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The London Society aims to provide a platform for the debate on how London ought to develop, and to go with our theme of ‘change’ in 2021, we will have a strand of articles on the blog called “Change: Opinions” – polemical pieces that make a case for a radically changing some aspect of the status quo or of received wisdom.

Here, Jon Burke formerly a Hackney Councillor, and the Cabinet Member for Energy, Waste, Transport and Public Realm, argues that on environmental, medical and social grounds, drastic action has to be taken against the motor vehicle in London. Part 1 looked at the scale of the problem, and part 2 below addresses what we need to do. You can download the whole article here (PDF).

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As has been noted by academics working on the issue of car dominance, “the tools exist to reclaim urban residential neighbourhoods from traffic, but this will require considerable political will.” [1] That will is currently being tested to the point of destruction in London, as the Taxi industry and various anti-Low Traffic Neighbourhood campaigns undertake legal action against both City Hall’s and local authorities’ plans to improve road safety, reduce air pollution, and address surface transport emissions [2]. 

The political will of local authorities is also being tested by the anti-Low Traffic Neighbourhood vandals destroying the infrastructure designed to support these measures, such as planters, cameras, and traffic monitoring equipment [3]; the failing courage of Councillors under the threat of deselection by vocal, and often unrepresentative, advocates of the status quo within their own Parties; and the intimidation and death threats targeted at the democratically-elected Councillors delivering on their manifesto commitments [4]. 

But, politicians – and particularly Councillors, who have to manage the local road transport network – should beware the temptation to acquiesce to calls from a vocal minority to reverse measures aimed at curtailing the dominance of cars. As a matter of good democratic practice, administrations elected to improve air quality and road safety should deliver their manifesto commitments; they should also deliver policies underpinned by evidence and which are proven, time and time again, to be popular with the public; and they should ‘stay the course’ because there are few other options available. This is illustrated by the fact that the opponents of such measures have consistently failed to offer any meaningful alternative.

Undoubtedly, zero-tailpipe emission vehicles will play an important role in urban transit; additional safe active travel infrastructure is also welcome; and investment in clean, low-cost public transport is essential, but these controversy-free measures are simply not enough, as the Climate Change Committee make clear. The plain fact is, there isn’t a city in the world that has halted the march of the private motor vehicle without placing restraints on where cars can go. A decision not to pursue demand-side policies is a decision to abandon meaningful efforts to address global warming, air quality, and road safety issues.

Fundamentally, if we are serious about addressing the public health, environmental, and social effects of car culture, Road User Pricing; Low Traffic Neighbourhoods; safe cycling infrastructure; Controlled Parking Zones; the limiting of parking permits by height, weight, and length; the systematic removal of private parking infrastructure on public land; and the delivery of bus gates and prioritisation to the exclusion of private motor vehicles will have to happen. Politicians who suggest otherwise are misleading the public.

However, another challenge faced by politicians attempting to address the domination of the car – and an explanation for why supply-side measures such as new cycle lanes and better public transport alone will be unsuccessful – is that the private motor car is not merely a means of ‘getting from A to B’; it has a much stronger psychological hold on our individual collective imaginations.

As Wilkinson and Pickett note in the The Spirit Level, we can directly correlate the propensity for driving large, aggressive vehicles to the prevailing level of income inequality in a society [5], demonstrating that the, increasingly large, private motor vehicles being driven on our roads are indeed meeting a need, but one unrelated to transport. Automotive industry advertising clearly targets those psychological needs extremely effectively, which is why there have also been calls on the Government to ban marketing of the most polluting motor vehicles [6].

Politicians should also see this difficult period of change as a chance to radically transform the public realm for the benefit of all. This was the motivation behind the 21st Century Streets programme I pioneered in Hackney, which – in the first example – involves the removal of more than one hundred metres of carriageway, to be replaced with a new neighbourhood park, incorporating new trees and play infrastructure, a School Street, electric vehicle charge points, and bike storage, all in exchange for around 25 parking spaces. In a borough where circa 70% of households don’t own a car, but are deficient of private green space, the creation of new neighbourhood parks is clearly meeting the needs of a much broader range of residents.

By viewing our streets as a huge untapped source of life-enhancing public goods, rather than merely a resource primarily for the benefit of drivers, London also has an opportunity to address its poor reputation for ‘liveability’, before other European Cities – such as Paris, which is busily reimagining its public realm under the visionary leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo – begin luring the talent that has made the capital such an international success story in recent decades. As I noted in the Financial Times, “Transport policy isn’t merely about transport — it’s about seeking to operate cities in ways that are more human [in] scale and are objectively proven to attract the kind of people who make those cities successful.” [7]

The tale of surface transport in London, particularly over the past decade, is a vast increase in miles driven on its roads annually, and an increasing propensity to drive larger, objectively more dangerous SUV-type vehicles. If a war has been initiated, it is undeniably by the motor vehicle on Londoners and, due to a conspiracy of silence from politicians, regulators, and a media dependent upon automotive industry advertising, the car has been winning.

The intransigence of opponents to any measure limiting the dominance of cars; the wilful disregard for the safety of the public by a rogue automotive industry; and the retrograde attitudes of politicians who pass climate emergency motions in parliament and council chambers only to retreat at the first sign of opposition, is a familiar tale of a creeping threat wilfully ignored, which allows us to consider again parallels with the 1930s.

As noted in the introduction to Richard Overy’s own account of the 1930s, The Morbid Age, politicians and elements of the public can attempt to fence themselves off from reality, but reality cannot be detained indefinitely.

Only by placing limits on what kinds of motor vehicles can use our streets, where they can go, and at what speed, will we begin hand our cities back to all their residents. Attempting to do so is, and will continue to be, contested fiercely by all those who benefit from the status quo – the fossil fuel industry, the automotive industry, the ‘way-finding app’ developers, a media compromised by the need to attract lucrative advertising revenues, and drivers themselves .

There is no ‘war on cars’ in London, but all the evidence suggests that the major environmental, public health, road safety, and social problems they create means waging one may be the only way of defeating their stranglehold on life in the capital.


[1] Ibid

[2] Ed Sheridan, Anti-LTN campaign group issues formal legal challenge to Hackney Council, Hackney Citizen, 14.01.21

[3] Op.cit, Hackney Council calls on Met Police to stop Low Traffic Neighbourhood vandals and protect road closure schemes

[4] Holly Chant, Hackney councillor receives death threat over road closures, Hackney Gazette, 28.09.20

[5] Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level

[6] Op.cit, Ban Advertising of Polluting SUVs 

[7] Martin Sandbu, How to make cities more liveable after Covid-19, Financial Times, 23.11.20