving, and also relieves them of the burden of parking. They also appreciate the option of being able to read or work on their laptop, or even just to relax and look out of the window, rather than have to concentrate on driving and congestion. The car is there for residual use, but getting rid of it can be always considered. They are car free in their mind (which is why they overlap) but they still must make “the jump”.

Using the Family Split analysis to frame possible actions

The possible virtuous paths are indicated by arch arrows on the Family Split diagram (Figure 1). 

Different actions in transport, urban planning and policy making can be seen as generators of shifts from one cluster to another, and can be better targeted in terms of the expected effects on the various family clusters. 

Action to improve the attractiveness of the public transport network (e.g. rail, metros, tramways, people movers, buses, on-demand systems), encourage multimodality and foster cyclo-pedestrian mobility (e.g dedicated cycling routes, 30 km/h zones, free curbs and streets for walking, bike-sharing), and car-pooling can aid families in transitioning from the second to first cluster, and from the third to the fourth to reduce the number of families that suffer immobility.

public transport options

“Action to improve the attractiveness of the public transport network (e.g. rail, metros, tramways, people movers, buses, on-demand systems), encourage multimodality and foster cyclo-pedestrian mobility.”

In these last two cases, it is pivotal – for the sake of inclusion and social sustainability – to match transport planning with city and land planning in order to:

  • Avoid dense conurbations that are too far from the main axes of public transport
  • Rebalance malls with retail commerce and smaller shops
  • Provide service centres in low-density areas that can potentially be reached by a node of rail or bus axes, and connected by on-demand systems or ride-hail services (exploring demand subsidy possibilities in the latter case)
  • Enable online purchases and the delivery of goods to such centres.

Community fares, integrated ticketing and pricing policies – such as discounts for travelling families – can be considered among the actions to drive change in the family clusters. 

Better access to information about the multimodal system (e.g. lines, schedules, fares, accessibility) can lead to an increasing number of families changing their travel behaviour thanks to better awareness of the options that exist for them. A digital platform can pull together all of this information and improve the traveller’s knowledge and ease of use through the multimodal chain.

Within the fourth cluster, the same actions can drive the modal shift of individual family members and lead to reduced car use.

Actions for improving car-sharing (autonomous in the future) and ride-hail services as complementary to last-mile integration, as well as for occasional and spread-out journeys, can encourage families to reduce car ownership and persuade low-use car-owning families to even give it up altogether, helping them make the jump to the cluster of car-free families.

Side measures

These actions should also be underpinned by a range of other side measures, which in turn can help persuade families to transition from one cluster to another, such as discounts for car-free/carless families in using public transport, taxis, car-sharing, bike purchases and car renting. Certification of being a car- free or carless family would also need be tackled in these cases.

A cultural change from a car-centric life and mindset are also needed to move in the same direction – especially as in many cases, car use is still taken for granted

For car renting, the burden of single-use insurance and exceptions should be overcome with an insurance system based on the individual while they’re using the car.

Actions that make car use a burden should also be considered and can lead to the same effects. However, it’s important that these are considered together with the aforementioned actions and urban planning, otherwise they can be perceived as a threat to mobility for families in the third cluster (see Gilet Jaunes). These types of actions could be combined with “story telling” and image promotion of multimodal transport networks (also through testimonials or even presence in movies if possible). Clearly showing the advantages of leading a life less dependent on cars can potentially lead to a reduction in the number of rejectors within the fourth cluster. The best creatives should be hired in order to counteract car advertising that focuses on looks and, in many cases, the false promise of freedom of mobility.

A cultural change from a car-centric life and mindset are also needed to move in the same direction – especially as in many cases, car use is still taken for granted.

Towards a better picture of mobility

Actions to reduce car dependency should altogether lead to reduced car use (that means fewer cars moving on the streets) as well as reduced car ownership (fewer cars left in parking lots).

Modal split and motorisation index trends, where available, are the indicators usually read to provide evidence of whether policy and actions hit target. Statistics on the number of carless households would allow for a more complete picture.

However, from these statistics, we only gain insight of individuals or the average perspective – nothing connected to the family condition. On one side, we cannot know to what extent modal choice is free or constrained, both for those using a car or multimodal shared transport; on the other side, we cannot know how many families are “without” a car due to economic needs and how many are car free by choice. Such statistics are often included among those depicting wealth (in Italy for instance).

It could be useful to cross these indicators with data coming from the family split to find out how the chart of the family split evolves. It may be possible to add some extra questions into government surveys or censuses to gather such information. The Family Split, thought of initially as a tool to read modal choice from a family perspective, could also have a secondary use.

Further, the family perspective by the family split could be explored as a possible tool for demand analysis from a sociological point of view, crossing family clusters with mobility behaviours, economic and cultural contexts.

Going forward, the focus must go beyond transport analysis and aggregate flows on different modes, and also focus more on people and how they live and react.


Francesca Ciuffini, Head of Marketing and Integrated Services Development at Rete Ferroviaria Italiana, is an engineer with 25 years’ experience as a transport planner in the rail sector, both on the operations side and as an infrastructure manager. She has written several papers about strategic timetabling, infrastructure pricing and capacity analysis, and is the author of the book Orario Ferroviario – Integrazione e Connettività, edited by CIFI (Railway Timetable – Integration and Connectivity).