A large number of processes are involved in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis but it is unclear which of them play a rate-limiting role. One way of resolving this problem is to investigate the highly non-uniform distribution of disease within the arterial system; critical steps in lesion development should be revealed by identifying arterial properties that differ between susceptible and protected sites. Although the localisation of atherosclerotic lesions has been investigated intensively over much of the 20th century, this review argues that the factor determining the distribution of human disease has only recently been identified. Recognition that the distribution changes with age has, for the first time, allowed it to be explained by variation in transport properties of the arterial wall; hitherto, this view could only be applied to experimental atherosclerosis in animals. The newly discovered transport variations which appear to play a critical role in the development of adult disease have underlying mechanisms that differ from those elucidated for the transport variations relevant to experimental atherosclerosis: they depend on endogenous NO synthesis and on blood flow. Manipulation of transport properties might have therapeutic potential.