Transport is at the heart of our environmental crises. In the UK, traffic is responsible for about 25 percent of air pollution. As the climate crisis intensifies, transport (excluding aviation and shipping) contributes to 23 percent of the country’s emissions. In this context, initiatives promoting alternative modes of travel are on the rise: low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTN), clean air zones, and newly infamous 15-minute cities.
Recently, controversy around these measures has become the subject of fierce debate in local politics and core to a new far-right conspiracism. However, traffic reduction schemes are not a new phenomenon. Traffic filters have been common in urban design since the 1960s, and Ken Livingstone introduced London’s congestion charge as early as 2003. Only from the mid-2010s, with growing pressure on councils to respond to environmental emergencies, has traffic management veered into the terrain of divisive social movement.
In 2014, Waltham Forest Council received funding from Boris Johnson’s City Hall to improve conditions for walking and cycling. Dubbed ‘Mini-Holland’, the scheme in Walthamstow Village split opinion from the beginning. Estate agents promoted the measures as a selling point for houses (rapidly climbing in value), and some residents celebrated the increase in walking and cycling and an overall reduction in traffic. Others complained that traffic was displaced rather than eliminated, perversely worsening pollution in other areas, as it took time for residents to adapt.
Despite local disagreements, Waltham Forest became the poster child for low-traffic neighbourhoods beyond the borough. Its model was shopped around to other local authorities and its example invoked by grassroots campaigners. Low-traffic neighbourhoods have now spread to London boroughs, including Camden, Ealing, Lambeth and Newham, as well as other cities, including Oxford and Sheffield. Clean air zones have spread too, with Sadiq Khan expanding London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone to the entire capital (£12.50 a day to drive older, polluting cars) and Sheffield introducing a clean air zone for commercial vehicles only.
The environmental commitments of local councillors and the lobbying efforts of neighbourhood campaigners have contributed to the schemes’ growing popularity, but the Government has also provided much of the impulse behind their spread. A package of incentives for local authorities to act on air pollution includes a £225m fund, announced in 2020, to support segregated cycle lanes, pavement expansion and pedestrianisation. Local authorities have been threatened with funding cuts if they fail to develop schemes of sufficient ambition.
While support for low-traffic and clean-air measures has been widespread, local opposition has been strongly felt and forcefully expressed. Planters are commonly used for traffic filtration, and, in many cases, they have been moved or vandalised. Planters in Ealing were graffitied; concrete barriers were installed in Nether Edge, Sheffield after planters were repeatedly tipped over; vandalism turned into arson in Oxford as bollards were melted in the night.
On the whole, this local opposition has been expressed through an incoherent mixture of appeals to local democracy, libertarianism, motorist ideology, and anti-environmentalism. Although it is far from the dominant strand of politics in anti-Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) movements, it has increasingly become the basis of far-right conspiracy too. The idea of 15-minute cities has been a flash point. The intention behind the urban planning concept is intuitive: ‘services should be spread out around cities’ and ‘no one should be more than a quarter of an hour away from parks, shops, and schools’. Far-right organisations and individuals have promoted the idea that 15-minute cities are actually kind of ‘climate lockdown’ where residents are confined to assigned geographic zones to limit resource use.
The idea that all amenities should be immediately accessible to urban residents has been misinterpreted as the beginnings of an eco-authoritarian dystopia in continuity with repressive COVID-19 restrictions. Consistent with the hard-right composition of the current Conservative Parliamentary Party, these conspiracies were brought into Parliament by Nick Fletcher, MP for Don Valley. Invoking the developments in neighbouring Sheffield, he labelled 15-minute cities an ‘international socialist concept’ that risked ‘personal freedom’.
As with conspiracies around COVID-19 vaccinations and lockdowns, this strand of far-right opinion has developed online but spread to in-person mobilisation. The most prominent mobilisation so far has been in Oxford: the recently anointed focal point of municipal eco-authoritarianism. In February, around 2,000 people demonstrated against Oxfordshire County Council’s traffic filter scheme, which will deploy license plate readers to enforce limits on car use in residential areas. Residents in the city will be allowed access for 100 days a year, with those of the county allowed 25. Extrapolated from this is the conspiratorial narrative that citizens are confined to their neighbourhoods for most of the year.
The demonstration included attendance from a full-spectrum of far-right conspiracists: Piers Corbyn, Katie Hopkins, the fascist group Patriotic Alternative and more. Demonstrators also held placards opposing vaccines, promoting climate denial, and expressing economic concerns. These are distinctly 21st-century issues emanating from contemporary crises of capitalism. However, against the supposed rise of ‘eco-fascism’ in this context, these mobilisations present a far-right that remains strident in its denial of environmental crisis and opposition to pro-environment policy.
A much smaller demonstration of around 200 people took place in Sheffield, also in February, opposing the city’s newly instituted clean air zone. While the Sheffield Star reported that demonstrators included taxi drivers and ordinary residents, Nick Spooner, Digital Organiser at anti-racist and anti-fascist organisation Hope Not Hate, relayed that the demonstration was also composed of a mixture of conspiratorial positions. ‘One speaker suggested climate change was a hoax and appeared to claim that scientific data concerning pollution effects on children was being exaggerated.’
15-minute cities were invoked by some speakers as a ‘shadowy form of government control’ and a key frontier in the battle for individual freedoms. A tiny evangelical Christian group ‘called for people to renounce the state in favour of Jesus’ while another small group ‘distributed newspapers promoting far-right and anti-vaccine conspiracies’. Spooner’s account is of a demonstration lacking in energy, failing to engage those passing by, and united only in opposition to an eclectically defined enemy. This conspiratorial politics may be on the rise, but it remains incoherent and inconsistent in its capacity to mobilise.
A Divided Left
Contrary to the ravings of Nick Fletcher MP, the traffic reduction movement is not the plot of a left-wing globalist cabal. In fact, the centre-Left is split over how to respond to divided opinion among residents. In 2022, Lutfur Rahman was elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets with his left-wing Aspire party. Chief among his manifesto commitments were tackling the housing and cost of living crises, improving access to education and investing in public services. His platform also included a commitment to end low-traffic schemes, introduced by the previous Labour administration, claiming that they are ‘simply moving congestion and pollution onto the most vulnerable residents’. He has since consulted on LTNs twice as local debate rages on.
Oxfordshire County Council, led by a Liberal Democrat-Labour-Green coalition, has been at the forefront of promoting low-traffic neighbourhoods. Conversely, Oxford’s Labour-led City Council has been a vehicle for condemnation of the schemes. Senior Labour city councillors have criticised their implementation, and a set of independent candidates (most former Labour members) performed well on an anti-LTN platform at the 2022 local elections, winning one seat and coming second in several more.
As Sheffield Labour continues to struggle at election time, having recently lost control of the City Council, city council candidates have differed in approach to LTNs. In 2022, Labour gained Nether Edge and Sharrow ward from the Green Party after the candidate publicised a letter calling for its LTN trial to be delayed. Labour’s candidate in Crookes & Crosspool ward also gained their seat, this time from the Liberal Democrats, but took a different approach by supporting LTN trials while insisting on greater consultation of residents. Short-term successes aside, the Labour Party lacks a shared position on LTNs nationally and locally. As fraught debates show no sign of abating, party officials should be concerned that internal divisions will widen on the issue.
Given their chaotic and flawed implementation, the absence of a consistent left-wing position on low-traffic measures is understandable. Supporters are justified in their urgent desire to tackle pollution. Opponents are justified in their criticisms of strategic mistakes as the schemes have consistently been introduced from the top down with inadequate consultation and insufficient support for those affected.
A modal shift from the dominance of private cars to active travel and public transport must include both opportunities and incentives for people to transition. In the latter days of successive austerian Tory governments, neither has been forthcoming. Instead of investment in cheap and expanded public transport, South Yorkshire’s bus services have been cut by a third, while Oxford’s routes only pass through the city centre. Instead of properly subsiding those currently reliant on polluting vehicles, Sheffield City Council’s financial support ‘to help replace or adapt a non-compliant vehicle with a lower emissions alternative’ only covers 30 percent of the net cost of switching. The Mayor of London’s scheme of grants to support scrapping non-compliant vehicles will only provide payments up to £2000 for a car and £1000 for a motorcycle.
Traffic reduction schemes in the UK have been defined by a failure of sequencing. Local authorities have only been able to deploy measures that should come towards the end: charges, restrictions, and fines. These punitive measures can be effective at nudging people out of old habits and into new behaviours if the opportunity is already there. They do not work when there is no viable alternative to be nudged into. Local councils have been forced to introduce the stick before the carrot. After twelve years of austerity and economic decline, the result has been to antagonise a portion of the population that is growing angrier and angrier about having more and more taken away with little offered in return.
Low-traffic neighbourhoods, clean air zones and 15-minute cities have fast come to the forefront of municipal environmental policy as local authorities look to make the most of their limited powers. However, the constraints of local government has meant that bad policy has exacerbated local divisions and fuelled far-right conspiracy. To get traffic reduction right, local authorities require a greater suite of powers and resources from central government. Councils must be able to create publicly owned bus and rail companies, invest in their expansion, and fund generous scrappage schemes.
Rather than operate in its traditional siloes, the environmental movement should now embrace these demands for greater democracy. Campaigners may make the argument that the short-term pain of traffic reduction measures is worth the long-term social and environmental gains, but it is wrong to endorse their imposition from above. We cannot be satisfied with wealthy neighbourhood campaigners or liberal NGOs using their resources to successfully lobby local government officials. A democratic environmental movement must do the difficult work of building a mass base of support for a new transport regime. Inevitably, this will involve developing coalitions of workers and communities previously alienated by environmentalism.
Democracy does not happen in rigged local council consultations. Instead, the movement must facilitate workers and residents co-designing these schemes and then organising for them collectively. Without such ambitions for mass democracy, local measures for a green transition will become cemented as the basis of dangerous conspiracies and a counter-productive culture war.