Stay home, Don’t move, Save lives!

There is a growing realisation that drivers are getting a bad deal these days. Whether it is because of exorbitant emission zone charges, road closures under various low traffic neighbourhoods, or just the increased inconvenience of motoring, and badly maintained infrastructure, there seems to be a legitimate perception that there is a concerted attack on personal mobility. Councils are closing roads, restricting access, and fining drivers for the audacity to drive across invisible boundary lines.

While this is very much a contemporary debate, the ground rules were set at the end of the 20th century.

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s “Road to Prosperity” White Paper had promised to reinvigorate personal car use with 500 road schemes at a cost of around £23billion. Her bold proposal was described as “the largest road building programme since the Romans,” but it involved JCBs ploughing their way through a number of areas of natural beauty, specifically at Twyford Down, and bypassing Newbury in Berkshire. Several thousand people organised to halt the motorway construction, provoking widespread solidarity amongst residents and protestors alike. Organisations like Reclaim The Streets was formed to challenge the hierarchy within transport planning. Anti-car rhetoric hardened.

Allying themselves with this emergent environmental grassroots movement proved effective for Tony Blair in his defeat of the Tories in the mid-Nineties. He had pledged to “put concern for the environment at the heart of Labour policymaking.” To this end, his Integrated Transport Policy White Paper was allied to the European Union’s Car-Free Cities project which set out a clear framework to reduce urban congestion, pollution and environmentally-damaging emissions. Targeting road users was all part of the grand plan to meet the government’s statutory duties under the National Air Quality Strategy and the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997.

Ironically, the one man who did more for air quality in the history of this country was Nigel Lawson – arch-climate change critic – who, as Thatcher’s Chancellor oversaw the closure of the coal industry. By the time Blair took office, “industrial emissions had fallen by 50% since 1970” but the anti-car bandwagon had already started rolling.

John Prescott, Labour’s Deputy Prime Minister promised that he would give “public transport priority over private transport.” From then on, undermining the centrality of the motor car became such a major issue during Blair’s first term in office that Prescott was put in charge of the first transport and environmental superministry. There he famously announced: “I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car.”

A veritable industry of car reduction campaigns suddenly flared up across Europe, from the Open Squares initiative, the Clean Cities Campaign. International Car-Free Days, Congestion Charging, road pricing, reduced parking, speed cameras, and Limited Traffic Zones, etc. For 20 years, creeping anti-car, demand management policies became mainstream representing a desire to engineer a modal shift from the car to other modes of transport. At that time, investment in public transport was predominantly approved only if it could be shown that it had a detrimental impact on car use. Drivers were to be inconvenienced out of their dirty habits and driven onto alternative modes of transport.

It didn’t really work… partly due to the inadequacies of public transport. But predominantly, the importance of personal mobility meant that, regardless of policies hostile to driving, car traffic increased. The fastest growth included women drivers. A mere 30% of women drove (or held a license) in the 1970s but 75% of women are drivers today, proving that the car has been a liberation for many people in more ways than one.

While social and environmental contempt for drivers grew, the desire “to reduce dependency on the car” would necessitate greater illiberal experiments in curtailing personal mobility.

Fast forward to 2020 and the Covid lockdown allowed the government the room to dispel any pretence of democratic niceties. In February 2020, as lockdown was being considered, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a funding package of £5 billion for “active travel” schemes across the country with Transport secretary Grant Shapps declaring that 50% of travel in towns and cities would have to be walked or cycled by 2030. Almost overnight, while people were confined to their homes under Covid lockdown restrictions streets were closed off, bollards installed, and fines imposed.

Coincidentally, The Future of Mobility, a report that championed a “behavioural science” approach to transport policy was edited by Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance. Meanwhile, England’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty is currently senior advisor to the government’s “walking, wheeling and cycling” Active Travel strategy – the euphemism for non-car-based mobility.

The quango, Active Travel England has been granted £2 billion of funding over 5 years to ensure that “England will be a great walking and cycling nation.” It gifts money to cash-strapped local authorities with the express demand that highways be constricted and car access limited. It has pledged £33 million to create a national network of active travel experts who will advise on how to screw up traffic most successfully. Any councils protesting will have that money rescinded. (It is doubly satisfying to see so many outer-London boroughs refusing to be browbeaten into supporting Mayor Sadiq Khan’s ULEZ scheme).

Of course, an open, critical discussion is needed on the future of mobility, especially within existing urban areas, but as far as “active travel” is concerned, no debate is allowed. Most of these restrictions are marketed as improvements to the local area, but it depends on what you classify as progress. Hackney Council, for example, is planning on closing 75% of its road space to cars with no discussion, no mandate, no apologies. The Mayor of London stands accused of “manipulating” a consultation to expand London’s ULEZ zones. In a move reminiscent of lockdown injunctions, Oxford council is fining residents for so-called “unnecessary journeys by cars.”

It is clearly not progressive to impose – literally at dead of night – restrictions on individual liberty affecting private car owners, but all road users are feeling the pinch and there are considerable unintended consequences that are not considered in the government’s draconian anti-car crusade. In many urban areas, families are dissuaded from driving to do their weekly shopping, taxi routes are lengthened and more costly, care workers often cannot navigate a speedy route to a patient, pensioners are taking longer to get to GP surgeries; the list goes on.

The simple benefit of the car is much underestimated and, as such, the authoritarian trend for road closures and transport restrictions is causing real anger in local communities who feel like they are being treated with contempt. Their frustration is met with sneers and financial penalties by the authorities. But opposition is growing to the severe constraints on their freedom to drive. People are refusing to pay. Local demonstrations are kicking back. Hopefully, democratic engagement is returning to the driving seat.

Austin Williams
Director, Future Cities Project




Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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