Thou Shalt Not Drive…

In the week that the Department of Transport announced the imposition of 20mph speed limits on all urban streets, and Hackney council in London is set to ban most vehicles from 75% of its roads, we host a podcast to explore why the motorist in particular, and mobility in general, is under attack.


In this accompanying podcast, anti-LTN campaigners, Niall Crowley, John Cronin and Martyn Perks explain the situation in their areas of London, from roadblocks across Bermondsey, shopping streets disrupted in Wood Green, commercial vehicles fined in Islington, mass protests in Dulwich, etc.. While list of negative impacts is plain for all to see, all councils are pushing ahead with the proposals. These unwelcome anti-transport initiatives are now being rolled out across the country.

It was over 20 years ago that a European sustainable travel hierarchy was introduced with full backing of the UK government. Cycling and walking was placed at the top – obviously – with the car relegated to last place, after buses, trams and even horse-riding. While the car lobby managed to dismiss such assaults on the freedom to drive at the time, it is clear that the mood has changed. We are now in the invidious position of the RAC scuttling around and advising the Welsh government on its speed reduction strategy. Meanwhile, a Top Gear presenter (admittedly the boring one) says that 20mph is plenty fast enough.

Nowadays, many accept the idea that the car, far from being the most comfortable, efficient, speedy and convenient mode of travel, is in fact a dangerous, polluting, anti-social, killing machine and that therefore road and travel priorities have to change. The car has gone from being a tool to aid social connections, to being a weapon of mass destruction. The cynical contemporary assault on one of the greatest inventions in history has reached a tipping point.

With health concerns foremost in people’s minds, it is now common to hear otherwise intelligent people reveal, as if an epiphany, that fewer cars means fewer traffic accidents. In one fell swoop, pressure on the NHS is alleviated. Such childish calculations are now the centre-piece of the UK’s transport strategy. Or, more accurately, its anti-transport strategy.

Of course, sustainability is the killer argument. Eighty percent of all local councils in the UK have signed the Climate Emergency pledge – which forces them to restrict vehicle use in order, no less, to protect our children’s future. Stay home, Don’t Drive, Save the Planet. The lessons of lockdown are easy to see.

Indeed, the cyclists’, the environmentalists’, the local authorities’ victory is premised on your confinement. The Scottish government has noticed that some people might have to travel – you know, to go to the hospital, or visit relatives, or somesuch – and suggests that this can be minimised by “interventions that focus on alternative digital and hub-based models to allow people to access goods, services, amenities and social connections.”

Practices that were nurtured during lockdown are now being put to good use in order to sell restrictive mobility to the public. After all, it was in 2020, while we were all confined to the sofa during Covid, that the government first handed over a £380 million tranche of cash to councils to maximise inconvenience for drivers in order to force them out of their vehicles and onto alternative modes of transport. Mercifully, not everyone has complied, and the inadequacy of the nation’s public transport alternative has ensured that the car has played a vital service in keeping the country’s economy going.

But the attacks on car drivers continue apace: from Ultra Low Emissions Zones that are now springing up all over the country, to 15-minute cities where you will be fined for crossing a notional border in your own town, all controlled by high-tech surveillance and subsidised by egregious fines and penalties.

Seldom have our local representatives been more authoritarian; implementing road closures in the dead of night – or famously ignoring the results of public consultations. Instead of representing us, they are simply insisting that we do what we are told.

This podcast is conversation to try to understand some of the background to the LTNs, the road closure schemes, speed limit rules and anti-pollution policies. It is a conversation with three activists who have helped mobilise protests against restrictions. They support and encourage the local and national fightback by ordinary residents, businesses and services and remind us that personal mobility is a right.

Austin Williams
The Future Cities Podcast

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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