THERE’S a lot of grumbling in Edinburgh, as in many cities, about what people see as the war on cars. If you want to hit nerves or set off a blazing row, certainly in Leith where I live, just mention any of the following: Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, Spaces for People, Controlled Parking Zones and the Trams. It is, in some ways, a kind of road culture war, and what it has in common with other growing culture wars is that it touches on issues of personal freedom. Though, of course, it’s about more than that – because cars have been made so central to how we satisfy many of our needs. Our society is now structured that way.
There are good reasons, of course, to urge diligence in getting low traffic plans right – among them, the impact on local business, accessibility for those with disabilities and the possibility of creating alternative rat runs – but often, it seems to me, what people are raging against is a threat to a way of life.
The right to own a car also sometimes seems like the equivalent of the US right to bear arms, vital, because for many it offers a cocoon of protection. Cars are wheels with which to flee trouble. They are pleasure too, and a means to escape our everyday lives. They are status and privilege. They allow us to transport things we need.
A car can buy us time. Our flexible diaries and schedules often are built around driving. But then when we sit in congested routes,we feel that time stolen from us. No wonder road rage exists and alongside it the fear that more road closures will mean more jams.
One of the things that interests me about the “war on cars” and road closure debate, is it seems like an example of the problem net-zero leaders, climate-action politicians and climate-change activists are likely to face in the coming years.
What we need is a transition, not a war, and, with the planet ever heating, we can’t afford for this to be perceived as one.
Some of the kick-back against these changes, stems from the fact that the changes going on where we live are taking place at great speed, with many of them arriving within months of each other, and there has been not enough community consultation. Not all the public are being taken willingly on this off-road journey.
The fast change required to get us to net zero targets, a very green aim, sit uncomfortably with green ideals around local democracy and community consultation. I see a long future sweeping up ahead, dominated by such tensions, and by the issue of how to create necessary change without kick-back from a public that wants net zero but without the changes.
The only solution has to be a lot of intense consultation and media discussion rapidly. The public has to know and be on board with what is coming. But right now, eyes are more on the ball of Covid.
Of course, one of the long-term answers, in terms of emissions, could just be that the switch to electric cars is ramped up as rapidly as possible. But modelling of future cities often suggests that what is actually needed is reduced car ownership. And there are multiple other arguments for weaning ourselves off car use – not least our health. A podcast I listened to recently featuring the brain scientist, Shane O’Mara persuaded me we need to be talking much more about walking cities as a replacement for our drive and gym model of fitness. He argues that walking isn’t just good for our bodies, it’s good for our brains and what humans, in particular, evolved to do a great deal of. “At all of the points of the day,” he recommends, “whenever you’re moving around, we should make it easier to just put one foot in front of the other, without thinking about it.”
Cars, and the urban spaces we now have designed around their flow, are among the things that stop us doing that. Just listening to O’Mara’s research made me want to get on my feet and wander, to see the car as a prison for my legs, and the freedom to walk one of the most important of all.