Last Saturday thousands of people travelled to Oxford to protest the city council’s plans to turn Oxford into a 15-minute city. For a bit of background, the goal of a 15-minute city essentially reducing the amount of private car use and making urban areas more walkable, prioritising public transport and walking to reach central community areas in 15 minutes or less. Its had many names through history, (green cities, walkable cities, etc.) but the most recent form of that is the concept of a 15-minute city.
Some of the main benefits of this are cities are made safer for those that are walking or cycling, you reduce congestion (which having driven in and around Oxford is no bad thing) and you reduce carbon emissions and the dangerous particulates that are emitted from road vehicles. Cities become cleaner and healthier and its something that everyone can feel the benefits of.
So really it seems a weird plan for so many to protest. Surely those benefits are worth having some restrictions on where we can drive? Some of those restrictions already exist – pedestrianised areas can be found in almost all cities around the world – and being able to walk in our town centres is unarguably a positive thing. So why so much backlash?
A Bit of History
Historically, the development of urban areas were always designed to be walkable. That was the only way everyone could get around with a few animal-based exceptions. As populations grew and technology allowed for faster travel across urban areas, cities transformed from walkable cities to transit cities where trains driven by steam power allowed for the expansion of urban areas and enabled an interconnectedness between towns and cities that previously hadn’t been possible. The invention of the car allowed for further rapid expansion of the city towards driving cities that we have today. The suburban life went from a dream to reality with workers able to live outside the city and travel in for work in their own private vehicles.
Whether we asked for it or not, the invention of the car took over the way we get around towns and cities. We constructed major roads that cut through the landscape and built huge tunnels or bridges when it wasn’t possible to work to the lands contours. Even within our towns and cities the car took over old roads that that were never designed for vehicles, bending history to manage a future they could have never imagined. Just over a century ago, all cities were walkable. Now, every city is car-centric.
Even just between recent generations our ability to walk in our towns and cities has been rapidly reduced. Cities have been transformed to work for the car and its made us forget how things used to be. When our grandparents were growing up they could play in the street safely with no or very little fear of being hit by a car and friends were always nearby or within walking distance. Now, kids are locked into the street they live on for fear of them being hit by a car.
So what is the 15-minute city plan for Oxford, and is it really different to what we had before the car?
Oxford City Council put together the plans for Oxford as a 15-minute city recently as part of their Local Plan 2040. Regions of the city were split into wards with each of those wards having everything the community would need – leisure centres, medical centres, shops, etc – all within a 15-minute walk. Backed by Oxford University, the plan would dramatically reduce the need for people to use their cars and make it much easier to use public transport when getting around. There’d be less reliance for those living on the outskirts to drive into the town centre for everything they need, instead having everything they need (or most at least) within walking distance.
There would be restrictions on when and where people could drive. To move between wards drivers would need to use the ring road around Oxford rather than travelling through the wards but this would only apply until 7pm. There are planned exclusions of course: public transport, taxis, drivers with accessibility issues, would all be able to travel as they currently are, but all other drivers would have to use the ring road. The Oxford proposal did include 100 trips into other areas of the city as well, which is hardly restricting movement.
There are a huge number of benefits to this. Providing central locations within a short distance means that everyone has access to the shops and amenities that we all need, nobody is forced to travel too far because of poor urban planning. Traffic within the city would dramatically reduce – imagine traffic free roads! Public transport wouldn’t be stuck in on its routes all the time, our roads would be much safer and the air over Oxford would be cleaner.
A Cauldron of Conspiracy Theories
Whilst the majority may have been there to protest this idea of Oxford becoming a 15-minute city, there were a number of flags, signs and banners suggesting that many had travelled there to get a number of conspiracy theories off their chest. From anti-globalist sentiments to some of the more bizarre climate denialism arguments (my favourite being ‘they want to cut down on carbon, we’re all made of carbon, what they mean is they want to get rid of us’), anything that remotely related to the idea of the 15-minute city plan being an infringement on freedoms was [spoken] either at the protests or in supportive messages across social media.
Shirts of ‘HMP Oxford’ and comparisons to Oxford becoming a ghetto were rife during the protests. The World Economic Forum (WEF) and climate alarmists were the typical focus of much of the anger from many of the protestors despite the concept of a 15-minute city existing well before the WEF jumped on that bandwagon. The climate movement is often seen as some sort of elitist movement even as we’re trying to break the status quo of a fossil fuel making tens of billions in profits annually – they’re probably rubbing their hands watching so much opposition to their bottom lines…
From what I can see, literally the only “freedoms” being infringed (and I say this very, very loosely) is the freedom to drive wherever people want. That isn’t a freedom, and if it is it’s majorly being infringed on restricted roads and in pedestrianised areas – those damn safe spaces!! Of course, that freedom is one that only those who can afford to own their own car get to enjoy, but let’s not make too much of a point of that.
Our Freedoms Disappeared Long Ago
Those that were protesting, whilst there were a number of different and conflicting messages, were angry at the idea that this 15-minute city proposal would somehow curtail our freedoms. The inability to drive from one side of a city to the other through narrow and often clogged streets somehow equates to living in a prison. In the example of Oxford there’s nothing stopping people from travelling from the east of the city to the west, only now they’re being asked to use the ring road that surrounds the city if they want to drive or use the public transport that will be easier and more reliable to use.
The freedoms these protestors seemed to be marching for are only freedoms for those who can drive. How about those that don’t drive? Those who get around using public transport, taxis or use more man-powered options, what about there freedoms to drive cars wherever they want? Whether thats an economic, social or moral reason to not drive, what happened to the freedom to breathe clean air, or walk safely without worrying about being hit by a vehicle?
The car-centric towns and cities that have been built right under our noses and we’ve called it progress. Sitting in traffic, breathing in polluted air has become the norm and we’ve just accepted it like its a good thing. Kids can no longer play in the street or go beyond the end of their street to see their friends, we don’t walk anywhere – a US study found that 28% of car trips were less than a mile – and on average 5 people die on the roads every day here in the UK.
We’ve become slaves to our vehicles. We’ve become so reliant on using them to get around that it feels impossible to walk or take public transport. No matter how clogged our roads become we seem to think that the answer is more bigger roads (which don’t work) and refuse to look at how we can reduce the number of vehicles on the road. No wonder so many believe that public transport doesn’t work, its always stuck in the traffic we create!
Those who protested in Oxford last weekend were protesting only for those who have the luxury to drive their own vehicle. They call it a globalist agenda or an infringement on freedoms but all it does is retain a deadly and dysfunctional status quo that arguably removes more freedoms than being able to sit in traffic ‘because it’s your right’.
Designing cities to make them more walkable and less reliant on cars is a step towards greater freedoms for all. In the case of Oxford it would make the inner cities quieter, cleaner and much more accessible for all. There would be nothing stopping people from driving into other areas of the city, they’d only have to drive around on the ring road. Restrictions on driving already exist, almost every city centre has pedestrianised areas where no vehicles can drive and I feel I’d struggle to find anyone who’d be against those.