London has never been so divided. No, not between north and south of the river. Or West End versus East. Or even rich versus poor. No the real dividing line in the greatest city on Earth is between pro- and anti-car.
The war for control of London’ streets is being fought with traffic bollards, speed cameras and cycle lanes. There have been screaming matches, Facebook flamewars, poison pen letters, nocturnal stickering campaigns and incidents of civil disobedience. Each side is accusing the other of putting lives at risk. The anti-car faction points to the death toll on our roads; their pro-car enemies say that traffic restrictions are causing congestion and impeding emergency vehicles and other vital services.
These tensions have been rumbling away for years, if not decades, but they’ve now reached a whole new level. The recent ramping up of Low Traffic Neighbourhood schemes is a dramatic raising the stakes. The assumption that motorists can drive wherever they will no longer holds. We have entered an era in which the systematic exclusion of motorised traffic is now a realistic policy option and, furthermore, a hyper-localised one.
This is politics at its most up-close-and-personal, which is precisely why it’s become so heated.
An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but at his front step or garden gate, his authority comes to an abrupt halt. Just feet away from your twitching net curtains, complete strangers can do or say whatever they want within the law, and come and go as they please.
That might seem obvious, but by the standards of the past, it’s highly unusual. Throughout most of history, the transition from private to public has been rather more complicated than it is for most of us today. Our ancestors didn’t just have homes, they had territory — defended with their neighbours against the stranger. From the smallest village to the walled city, there was a zone beyond private property, in which outsiders could not come and go as they pleased.
Over the centuries, security and social trust has become the norm, allowing these zones of control to shrink away. Some remnants still exist: gang rule at one end of the social spectrum, gated communities at the other. But for most of us there’s no buffer zone between the completely private and the fully public. The one borders directly upon the other — a miracle of social harmony that we take for granted.
Perhaps that’s why we’ve surrendered control over our neighbourhoods. The streetscape beyond your property is a regulated space. There are speed limits, planning laws, licensing regimes and policing policies. But for the most part we’re content if the key decisions are made miles away — by office-holders we’ve never heard of, chosen by people we’ve never met. Most of us don’t even vote in local elections, let alone participate in community decision-making more directly.
On-street parking is one of the few issues on which local residents do fight their corner. We see the tarmac right outside our homes as part of the private realm not the public — and therefore as belonging to us morally, if not legally. But beyond these jealously defended patches is neutral territory, open to all and therefore not really our business.
That’s why London’s road wars, while farcical in some ways, are also highly significant: residents are asserting their control not just over parking spaces, but over the whole of the streetscape that defines each neighbourhood.
The trigger for this growing conflict is scarcity. As I’ve written about before, road space is running out. Whenever a resource becomes scarce, it becomes contested — in this case between motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and other users. Covid-19 has added fuel to the flames, by driving people off the buses and trains and into their cars — or onto their bikes or feet.
It’s not just a conflict between incompatible modes of transport. Viewed locally, it’s also a clash of interests between residents and outsiders. Especially contentious is the issue of ‘rat runs’ — the use of residential streets by motorists seeking to avoid congestion elsewhere.
It’s not a new cause for complaint, of course, but three factors are bringing matters to a head: firstly, the increased volumes of road traffic I mentioned above; secondly, the fact that many more people are now working from home and thus have all day to experience the rat run on the doorstep; and thirdly, the contrast between the current situation and the calm of the deep lockdown period earlier this year.
The bright and eerie Covid spring was deeply unsettling, but there was one compensation — millions of us got a chance to live life free from the noise, fumes and danger of motorised traffic. It’s an experience that raises an important question: why can’t it be like that all the time?
The potency of the Local Traffic Neighbourhood is that it opens up that very possibility. According to The Guardian, more than 200 schemes are in the works or already being trialed — most of them in London.
These interventions go well beyond mere ‘traffic calming’. Through-traffic isn’t just slowed down: most of it is kept out. Each Low Traffic Neighbourhood is defined as a ‘cell’ of residential streets, access to which is restricted using ‘modal filters’ that are meant to discourage the wrong modes of transport (e.g. cars), encourage the right ones (e.g. bicycles) and accommodate the necessary sort (e.g. emergency vehicles). Some of these filters are technologically sophisticated — for instance, the use of number plate recognition systems to distinguish between residents’ vehicles and outside traffic. Others are really quite crude — for instance the use of heavy planters to block-off access to particular streets.
As one might imagine, the public reaction to the LTNs has been mixed. Some people are delighted, especially local residents (though not all of them). Other people, especially motorists, are apoplectic. Cars have been filmed mounting pavements to drive around newly installed barriers. In other cases, the obstacles have been removed or even vandalised.
Obviously anyone who engages in criminal and/or threatening behaviour should be condemned out of hand. But that aside, one should understand the passions on all sides. Residents want the places where they and their families live to be safe, peaceful and unpolluted. Cyclists want to cycle without fear of death and injury. For their part, motorists want to get themselves to work and their children safely to school.
Again, Covid is raising the temperature. We’ve had months of restrictions, of being told where we can go, who we can meet and what we have to wear on our faces. We’ve had our livelihoods put in peril and our social lives wiped out. An LTN, while a blessed relief to some, is whole heap of new restrictions for others.
This is a combustible mix of rival interests and local politicians are struggling to cope. In the London Borough of Ealing, the council leader narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence, provoked by the LTN controversy. Meanwhile in Wandsworth the council has suspended all LTNs across the borough, pending a review. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of this — politicians lowering the temperature by simply freezing the issue.
But this would be a mistake. A true democracy does not suppress disagreement or disempower people desperate for change. Indeed, those who claim to be concerned about the ‘deep divisions’ caused by this or that controversial issue should themselves be regarded with wariness. Most likely, what their concerns actually amount to is a bad faith argument for privileging the status quo or allowing the views of the in-group to pass without challenge. Beyond sensible laws against hate speech and the harassment of political opponents, we must be free to argue out our differences.
This may result in compromise or even consensus, but it doesn’t have to. Democracy also legitimises the complete victory of one side over the other. And sometimes that’s the only way. In regard to Brexit, there were compromises that could have been made on the precise trade relationship between Britain and the EU, but the primary issue was binary. Either we remained part of a project to build a supranational state or we left it. It had to be one or the other — and it was entirely right to ask the British people to decide the matter.
Binary decisions have to be made at a local level too. Do we allow a residential street to be used as a rat run or don’t we? It’s a yes/no question — but, in this case, who should decide? That’s not quite so clear, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the fate of a residential street to be decided by its residents.
There are complications though. Less traffic on your street might mean more traffic on somebody else’s. Presumably, people who live along main roads aren’t going to be allowed an LTN of their own — and that sets up an unhealthy class dynamic in which the richer, leafier parts of the city are improved while poorer areas are further downgraded.
As it stands, the LTN system allows for some troubling asymmetries of power. However, that’s not because democracy has become too local, but because it’s still not local enough. If, for instance, we had a fully localised road pricing system then revenues could be allocated more precisely to those neighbourhoods that are forced to put up with the worst traffic. The money could be used to fund environmental improvements — such as turning ugly arterial roads into tree-lined boulevards. Alternatively, residents could receive direct financial compensation.
Needless to say, road charging should always and aggressively penalise the most polluting vehicles. If it’s asymmetries of power that we’re worried about, then let’s start with what comes out of the exhaust pipe of diesel-fuelled SUV (and goes into our lungs.)
Far from making the road wars go away, we should welcome them. This is just the sort of meaningful argument that we need to reinvigorate local democracy — in fact, democracy as a whole. However, we will have to rethink the neutrality of the public realm. Public highways will remain public, but local residents would have a much bigger say over how they get used.
I don’t know if the current, rather centralising, Government likes that idea; but it was they who told us to “take back control”.