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Oxford, the 15-Minute City, and the Birth of a Lie

Alex Dunn explains the controversy surrounding the LTNs.

It was impossible to miss the commotion of February 18th. Libertarians, climate-deniers, and conspiracy theorists alike rallied in Broad Street to protest the “globalist agenda” of the Oxfordshire County Council. As I left my room on that morning, the first hint that something unusual was afoot was the police drone being launched out of the front quad of my college. Approaching the porters’ lodge, the sound of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” became increasingly audible, along with a buzz of voices. By this time, I had an idea of what I was about to stumble upon. As a native citizen of Oxford, I have been following closely the backlash against the County Council’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and traffic filters, which have become controversial issues beyond the city’s borders. They have even attracted criticism from abroad, with right-wing figures such as Jordan Peterson describing the Oxfordshire County Council as “idiot tyrannical bureaucrats”. I was therefore unsurprised, upon leaving college, to see a “don’t tread on me” flag fluttering above the crowd. I was even less surprised to discover that many of the protesters were not even Oxford residents. Most of the opposition to the Council has been external, and typically based on cynical misrepresentations of what the policies are, and what they seek to achieve. I soon found myself debating a man who believed that 15-minute cities are the thin end of the wedge for total global domination by the World Economic Forum. He admitted that he was not a local, but asserted that Oxford’s policies are a global issue. Bewildered, I scuttled off to the Bodleian, where – the noise of the protesters still distractingly audible through the window – I asked myself: how on earth did we get here?

15-Minute cities: “climate lockdown” or local vision?

The first thing that should be noted is the distinction between the policies of the City Council, and the County Council. The idea of 15-minute cities is a key element of the City Council’s “Local Plan 2040”, a broad vision for the development of the city over the next 20 years, covering housing, employment, biodiversity, inequality, and culture. According to the plan, a 15-minute city is one which is “planned in such a way as to optimise the opportunity for people to be able to reach a wide range of facilities that they need to live well and healthily within a 15-minute walk of their home”. Although this concept is tied to the goal of reducing car use, the plan does not include any references to the traffic restriction policies, which are the purview of the County, not City Council. Claims from conspiracy theorists that the County Council’s policies are attempts to “lock citizens in” their 15-minute neighbourhood are completely misguided.

So what exactly are the Council’s policies?

The central issue of the February 18th protests was the County Council’s proposal to introduce six new traffic filters on key connecting roads around the city (see below). It is a part of the Central Oxfordshire Travel Plan, whose goals include the reduction of car journeys, a net-zero transport network, and zero road fatalities. This plan does include references to the concept of a 20-minute city, but does not designate 20-minute zones, as conspiracy theorists claim. Traffic filters are a way of controlling the number and type of vehicles that pass through a certain point on the road, specifically during the hours between 7am and 7pm. These are not physical barriers blocking the road, as can be found in some streets in Cowley. Instead, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras monitor cars passing through, with a fine of £70 issued to drivers who are not exempt. The primary goal of this scheme is to reduce unnecessary car journeys within the city, so there are numerous exceptions made to give free passage to buses, taxis, business goods vehicles, care workers and blue badge holders. Also, residents of the city are permitted 100 days per year in which they can travel through the filters with no charge. When the trial period of the scheme begins, it will be accompanied by a public consultation to assess the impact and public support.

Map of Oxford showing how each zone will be accessed from the Ring Road by its main roads, with the traffic filters preventing private motor vehicles travelling between zones.

Image Credit: Headington Liveable Streets

The birth of a lie

The above image has been viewed over 2.7 million times, in a retweet of the following dystopian prediction:

“You will remain in your 15 minute zone. If your children are lucky enough to be granted the privilege by the elites running your town or city, they too will raise their children in the same property and 15 minute zone that they were raised in.”

This image was created by the community activist group Headington Liveable Streets (an organisation in favour of the County Council’s measures to control traffic), to help visualise the areas which will be mutually inaccessible (directly) by car after the changes. It is still possible to drive indirectly between any of these areas free of charge via the bypass road around the city. But for many of the millions of people who saw the tweet, this detail (along with many other important nuances) was completely lost. As a consequence, these outsiders to the local politics of Oxford have been given evidence for their conspiracy theory of authoritarian government control. Similarly birthed out of the Chinese whispers-like chain of internet misinformation was the claim that 93% of Oxford residents had voted against the proposal. The origins of this idea lie in the first public consultation on the proposal, in which a free-text box was provided to give respondents the opportunity to give their comments on the benefits of the scheme. In this box, 7% of respondents wrote comments categorised as supportive the scheme. Keep in mind, this was by no means a binary poll – by comparison, 8% of the comments were categorised as disagreeing with the scheme. Yet in the mind of the bad-faith anti-traffic filter activist, 100% minus 7% support equals 93% opposition. This becomes a tweet, which becomes a retweet, followed by comments. Soon people are repeating the idea that “93% said no” to the traffic filters. People then read this, and assume that there had been a formal poll on the issue. This morphs into the lie that 93% of Oxford residents had voted against the proposal, the type of lie that drives thousands to take to the streets in protest.

Are there legitimate concerns about traffic filters?

I am personally a strong supporter of the plan, coming from one of the 30% of Oxford households that does not own a car. I believe that the best thing for the city’s future is a move away from driving, and towards public transport, cycling, and walking. For evidence of the effectiveness of traffic filters, look no further than Oxford’s city centre, whose borders are dutifully guarded by bus gates (which function in a similar way, see below). As a consequence, the streets are much safer for pedestrians and cyclists, bus journeys are much faster, and the overall atmosphere of the town is more pleasant. This said, some people have legitimate reasons to be sceptical of the traffic restriction proposals, which are often drowned out by the unhinged whining of conspiracy theorists.

A picture containing text, road, outdoor, street

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Image Credit: Google Maps/ CC 1.0

The traffic filters will undoubtedly increase journey times for those who choose to travel around the city by car, as many will continue to do, unless bus services are improved in tandem. Of course, for people with mobility issues (many of whom do not qualify for a blue badge), walking, cycling, or taking public transport is much more difficult, and they may still need to travel by car. There have concerns from local businesses that the traffic filters will lead discourage potential customers from driving to their premises, resulting in a loss of revenue. Some have criticised the plan for not including exemptions for electric vehicles, which are quieter and do not pollute the air. 

When you cut through the noxious fog of social media hyperbole, a genuine, honest debate is uncovered. As students, we are part-time citizens of Oxford, and have a right to be a part of it. Whether or not you support the traffic filters, remember that (if you are a citizen of Britain, the Commonwealth, Irish Republic or an EU member state) you are able to register to vote in Oxford, and can participate in the City and County Council elections. The next time an rowdy mob comes to distract you from your essay crisis, remember that you have just as much a right to make your voice heard!

Top Image Credit: World Bank Photo Collection/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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