The foot soldiers for what they call the “war on the motorist” have
been given plenty of ammunition lately. As low-traffic neighbourhoods
continue to be adopted across the UK and Ulez has been expanded to
greater London, the latest policy to provoke their ire is the
imposition of a 20mph speed limit in residential areas across Wales.
Out in the real world, on the streets rather than on social media, of
course motorists are not being marginalised. The very concept is a
daft jibe that looks good in a headline but makes no sense whatsoever
on closer examination. It is people – cyclists, walkers, pedestrians,
schoolchildren – who have been under assault from the way that cars
have been allowed to dominate our lives.
Ever since the creation of a Ministry of Transport a century ago,
government policy has been geared towards enabling and encouraging car
use. The motorist remains dominant in numerous ways, whether via the
decade-long refusal to raise fuel tax in line with inflation, or the
fact that a massive roadbuilding programme still remains the
centrepiece of the government’s transport policy, despite evidence
that new roads are counterproductive, merely filling up with traffic
attracted on to them.
But these new policies, so loathed by the motorist lobby, are a sign that,
at last, the tide may be beginning to turn, at least in urban areas.
It feeds into a much wider conversation about urbanisation and what we
want from our villages, towns and cities.
Numerous research studies have shown that busy roads are a barrier to
community spirit. One 2008 study showed people living on busy roads in
Bristol had 75% fewer friends than those on quieter ones. The same
goes for speed. Faster traffic is not only dangerous, but alienating,
as anyone who has tried to start a business or lived on a road with
rapidly moving traffic will know.
Of course, there is a slight contradiction within this set of
policies, which opponents are all too quick to point out. Slowing down
traffic may lead to a small increase in pollution unless people divert
to walking and cycling, which it will encourage, or use electric cars.
But taken together, reducing speed or car use all together will make
cleaner, quieter and less congested residential neighbours. And over
time, these neighbourhoods will become, well, more neighbourly. It’s
about reversing a century-long trend of bowing to the motorcar and
reclaiming our city spaces.
So why do these modest measures elicit such fervent opposition, with activists
wrecking Ulez cameras, setting fire to planters and ripping out
bollards? In Oxford, there have even been fights on the street, necessitating the police to intervene. he negatives for the most part seem trivial. Taking a
longer way round to visit your grandmother may be a pain, but is it
really worth the extreme anger it seems to elicit? In Wales, the new
speed limit will add just seconds rather than minutes to most journeys, according to Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister who has held firm despite opposition, pointing out that between six and ten lives will be saved every year.
The London Ulez charge, on the other hand – at £12.50 a day – is more
punitive, and Sadiq Khan should have provided a more generous
scrappage scheme for affected drivers. Nevertheless, the level of
opposition is out of proportion to the effect these changes have onpeople’s lives.
There are reasons for this. First, the opposition has benefited from a
seemingly organised campaign in the rightwing press, working in
concert with prominent Conservatives, including Rishi Sunak. Second,
measures have been presented piecemeal, rather than as part of a wider
strategy benefiting local people. In Paris, mayor Anne Hidalgo has
pushed forward a series of changes that are far more radical than
those attempted in the UK but she has managed to present these as a
coherent policy, demonstrating the benefits for ordinary Parisians of
measures that restrict cars and favour cycling and walking.
It is not a coincidence that Wales adopted the 20mph speed limit
. The Labour-controlled Welsh government has a series
of wellbeing goals enshrined in legislation that provide a framework
for such policies. There is now talk of similar 20 MPH schemes in Scotland and Northern Ireland. If elected, Labour should use this experience to adopt
similar measures for the whole of the UK and show the same courage as
Drakeford has done. By bringing together these ideas and presenting them as a narrative, an updated version of John Major’s bicycling grannies, perhaps even the diehard antis might be won over.