Purpose – This paper aims to inform the promotion of sustainable modes of transport. For this purpose, it deploys a means-ends framework as a type of second-order cybernetics and uses it to explore cognitive transport mode choice structures. Design/methodology/approach – The empirical study relies on a purposive sample and a qualitative research methodology known as laddering. It is aimed at the identification and comparative analysis of the cognitive means-ends structures of transport users. Findings – The results reveal more positive and complex associations for the car than for public transport. Two main positive means-ends structures are identified for public transport, one related with the relaxation and the other with doing useful things while travelling. Dominant positive structures for the car are related with self-confidence, satisfaction and personal freedom. Negative means-ends structures in addition reveal important justifications and rationalizations for car use. Practical implications – Based on the identified distinct means-ends elements and structures, this study holds important implications for developing a communications strategy and policy interventions seeking to promote public transport. Originality/value – Means-ends theory is proposed as an integrative cybernetic framework for the study of stakeholders' (customers') mental models. The empirical study is the first to concurrently and comparatively examine positive and negative means-ends chains for the car and for the public transport modes.