“Fairness,” though commonly invoked as a guiding principle or evaluative metric in transportation policy, is an ambiguous concept. This paper aims to distinguish the conditions for three aspects of fairness: first, the distinctions between actual and perceived fairness and between substantive and procedural fairness; second, the differences among three norms of fairness: need, equality, and equity; and third, the evaluations according to different social categorizations. We illustrate the three aspects in Beijing’s car license lottery policy, both qualitatively through a review of policy documents and quantitatively via a survey of public perception. The policy sets up a yearly quota of new car licenses and distributes them by a lottery. The uniform distribution seems “fair” at first glance, but is only superficially so. The policy is substantively unfair under all common norms of fairness. It neglects the need and equity: its goal of uniform distribution abandons opportunities to favor disadvantaged groups or concern for entrants’ differentiated demands, and disregards necessities of corresponding fees. It intends to adopt the norm of equality, but fails to treat two social groups as equal to others: the policy largely excludes migrants and privileges prior car owners. However, based on the questionnaire survey (n=1505), we find that in sheer contrast to its actual unfairness, the public widely perceives Beijing’s car license lottery as fair, and comparing with Shanghai’s auction policy further reinforces this perception. We conclude that the fairness of the lottery policy is superficial in two senses: i. substantively it offers a limited conception of equality-based fairness that excludes a large number of affected users; and ii. the fairness perceived by the public contrasts with the fairness established by the policy’s actual distributive outcomes. Transportation planners should understand the multiple and often conflicting aspects of fairness, which require different policy instruments to achieve. Policy makers should pay attention to both perceived and actual fairness to improve people’s acceptance of transportation policies such as VMT taxes, toll roads or congestion charging.