Some good can come of even the worst disaster. Amid all the suffering and difficulty of the pandemic, environmentally minded people spied a chance. Could the enforced immobility of life under Covid-19, the rediscovery of neighbourhood shops, parks and walks brought about by the closure of workplaces and schools, lead to a longer-term adjustment – a new car/life balance?
For decades, green thinkers and politicians have advocated for a less automobile-centric culture. Transport policy unites two big themes of environmental politics: the idea that many people need to be reconnected with local geographies, both physical and human; and opposition to pollution. This means greenhouse gases, of course, but also particulate matter and noise. An altered transport hierarchy, it has long been argued, is beneficial to health, since more walking and cycling means less obesity, respiratory illness and heart disease; reduced road traffic also means fewer injuries and deaths caused by collisions.
The need for cuts in air pollution and carbon emissions (with levels in many UK cities exceeding legal limits), combined with the practical urgency of the situation earlier this year, in which public transport use had to be reduced without increasing congestion, made walking and cycling the only good option. Policymakers saw this: the UK government provided GBP250m in emergency active travel funding; the Welsh and Scottish governments GBP15.4m and GBP10m respectively.
Several months later, there is widespread agreement that the creation of dozens of new low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh has produced some toxic politics along with quieter, safer streets. Planters placed on roads to block through traffic have been moved and damaged. Campaigners have been threatened. In several London boroughs, the strength of the reaction has led councils to retreat or consider retreating.
New research suggests such decisions are mistaken. The idea that middle-class residents are the main beneficiaries of LTNs is revealed to be a myth, since about 90% of people from all demographic groups live on the kinds of residential streets where they are in place. Meanwhile, the announcement of funding from a south London NHS trust to support schemes in its area shows how significant health experts believe these beneficial effects are. This is not to deny the negative effects that LTNs can have, in displacing some traffic from quieter streets on to already busy ones. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, was right to signal the importance of consultation when releasing additional funding last week. But since LTNs are a “nudge” policy, intended to steer behaviour change rather than apply a sudden brake, you have to wait and see: traffic does not evaporate, or bicycles materialise, overnight.
Change is difficult, and no set of arrangements suits everyone. Objectors have a right to protest. But the health and climate emergencies cannot be ignored. Car owners must not mistake comfort or convenience for a right to drive. Partly due to satnav systems, traffic on residential streets has increased hugely in recent years. Across Europe, cities have moved to reclaim their streets for uses other than driving. In recent months the UK has done some catching up. Councils should hold their nerve and talk to people as well as listen: the case for cutting car use is overwhelming.