Image credit: Tara Earley

When did traffic get so toxic?

A short while ago, I was recommended a tweet about Broad Street. It showed a side by side comparison of Broad Street before and after the new green spaces were introduced. One showed a long grey strip of tarmac, full of cars and empty road space, while the other was full of planters and seating areas, with beautiful flowers blooming. Most of the comments were very sensible, discussing how much they liked the new planters. There were, however, a small but vocal minority arguing that the changes had somehow ruined Broad Street – that the removal of car parking for “pointless ugly junk” and “nonsense painted patterns on the road” had turned Broad Street into a “crack addict’s playground”. Division over traffic measures in Oxford is nothing new, but it struck me that the sheer ridiculousness of those complaining about flowers rather than cars was emblematic of the wider debate. 

Clearly, the dialogue on the issue is utterly toxic.

A few months back, Oxford hit the headlines around the UK and the world over the City Council’s plans for six new traffic filters. Opponents of the plans have increasingly relied on slippery slope arguments and any credible opposition has been hijacked by conspiracy theorists.  Relying on unrelated plans for 15-minute cities being pursued by the County Council, many of those who don’t like the idea of traffic filters have argued that they form part of a wider conspiracy to lock people into 15-minute “zones” as part of a plot by the World Economic Forum for the “Great Reset”. When protests took place in February, some even tried to link 15-minute cities to forced vaccinations.

Clearly, the dialogue on the issue is utterly toxic. Yet bizarrely it is over an issue that I believe should be uncontroversial in every regard. The traffic filters being proposed are part of an attempt to create low traffic neighbourhoods, an idea that has been around for decades. They have been shown to have numerous benefits for the community: air and noise pollution decrease drastically, more people walk and cycle, and crime falls. 

I think it is fair to say that these are seen almost universally to be positive changes. You need only take a short stroll down Broad Street to see people frolicking amongst the flowers, making good use of the new seating to soak up the sun and watch the endless stream of tour parties and bicycles go by. On the whole, Oxford seems to have been largely receptive to its newest green space.

The fact that this is what our discourse over 15-minute cities has descended into is symptomatic of our contemporary politics.

Even if you dispute the usefulness of low traffic neighbourhoods, what is more bizarre still is the furore over plans for 15-minute cities. Introducing fines for driving occasionally understandably could be irritating for car owners, but that it is linked to 15-minute cities to make it seem like a bigger issue is nonsensical. The 15-minute city concept is an urban planning idea in which daily necessities and services, such as work, shopping, education, healthcare, and leisure can be easily reached by a 15-minute walk or bike ride regardless of where one lives in the city. 

What it certainly does not involve is restricting peoples’ movements, locking them in zones, and forcing them to get vaccinated. The fact that this is what our discourse over 15-minute cities has descended into is symptomatic of our contemporary politics. Issues are twisted out of proportion, seized on by other groups, and hijacked by conspiracy theorists. At the end of the day, I’m just shocked that a few flower planters can cause so much hysteria. Wanting to be able to walk to the shops shouldn’t be divisive: can we please get a sense of proportion?

Image credits: via Tara Earley.

Image description: A shot of Broad Street’s new flower planters against a blue sky.