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Cries of a “war on cars” have failed to move voters

The local election results suggest cities can safely stick to their plans to lower traffic and emissions.

By India Bourke

Low traffic neighbourhoods represent a “war on cars”, claims an article on ConservativeHome. Curbing traffic in service of net zero is the result of a “colossal mass hypnotism”, says the Sun. The concept of 15-minute cities, which favours pedestrians over cars, is an “international socialist concept”, according to the Tory MP Nick Fletcher.

Such are the cries of the largely right-wing UK voices, from motoring lobbyists to TV hosts, who claim to champion wider concern over the reallocation of road-space to the disadvantage of cars.

One key campaigner is the anti-fuel tax campaigner Howard Cox, author of that column in the Sun, who announced on Tuesday that he will stand as the Reform Party’s candidate in the next London mayoral elections. A core pillar of his campaign is opposition to the plan by Sadiq Khan, the present mayor, to expand the city’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone, which places an extra charge on polluting vehicles.

Yet England’s latest set of local elections show that opponents to such initiatives, however vociferous, are not an electoral threat.

In Oxfordshire last week, after campaigning in opposition to restrictions on cars such as low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), traffic filters and 20mph limits, the Conservative Party lost control of their last remaining district council in the county, a former party stronghold. In Bath local Tory candidates similarly pitched the election as a referendum on traffic reduction measures, and suffered a resounding defeat to their Liberal Democrat rivals.

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Defeated Conservative councillors are blaming “national issues”, but this pattern of strident Tory opposition to car-use reform followed by electoral loss is not new. Take the London local elections in 2022 or the city’s mayoral election in 2021, in which there were similar outcomes.

Emily Kerr, a Green Party councillor in Oxford City, told Spotlight: “Good childcare and a strong NHS are far more important than a made-up culture ‘war on drivers’.” She cited two local cases where new LTNs, school streets and segregated cycle lanes help “over 85 per cent” of children to walk, scoot or cycle to primary school.

“These elections have proven you can’t win votes by promising to stop inconvenience to drivers,” added Leo Murray, co-founder of the climate charity Possible. Instead of bowing to pressure from a small minority, “local councillors need to keep calm and carry on” with policies that increase safety, reduce emissions and improve air quality, he said.

[See also: Local election results show the Tories are in trouble]

None of this is to dismiss the concerns of those who fear they will lose out from the shift to increasingly car-free cities: from residents worried about increased air and noise pollution on the larger roads onto which side-road traffic is diverted, to business owners who may have to contend with reduced car access. There are also of course cases where the locations of specific traffic-calming measures needs review.

But the idea that changing our car-orientated infrastructure is an affront to individual freedom is a dangerous myth. As the journalist Daniel Knowles argues in his deep-diving new book Carmaggedon: “[Cars] are among the world’s leading causes of what economists call ‘externalities’ – costs imposed on others by your decisions.”

There are costs to the NHS for respiratory disease treatment; car-parking space that could otherwise be used to build houses; and road transport emissions contribute 15 per cent of CO2 emissions globally. Our current reliance on cars is unsustainable. Even the electric vehicle revolution entails costs to the planet in the form of mining.

A key question, therefore, is whether politicians will be more ambitious about embracing reform now that voters don’t appear to punish car-restricting policies. The Labour-led government in Wales is pressing ahead. “I can understand why politicians are nervous about taking on an issue that causes pushback to flare-up, especially on social media,” Lee Waters, the Welsh government’s deputy minister for climate change, said. “But my view, which may sound pious, is that given the scale and nature of the climate threat, we’ve got to take risks, because otherwise we’re screwed. In politics you have to be prepared to lose in order to fight for something that is right.”

In September the Welsh government will be introducing a default 20mph speed limit on restricted roads. Most road building projects across Wales have been halted or amended, in an attempt to take seriously the advice of the independent Climate Change Committee on road transport. Although there was resistance to the latter policy, Waters said, it “has not been as bad as we feared”.

The experience of the city of Ghent in Belgium also suggests such ambition can even be an electoral benefit. In April 2017 the city government introduced a traffic “Circulation Plan” that makes it very difficult to drive though the city from one side to the other – and the result was an improvement to the local economy even as the number of car trips taken fell.

“There was a lot of commotion in the run-up to the implementation of the plan,” admitted Filip Watteeuw, Ghent’s deputy mayor, including demonstrations and death threats. But the following October he was re-elected with an increased majority. “I increased my vote count by a factor of four. I think politicians who improve the quality of life, who are clear about how they want to achieve this, that don’t back down because of a little resistance but who also dare to adjust – and that’s different from backing down – if necessary, should not be afraid.”

Westminster, take note.

[See also: The 2023 May local elections – what to watch out for]

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