Beyond the Car: Oxford’s much maligned ‘15‑minute city’

Alan Thornett writes on the 15-minute city kerfuffle in Oxford.

 

This piece is a response to an article published on the Socialist Appeal website by Sjoerd Smit, a member of Oxford Marxists, entitled Low-traffic neighbourhoods: a class perspective, which has been circulated amongst the Oxford Labour left, critiquing Oxford’s vision of a ‘15-minute city’. Also, see an article by Chris Saltmarsh in The Tribune of March 9thentitled, How ’15-Minute Cities’ Are Fuelling the Far-Right.

Oxford has suffered from traffic congestion and air pollution for many years, and it has been getting worse. The response of the County Council (the responsible authority for roads) has been the introduction of the Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) scheme towards what they have termed ‘15-minute Oxford’. The aim, they say, is to redress the imbalance between road traffic and people and make local neighbourhoods safer and more livable.

Such a self-evidently sensible and progressive proposal, however, was met with bitter opposition. It reflected (I suspect) the deeply engrained car culture that had shaped the 20th century, which was then weaponised by a very dangerous coalition of far-right, neoliberal, post-truth ideologies spouting ever more bizarre conspiracy theories that ended up invading Oxford city centre on January 18th of this year in the name of climate change and vaccine denial. The transport sector accounts for around a quarter of global COemissions. Road vehicles—cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes—generate nearly three-quarters of this. Roadside exhaust emissions from petrol and diesel cars, for example, in the UK, cause 13,000 premature deaths every year and a multitude of respiratory illnesses. At the same time, the population is not only rising but urbanising, with megacities growing at an ever-faster rate.

Where did LTNs and “15-minute cities” come from?


Neither of them are new. City planners, globally, are increasingly looking to them when it comes to putting people before cars.

A study published on the C40knowledge website argues that “there is an appetite for more liveable, people-oriented cities that are driving a surge of interest in the “15-minute city”—an intuitive, adaptable, and popular vision of urban living that already takes many names and shapes around the world.” Leading examples include Bogotá’s Barrios Vitales and Melbourne’s 20 Minute Neighbourhoods, as well as the Paris 15-Minute City that captured international attention in the wake of the pandemic as a part of the ‘build back better’ debate.

The Oxford LTN, which is the first step towards a 15-minute city, was launched as a part of the County Council’s Central Oxfordshire Travel Plan, which seeks to:

“reduce car trips in the county by a quarter by 2030; deliver a net-zero transport network by 2040; and reduce road accident fatalities or life-changing injuries to as close to zero as possible by 2050.”

Surprisingly, the County Council approved this in 2020, when the Tories had a majority, despite it being such a progressive proposal. When they lost it in the 2021 elections, the policy was adopted by the incoming Labour, Green, and LibDem coalition, which has been implementing it ever since, with the support of the Oxford City Council, which has long had a Labour majority. As soon as the coalition adopted the scheme, the Tories decided to oppose it and have done so ever since.

Under the scheme, the city would be divided into six ‘15-minute neighbourhoods’, within which residents would be able to access amenities such as supermarkets, cafés, pubs, green spaces, schools, pharmacies, etc. within a 15-minute walk of home.

The aim, the Council said, was to develop a world-leading, innovative, inclusive, and carbon-neutral transport system with a focus on how people move quickly and safely around the area.

In particular, they said:

We need to look at options that can free-up the limited road space we have in Central Oxfordshire to create a place where buses are fast, affordable, and reliable; where people can walk and cycle, in pleasant and safe environments, and where high-polluting, unnecessary, individual car journeys take a back seat so that zero-emission buses, taxis, and delivery vans are the norm and that those who need to take essential journeys by car can do so without congestion.”

The scheme would be piloted in six wards in East Oxford: Church Cowley, Temple Cowley, Florence Park, Divinity Road, St. Clement’s, and St. Mary’s. This was sent out for consultation between August 22 and October 13, 2022. It resulted, the County Council says, in 2,329 responses to the questionnaire (2,035 online and 294 via email), with more than 21,000 additional comments about the proposals made. All of this can be found here.

Governmental involvement

As part of his Active Travel Initiative, which he launched in 2020 as he battled to maintain his waning environmental credentials, Boris Johnson (equally bizarrely) promoted LTN schemes at the governmental level. This made funding available for LTN schemes across England, despite opposition to them from within the Tory Party itself.

Hundreds of applications were initially made. Sadiq Khan submitted an application for London, for example, in 2020, which came with a £250 million package of funding. Schemes were subsequently launched in Camden, Croydon, Ealing, Hounslow, Lambeth, Newham, and Waltham Forest, where they all faced strong opposition.

Most applications, however, came to nothing. They were dropped, often due to a lack of political will to see the fight through. In the end, the Oxford LTN was the only one adopted outside of London, which is why it ended up being a cause célèbre for the far-right, who promptly linked it to climate change and termed it “the first climate lockdown”.

Opposition

As soon as the Oxford application was announced, both councils were subjected to a torrent of abuse, including death threats, based on deliberately distorted information. They issued a joint statement rebutting it.

The opposition that emerged was heavily based on local businesses—taxi businesses, in particular—who were major users of the same rat runs that the Council was seeking to close. Its aim from the outset was to destroy the scheme rather than change it, and its protests became increasingly violent, with barriers being set on fire, rammed by vans, or cut down with angle grinders. The council apparently spent £75,000 on repairing bollards. The Council was accused of a totally botched consultation, of benefiting the more affluent residents at the expense of those who rely on their cars to get around, of being out-of-touch with ordinary people’s concerns; of preventing people from going where they wanted to go, and of diverting traffic from the neighbourhoods to the arterial roads, which were becoming ever more congested.

George Monbiot, who is from Oxford, gave strong support to the scheme in the Guardian of August 3, 2022, entitled, “Ignore the culture warriors—low traffic neighbourhoods don’t close streets; they liberate them.”

It reminded him, he said, “of the school board controversies in the United States. A small group of furious men, whipped up by the media and opportunist politicians, are seeking to turn quiet, practical attempts to protect local people into full-blown culture wars. The further from reality their beliefs diverge, the more likely they are to resort to vandalism and violence.

There could, he argued, scarcely be a more reasonable proposition on offer. All the LTNs were seeking to do, he said, was “stop residential streets from being used as escape valves for overloaded arterial roads. They replace a privilege exercised by a few—rat-running through local streets—with rights enjoyed by the many: cleaner air, less noise, safe passage for children, cyclists, and users of wheelchairs and mobility scooters, plus stronger communities.”

The angry drivers who insist that they have been inadequately consulted, he said, should remember that “no one was consulted about their streets being used as short cuts. No one was consulted about facing a higher risk of asthma and dementia as a result of air pollution or seeing their communities split by walls of traffic. No one was consulted about losing the spaces where neighbours could talk and children could play.”

Public transport

Another issue raised against the introduction of the scheme was that the bus services should have been reorganised or upgraded before the LTNs were introduced.

In fact, the City Council wrote to the County Council at an early stage requesting this. For LTNs to be truly successful, its letter argued:

“they need to be brought forward as part of an integrated and strategic approach to transport planning in our city, not piecemeal… Without bus prioritisation measures, LTNs risk displacing more traffic onto our main roads, creating further congestion, and negatively impacting bus journey times and passenger numbers.”

The County Council rejected the request, and in my view, they were right. The danger, in my view, was that if implementation was suspended—given the level of controversy—it would never be restarted. The whole thing would have gone back to square one and then been revisited under even more difficult conditions. It was also a difficult time, at the end of the pandemic, to reorganise the bus services, since the demand lost in the pandemic was yet to recover.

There is a wider issue, as well, that needs to be discussed, which is the issue of free public transport. A strong case can be made that the most effective way to get the full benefit of the 15-minute city idea would be the introduction of a free at point of use, publicly owned transport system rather than trying to revamp the existing concept. This, along with fewer cars and zero-emission cars, would ensure that all this happens as part of a socially just transition.

Free public transport is increasingly being explored across Europe as a radical alternative to a car culture and individual car ownership.

This process was reviewed in a recent edition of The Traveller titled Free public transport a growing trend across Europe. It points out that “Last month, Malta became the second country in the world to make public transportation free. Luxembourg was the first nation to scrap fares in 2020, with dozens more European cities having independently joined these ranks. Spain, too, recently launched free train travel on select routes through the year’s end, while a small region in Italy has announced it will refund travellers’ train fares there until May.”

Electronic filters

The opposition is surely right that traffic from the neighbourhoods was diverted to the arterial roads, since that was the object of the exercise. The Council, however, has a credible response to this, though it is not operational until next year.

This is the installation of camera traffic filters on the six most congested arterial roads in the city. They would filter out unauthorised private cars and reduce the overall traffic flow. This was announced in November 2022, with a six-month consultation period for installation next year. The Council estimates that this would reduce traffic by around 20 percent on the ring road and by 35 percent in the city centre. These figures are entirely credible, in my view, and would, I suspect, more than compensate for traffic diverted from LTN neighbourhoods. Similar traffic filter cameras have operated on High Street for many years, and they greatly reduced traffic flow.

The consultation was carried out by a company called DJS field and data services. They reported that they received 5526 online responses to their questionnaire and 174 by post, which could be from either individuals or organisations, i.e., businesses, faith groups, etc. They also received 485 pieces of feedback in the form of letters and emails making general comments on the scheme. The details of all this (73 pages) can be found here.

The filters, the council claimed, would reduce the traffic on these roads, making bus journeys faster and walking and cycling safer. Four of the filters will be located on St. Cross Road, Thames Street, St. Clements, and Hythe Bridge Street and will operate seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7p.m. The other two will be located on Marston Ferry Road and Hollow Way and will not operate on Sundays.

Everyone would be able to reach home by car, if by a slightly longer route. Oxford city car owners would have access through the filters for up to 100 days each year. Oxfordshire car owners (outside of the city) would get access for up to 25 days each year. Automatic exemptions would include: buses, coaches, taxis, private hire vehicles, mopeds, motorbikes, vans, HGVs, emergency services and qualifying health service vehicles, disabled tax-class vehicles, minibuses, hearses, and cars used as goods vehicles by businesses based within the permitted area.

Street closures to stop rat runs are, of course, not new in Oxford. They have been carried out discreetly over the years as the traffic level on vulnerable streets became intolerable.

The far-right demonstration

Not that any of this will cut any ice with the opposition, in particular the far-right. They saw Oxford’s ’15-minute city’ as a challenge to their own dystopian and oil-soaked vision of society, and for them, the filter cameras confirmed everything.

As a result of this, several thousand woke-hating, climate-denying, far-rightists descended on Oxford on February 18 (this year), inspiring the UK neo-Nazi group Patriotic Alternative. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and white supremacist author Jason Kohne, who were both visible on the demonstration’s livestream and urged the cancellation of the plan, supported them.

A smaller anti-racist counter demonstration, to its credit, assembled in close by Bonn Square. (Physical clashes between the two groups took place before police intervened and separated them.)

Journalist Lucy Haywood, writing for the student magazine Oxford Blue, provided a very interesting eyewitness account of the demonstration:

“The protest against the traffic filters and the 15-minute cities scheme has become a rallying cry for all manners of right-wing conspiracy theories, from climate change denial and anti-vaccination propaganda to 5G conspiracies. Members of the Heritage Party—a group that on their website claims to stand for ‘free speech and liberty, traditional family values, national sovereignty, and financial responsibility”—were seen wielding signs that said ‘Stop Agenda 2030’ (i.e., opposition to climate change), with others declaring ‘We do not consent!’ and that ‘15-minute cities destroy livelihoods.’”

The invited speakers, she noted, included the actor Laurence Fox and the pop duo Right Said Fred, who shared a livestream by a prominent neo-Nazi last year. Chillingly, there were also Holocaust deniers present who distributed leaflets decrying Oxford’s ‘15-minute ghettos’, which they pasted on walls around the city centre.

Others were there to help whip up the tension, she said. These included Steve Milloy of Fox News and a close adviser to Donald Trump. He shared an Oxford Mail article with his Twitter followers in which he called the traffic filters the ‘first climate lockdown’. The city, he said, would be divided into six neighbourhoods, and residents would be “locked down in them with no traffic in or out—on a rotating basis.”

Just before the demonstration, Nick Fletcher, the Tory MP for Don Valley, spoke in the House of Commons, asking the government to hold a debate on what he called “the international socialist concept of so-called 15-minute cities and low-emission zones.” Such zones, he said, will cost the taxpayer money, while 15-minute cities will cost us our personal freedom.

He was told by Penny Mordaunt for the government that “it is right that people raise concerns about this kind of policy, and where such policies are brought forward, local communities ought to be properly consulted.”  Sunak’s Tories might still be grateful to Johnson for “delivering Brexit,” but they couldn’t wait to dump his position on LEZs and LTNs.

The left

The left has been divided on all this. Most of the Labour left in Oxford supported the County Council, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The radical left groups have either opposed the idea or avoided it.

In Labour-controlled Waltham Forest, where there was a battle over the introduction of an LTN, the Socialist Party opposed it from the start, seeing it as a Tory gentrification plot (i.e., that it would be socially progressive for the current conditions to continue). Their electoral initiative, TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition), had previously stood candidates for the council in opposition to the traffic reduction scheme promoted by Boris Johnson as Mayor of London in Waltham Forest in 2013, known as ‘mini-Holland’. In last year’s local election, they ran a candidate who was not only opposed to the LTN road closures but even to the provision of bike hangers.

All this reflects the radical left’s opposition to previous attempts to curb the car, from the congestion charges in London and Manchester to the Low Emission Zones and Ultra-Low Emission Zones across the country, because they ‘disadvantaged working class motorists’. These measures are now accepted as necessary, and no one is calling for their reversal. Today, many on the radical left oppose electric cars for the same spurious reason.

As far as I am aware, the only radical left group in Oxford to express a view on the Oxford 15-minute cities project is Socialist Appeal, which carried an article (on March 1) opposing the whole concept—or at least giving full support to the demands of the opposition without a single positive word about the scheme itself.

It accuses the County Council of “starting a culture war” by pitting “working class people who rely on their cars against environmental campaigners”. The traffic filters, it says, are “a real gut punch for working-class residents who are dependent on car travel and who are struggling enough already with the cost-of-living crisis and the cuts to public services.”

It also blames the Council for provoking the far-right demonstration by its “hasty implementation” of both the LTN and the filter cameras.

It portrays the demonstration as a perfectly understandable event given the outrageous actions of the County Council, into which the fascists and the neo-Nazis ‘opportunistically’ intervened. It then goes on to give credence to the demonstration’s key slogans, which it says “revolved around the need to ‘take back democracy,’ with marchers claiming that LTNs would ‘turn Oxford into a prison.’”

Behind such an attitude is the Neolithic proposition that it is only the middle-class and better off who are interested in environmental issues, whilst the ‘working class’ is only concerned with bread-and-butter issues and with preventing any restriction on the use of their car, regardless of the consequences for the environment. The climate emergency, for example, does not get a mention in the article.

Such an outdated view of the aspirations of the working class is dangerous and unacceptable. It is time for the left, in the 21st century, to insist that environmental issues such as freedom from pollution, a safe environment, green spaces, and a safe and sustainable planet to live on are as much core demands for the workers movement as wages and working conditions. Another problematic response to the Oxford LTN initiative is the article by Chris Saltmarsh, the cofounder of Labour for a Green New Deal, in the Tribune of March 9 entitled, “How 15-minute cities are fueling the far right.’

He starts (rightly) by seeing 15-Minute Cities as a good idea and points to the climate emergency as an important reason for supporting them. He then concludes that, in fact, both sides in the dispute are equally justified. The supporters because of their desire to tackle pollution, and the opponents because the implementation has been top-down and inadequate.

This leads him, inevitably, to the conclusion that the scheme should be withdrawn in its current form because ‘top-down’ local authorities are not the right bodies to bring them in and can also play into the hands of the far right. He says that democracy “does not happen in rigged local council consultations.

Instead, workers and residents should co-design these schemes themselves and then demand their introduction. 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”.

In other words, carry on polluting, let the far-right dictate the agenda, forget about net zero by 2030, let the rat runs continue, and forget about creating liveable neighbourhoods until the correct level of mass consciousness spontaneously arises.

Conclusion

The County Council has done remarkably well to see such a bold and transformational scheme through against such opposition. There is still a long way to go, however. The LTNs were the first step; the camera filters on the arterial roads will be introduced next year, but a fully developed 15-minute city will take a few more years.

The success so far, however, has been dramatic. The LTNs have exceeded expectations—at least my expectations. I have not seen any studies, but I have been and had a look for myself. The neighbourhoods concerned feel like different streets. Monbiot was exactly right. Far from closing down such streets, they liberate them. Cornwallis Road in Florence Park, for example, which was a major rat run, is completely transformed, as is the whole estate. From a constant flow of cars and vans day and night, it is now a quiet area with the occasional vehicle and people starting to fill the spaces.

Divinity Road, where I used to live, is exactly the same. At peak times, there used to be a queue of traffic at the top of the road waiting to get into it. Now there is nothing. The air quality is better, the traffic noise is gone, and people are emerging to use the space in a different way. Magdalen Road is the same—possibly even more so. They were both major rat runs, and they have been transformed by the change.

It would be a disaster if all this was junked and the rat runs reopened.

Consultation

Was the consultation adequate? Probably not. For example, over 70 percent of the respondents to the consultation were car owners and/or drivers. The County Council insists that the consultation was adequate, and that they have taken the majority of residents with them. The opponents insist that there was no democracy and that the scheme was imposed from the top.

It would not have been right, however, to allow such a socially progressive scheme that will save and improve lots of lives to be vetoed by vested interests and populist politics, as has been the case, for example, with the Tory ban on on-shore wind generation. Perfection must not be the enemy of the possible or, indeed, of the vitally necessary.

Interestingly, opposition to the scheme did not register in local election results during the consultation and implementation, despite the best efforts of the opponents to profile it, including standing anti-LTN candidates. There was no negative impact on pro-LTN candidates in the City Council elections in 2021 and 2022. Support for the pro-LTN parties held up in 2021 and 2022, with no changes other than that Labour lost 2 seats to the Greens. The results were: Lab 32, LibDems 9, and Greens 6.

As recently as March of this year, there were by-elections in the Rose Hill and Littlemore divisions for seats on both the County Council and the City Council, and in both cases the anti-LTN candidates were beaten by Labour—though quite narrowly in one case.

The Council has argued that more time is needed before final judgements can be made, and this is clearly true. A study posted on the website Open Democracy on May 1 of last year by climate campaigner Leo Murray about the 2013 Waltham Forest mini-Holland scheme (mentioned above), shows that opinions have changed dramatically over the past 9 years.

Mini-Holland, he points out, was hugely contentious at the time, with repeated protests against the road closures involved. “The guy who pushed it through got multiple death threats,” says Murray. “The large majority of residents were against.” Since it has settled in, he says, “all of the howling and raging about everything that would go wrong has disappeared. A Waltham Forest Council survey in 2020 showed that only 1.7% of residents now want the measures reversed.”

Clyde Loaks, the deputy leader of Waltham Forest Council, told the survey that “with the modal filters, instead of 2,500 vehicles a day driving down your residential road, you now have maybe about 60.”

Murray goes on to say that similar stories are playing out wherever these projects have been implemented. Despite shopkeepers often leading opposition, “there’s no evidence to support [a negative] impact on local businesses,” he explains. Retailers tend to overestimate the portion of their customers arriving by car by 100%. In fact, pedestrianisation and bike lanes usually increase local footfall. “When you’ve delivered this stuff, no one ever wants to go back,” he says. The problem is that during and immediately after implementation, when support is at its lowest, there are often small groups of vocal opponents: “Usually men over 50.”

Traffic reduction schemes like LTNs and 15-minute cites, of course, do not go far enough in terms of the global climate emergency. They are, however, important building blocks towards a wider solution, and they help to protect people’s lives in the process.

In any case, if we can’t bring about the modest lifestyle changes that are necessary to create a 15-minute city—using the car less, driving a little bit further when necessary, or using a different route in order to get rid of air pollution or make way for children to play—how are we going to make the changes necessary to halt global warming and save the planet?

We have to insist—with only 10 years left to halt global warming—that the existing institutions, at both governmental and local authority levels, take the necessary steps to defend the planet and its inhabitants—i.e., us—against the impending climate and ecological catastrophe. The left should be leading the charge to make the changes necessary to avoid such a catastrophe, not seeking to obstruct the Oxfordshire councils from doing their bit to tackle the problem by reducing car journeys on their patch.

If the left is going to play a positive role in saving the planet, it is going to have to have a much more flexible approach to the environmental struggle and a much clearer vision of the kind of sustainable society of the future that we are looking for.

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Alan is the author of Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism which can be purchased from Resistance Books.

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