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  1. Politics
12 May 2020

Covid-19 has exposed the limits of the politics of individualism

The pandemic should prompt us to confront previously insoluble problems: the housing crisis, social care and climate change. 

By Jonn Elledge

There are many reasons no self-respecting Londoner would cycle down the Euston Road. It’s a canyon of air pollution and lane after lane of near stationary traffic – the closest thing the capital has to a motorway only much, much slower.

But a big reason is simply that it’s not safe. It’d be very easy to end up in the wrong place, to find yourself in the path of a turning vehicle or trapped between two buses. People have literally died. And so, if you have any sense, you don’t go there.

Well: soon, you might. Last week, Transport for London (TfL) announced it was planning to carve out some of the six-plus lanes of road space to create a protected lane for cyclists. It’s considering doing the same on Park Lane, another urban motorway which, like Euston Road, forms part of the city’s inner ring road, and is accelerating delivery of other routes it already had planned.

All this is part of “Streetspace”, the Ronseal-esque name for TfL’s plan to facilitate the dramatic increase in walking and cycling that could occur as commuters return to work but shy away from crowded environments such as public transport. The agency is planning the rapid construction of a strategic cycling network. It’s also widening pavements, to make it easier for pedestrians to pass each other without coming into close contact.

Here’s the thing, though: all this is basically something that TfL has been wanting to do anyway. Encouraging walking and cycling is a great way of relieving public transport; and just as induced traffic, the phenomenon in which increasing space for cars just encourages more driving, is a thing, so is its reverse. Plus, cities that give more space to people than cars are just nicer. So London, like other cities around the world, has been looking for ways of reallocating space.

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But progress has been slow, and opposition often fierce. The groups that think they’d lose out from a reduction in road access (cabbies, the delivery industry, local businesses) are often a lot noisier than those that would benefit. Indeed, at this point, the benefits are often so theoretical that the latter group don’t even realise they’d benefit. So the line of least resistance is often not to change things – which, if you’re wondering, is why despite years of promises, Oxford Street remains shamefully un-pedestrianised. But the lockdown, and the collapse in traffic that’s accompanied it, has changed the equation, highlighting the benefits of rethinking London’s roads and reducing the downsides. It’s unblocked the pipe.

The world is full of problems like this – areas of public policy where most observers think change would be beneficial, but the small group who’d lose out can prevent it. Not all of them are likely to change any time soon. Surveys in the US consistently find support for gun control, even among Republicans – but it’s hard to see how the current crisis will break the National Rifle Association’s stranglehold on the debate.

Similarly, for as long as I can remember, most wonks have agreed that too much health care is provided in hospital (where it’s expensive and distant), and not enough in the community (where it’s cheaper and more convenient), but reform has been blocked by the difficulty of winning public support for reducing hospital services. It feels unlikely that a once-in-a-century pandemic is the moment when this will change.

But other things might. In recent years, attempts to significantly increase housebuilding have run aground on the fact that those who oppose development are a lot more motivated and visible than those who’d benefit. But one of the subplots of the pandemic has involved poor housing: entire families are living in homes where self-isolation is impossible, and the lack of outdoor space is driving people to continue using parks, despite the moral panic from the tabloids. Perhaps, when this is all over, we’ll have a better grasp of what inadequate housing means, and be able to talk about it without imagining it’s only a problem for spendthrift 23-year-olds.

Then there’s the biggest challenge of all: the catastrophic climate crisis which will make Covid-19 look like a sunny four-day weekend. Let’s not go so far as to pretend that only the mega-rich have benefited from our polluting and wasteful industrial civilisation – but the group of people who benefit from keeping us addicted to fossil fuels is several orders of magnitude smaller than the one that would benefit from a shift to renewable energy (which is, to the first approximation, everyone). 

Yet it’s the latter who have the political and lobbying power to maximise their profits by stifling change, even though they’ll end up burning away on this rock with the rest of us. This crisis, though, has seen oil and gas companies plummet in profitability as demand for fossil fuels has dried up. It’s opened up a space for them to think about how they might move their businesses away from fossil fuels. It’s changed the equation.

This pandemic has exposed the limits of the politics of individualism – and reminded us that the choices we make in politics and beyond affect one another. It’s been awful, and the worst may still be ahead. But if it finally allows us to tackle some of those insoluble problems we face together, that might be some comfort. And at least we’ll be able to cycle down the Euston Road.

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