By Pearl Ahrens and Christian Wolmar
Last month, 322 people, from London and across the world, wrote in to the council of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to object to a series of plastic bollards on Kensington High Street that created a cycle lane. Even though their introduction a month earlier had not increased congestion nor reduced parking, and in truth the bollards hadn’t affected their daily lives, the Tory council hastily removed the protected lane. So what motivated these 322 people to send their angry missives on a measure unlikely to negatively affect them at all?
The extent of opposition to many traffic reduction schemes, which have been introduced across the country in the wake of Covid-19, suggests the issue of reducing traffic has become a proxy in a ‘culture war’, in parallel with a host of other issues (Brexit, face masks, singing Rule Britannia at the Proms, etc.). The terms of the controversy over these schemes, including Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, take the form of a false class dichotomy between the patriotic working class on one side and the out-of-touch liberal elite on the other.
This process of abstraction means culture war opponents to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods aren’t talking about transport – they’re instead signalling a whole package of individualised feelings: guilt at a choice they’ve made being politicised, and anger at the idea that their behaviours might be, and have always been, affected by the world around them.
Only by understanding the battle over streets as a proxy battle in a wider cultural war, can we explain the speed with which opposition activists have articulated a common defence of the status quo. It is no longer enough for supporters of schemes to state (correctly) that Low Traffic Neighbourhood schemes reduce pollution and traffic, and improve quality of life. They need to get better at discerning between opponents: those merely using the Low Traffic Neighbourhood as a proxy need to hear different arguments, extending beyond the field of transport, to those genuinely confused about the benefits and negatives.
The fierce waves of opposition across London and the rest of the UK share many characteristics with other culture war battles, such the crazy notion that Covid-19 is being used as an “excuse” by decision-makers to control motorists.
Similarly, opponents talk about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods ending their “freedom of movement”, To quote blogger Joe Dunckley, “So much of this discourse is people screaming about their choice being taken away from them, when the exact opposite is true. No option is being taken away from people. Nobody is being banned from driving by a bollard in a back street.”
Often, the rows over Low Traffic Neighbourhoods reveal an obsession with the democratic process (or concerns about the lack of one). Echoing Leave campaigners who focused on the EU being a generally undemocratic imposition, this claim resembles an attack on the institution itself (in this case the local council) rather than a procedural request. In another echo, blame is attached to the “metropolitan liberal elite” (mainly Labour councillors) as the culprits corrupting democratic process.
Key to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods is the idea that driving short distances in residential areas has a negative health effect on your neighbours. But, like the denial in “I’m not racist” or “masks don’t stop the virus”, culture warriors fail to acknowledge the fact that individual behaviour and its environmental effects are inseparable. More than just a fear of change, they’re uncomfortable with their behaviours being political, connected to anything greater than their own personal choices.
As well as believing their actions don’t impact on other people in the world, opponents also deny that the world has an impact on their own choices – such as the fact that people drive because the infrastructure is there to facilitate it. Far from being an “unlikely frontline” in the culture war, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are its perfect prey, because they exemplify the interdependent relationship that we have with our (local) environment.
Interestingly, opponents are keen to exploit class issues, with the argument that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods benefit affluent people living on residential streets while traffic is ‘pushed’ to main roads inhabited by the less well-off. In fact, the evidence points to the opposite, and as councillors and campaigners, correctly, argue back: “car ownership […] is linked to income. The richer you are, the more likely you are to own a car. The truth is we’re stopping affluent people polluting working class communities.”
But for culture warriors, it’s beneficial to ignore the economic facts of class relations and define class culturally: some Conservative councils, like Kensington & Chelsea and Wandsworth, have already reversed implementation of their traffic reduction schemes and blamed the liberal elite for trying to impose them. A savvy move, because every win for the culture warriors closes down the possibility of spatial changes to our streets by claiming proponents are ‘living in a fantasy world’, giving succour to individualist conservatism in a country it already dominates.
To convince culture warrior opponents, supporters must take the ‘feeling’ aspects of culture war opposition and re-frame them as communal motivations. The lowest common denominator argument, that “we all want our kids to get to school safely” leads directly into “less traffic makes them safer”. This argument works best because it doesn’t require empathy, nor does it reference class; it leverages an action most adults, no matter their political persuasion, do every day: trying to keep their children safe. The culture war stokes a generational divide in attitudes (e.g. on climate change), but ‘keeping children safe’ relies on all ages working together for the same goal.
The School Streets initiative, where roads outside schools are blocked at arrival and departure times, is a good comparator– why have they faced little opposition despite having been implemented on the same scale? It’s because, as the Dutch found out in the 1970s, children’s safety and freedom is difficult to argue against. Kids could serve as a hook, to harness the emotional anger of the culture warriors without giving up on facts nor giving in to their terms. Defusing the culture war might require using lowest common denominator arguments, but it’s worth it, because if ignored it threatens the idea of streets being for the common good.
Pearl Ahrens is a transport planner and campaigner.