“Lord make me chaste, but not yet”. St Augustine’s prayer seems to apply well to our relationship with the motor car. Most of us worry about the effects of air pollution, traffic accidents and congestion, but it seems that we are very reluctant to adopt measures to reduce them.
Recently we have reported on the protests about “15 minute neighbourhoods” and low emission zones in Thetford and more widely around the region. Sometimes rumours have travelled faster than facts. For example, when Norfolk County Council announced that it was investigating the potential for change, some people rushed to protest, convinced that there is a plot to imprison them in their neighbourhoods, with fines for driving their cars.
These attitudes are underpinned by a distrust of government of any kind, and a deep hostility to any restriction on our “right” to drive where and when we want. And local government has not always been good at anticipating resistance.
Government’s own goal
At the heart of these issues is a cluster of overlapping, but distinct, ideas. The common aim is to reduce carbon emissions to meet the government’s net zero commitments and reduce the health risks from air pollution. Possible strategies include the familiar – speed cameras and lower speed limits – while more drastic ones include charging people to drive more polluting vehicles (Low Emission Zones) or simply to drive in the most congested areas (Congestion Charging Zones). Low Traffic Neighbourhoods offer an alternative approach, by blocking some roads to prevent through traffic: an idea which fits neatly with the “15-minute neighbourhood” idea.
Using cars less and breathing cleaner air are not bad ideas. Probably a majority of people share the underlying concerns and might be glad if planners could give them access to key local services within walking distance. However, government has managed to score an own goal, with many people coming to see the strategies not as improving their lives, but as Big Brother watching us all on CCTV.
A recent poll by research company Findoutnow has found a dramatically incoherent picture. Almost half of all people agree that “people use their cars too much”, and only 15% disagree. But when offered seven measures which might tackle the problem, most of the answers were negative.
On the positive side, two of the seven were supported by a majority. “More speed cameras” got a net score (the proportion in favour minus those against) of +23; while “lower speed limits (e.g. 20 mph)” scored +12.
However, for the other five, the picture is very different: Low Traffic Neighbourhoods scored -15, Low Emission Zones scored -22, Congestion Charging Zones -26, and “blocking people from moving between neighbourhoods” -47!
Unsurprisingly, car owners are more hostile to the measures. But other patterns are also evident. Attitudes to these issues follow the same divides as we found over Brexit. Hostility to these ideas is strongest among Conservative voters, leave voters and older people.
Distrust of government
When asked “Do you agree or disagree that politicians are making things too difficult for motorists?” the net figure is 35. Asked “Do you agree or disagree that local councils, mayors and parliament should set rules to make people drive less?” the net figure is -40 (though a less heavily loaded choice of words than “setting rules” might have produced a milder response).
How to lose an argument
These ideas have been discussed in government circles in many countries, but concerns have flared up recently after the introduction of a scheme in Oxford, which has particularly difficult traffic problems. Probably the earliest and most extensive adoption of these schemes in this country has been in London, where the health risks of traffic have been dramatically highlighted by the Inquest verdict on Ella Adoo KissiDebrah, the first child to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.
In 2012 researchers at the University of Leeds examined attitudes to Low Emission Zones (though one might guess that the same principle would apply to the other measures). They identified a set of key reasons why people might support or resist these ideas. To produce a positive response, change needed to be seen as improving life, not restricting it, and it was more likely to be welcomed if there had been thorough public consultation and support from opinion leaders.
Conversely, there would be resistance if the change was seen as imposed by untrusted outsiders, and it is clear that levels of public trust in government, at local or national level, are currently very low. Many people are more likely to see a conspiracy than a scheme to improve life. There would also be hostility if the scheme was seen to be unfair: if, for example, it penalised people who couldn’t afford to replace their cars, or who need vehicles for their work. Practicality was also an issue: will life become impossibly difficult for those who need to travel across areas, for emergency services or for disabled people? Finally, would the scheme be unreasonably expensive: could all this money be better spent on something else? Ironically, one concern is that charging systems might be designed, not to deter “bad” behaviour, but as a hidden tax to raise money for other purposes.
A way forward?
So far, moves in this direction in East Anglia have not provoked widespread concern, though things have flared up in Thetford and Cambridge. But as councils will, inevitably, consider ways of tackling these problems, if they don’t want to see the protests in Thetford turn into something larger and more unpleasant, they would do well to consider how to engage and consult, to convince people that we will all be better off in a cleaner, quieter world.