Many politicians in the UK are reluctant to restrict car use on often spurious grounds, such as: it would undermine the local economy; increase congestion and pollution, slow down public transport, you can’t turn back the clock, and more. They rarely get the positives that less traffic would make an area much more attractive. It would give people real travel choices, help engender greater independence, better health and well-being and reduce air and noise pollution longer term and boost the local economy.
Indeed, I’m not aware of a visioning exercise that has thrown up a desire for more traffic and longer queues, with few safe or attractive alternatives. In fact it is normally quite the opposite with people often wanting attractive streets where young and old can safely mingle and people can get around without having to own a car.
So why do we fail to make the changes that so many people would love to see? Is it a lack of ambition? Is it a lack of belief that we can change or self-doubt that we are worth making the change for? Or is it because in any period of proposed change, those opposed to the change shout the loudest, giving politicians cold feet? Sometimes protesters can represent a broad concern amongst the wider population, but often on progressive and sustainable transport schemes, they are just a very loud and sometimes very well organised minority.
Take the protests in Waltham Forest when the Council put forward its mini-Holland proposals. There were howls of outrage – this will be the death of local shops, etc. Yet the ruling Labour administration saw its majority increase at the last local elections, so clearly it must have been popular. Indeed, the scheme has had a positive impact on health and well-being and is often cited as best practice around the country.
More recently, the Greater Cambridge Partnership held a citizen’s assembly on traffic restraint in Cambridge. 53 members of the public, screened to be broadly representative of the wider population, took part in the event over two weekends in September and October. They were presented with evidence from a range of experts that was assessed to be accurate, balanced and unbiased.
Overall, there was clear support for a variety of restraint measures. The most popular was closing roads to cars – restricting cars in certain lanes, roads or zones. Also receiving strong support were a Clean Air Zone, pollution charge and flexible charging. Car parking restraints, particularly charging were less popular. In addition, participants developed their own ideas such as franchise buses, plant trees and hedges and encourage electric bikes.
The clear messages that came out of the event were, one: be bold and brave and, two: any changes needed to happen after improvements in public transport and walking and cycling have been put in place. Much like what happened in London with the improved bus services and the congestion charge.
Clearly, politicians need to stop being so timid when it comes to transport. Yes people need to understand why change is necessary and not just have it done to them, but do that and radical change is certainly possible. Politicians need to be well-informed and confident about the positives the changes will bring. With a bit more vision and a lot more backbone, we could yet avert a climate disaster and improve and our health and well-being and quality of life at the same time. What are we waiting for?