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To reach Net Zero, politicians will have to listen less and lead more

·4-min read

Forza, London: Oxford Circus is going Italian, with traffic-free piazzas. The artists’ impressions of the new area look lovely, and who could object to strolling in the summer sun through the centre of town? No wonder politicians, including Sadiq Khan and Westminster council’s Rachael Robathan, are keen to talk up the change.

But kicking cars out of central London won’t be easy. The Oxford Circus scheme is just part of a much bigger story about how tricky it could be to make our cities greener and cleaner — and the opportunities that await politicians who are prepared to be brave.

Barely hours after the Oxford Circus announcement this week came another bit of news about traffic. At the Court or Appeal, Mayor Khan won a legal battle to continue with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), where some streets are closed to motorists.

The case was brought by businesses and taxi drivers who accused Transport for London of acting unlawfully.

That was far from the only protest against LTNs. I’m a Wandsworth resident and still remember the furious rows on my street’s WhatsApp group when an LTN suddenly blocked a nearby street. Some of my neighbours were delighted — no more rat-run drivers near the local primary; a welcome nudge to walk and cycle more. Others were furious — a big disruption imposed without warning. And what about the traffic displaced onto other roads nearby?

Traffic planning is emotive stuff. Just ask Ealing council, which recently became the latest to abandon LTNs outright after 2,000 people marched on the town hall in protest. These stories about changing the way people move around our city contain several important lessons about the Net Zero agenda aiming to decarbonise the UK economy.

The first is that we can’t rely on broad public support for environmental causes to deliver acceptance for local changes. Many of the people who angrily protest about LTNs making it harder for them to drive also care about climate change. But no one has properly explained to them that addressing that change is going to require them to change things about their daily lives — driving less, flying less, eating less meat, burning less gas to heat their homes. Voters need to be told, loudly and clearly that this is the decade when Net Zero comes to our daily lives. The second lesson is that we can’t just leave people to cope with those changes alone. LTNs lose support where people — not unreasonably — feel that changes will hurt their livelihoods. The transition to a green economy can’t be done half-heartedly. People are going to need not just information but financial support to make the changes in behaviour needed to reach Net Zero carbon.

In the context of traffic reduction, that means more help to buy and run electric vehicles, more support for car clubs and shared ownership schemes and better public transport. Just telling people to drive less won’t work — and risks a backlash — unless it’s accompanied by bigger, bolder changes that make it easier to drive less.

The last lesson is the hardest for politicians: listen less and lead more. Ealing has promised that it will consult extensively before any new attempt to set up LTNs. That’s almost certain to mean they don’t happen. That’s because humans can be conservative creatures, averse to change.

Yet even seemingly major disruptive changes can — eventually and sometimes quite quickly — come to seem mundane and uncontroversial. It’s hard even to remember now, but before it happened, the ban on smoking in pubs, clubs and restaurants was deeply contentious. Who would go back now?

Transport policy in London offers an even better example. My friend Ben Page of the polling firm Ipsos MORI points out that the London congestion charge was deeply controversial when it was put in place in 2003. Yet no one has since seriously proposed its removal. More consultation might have meant the charge was never introduced, meaning more traffic and more air pollution. There’s a similar story that’s quietly told about LTNs — after initial protests die down, many prove to be at least tolerable to local communities.

Banning cars from Oxford Circus and from our local streets may cause some (legitimate) grumbling from people whose lives it disrupts. But as long as they’re given the right support and the leaders responsible hold their nerve, we will one day look back on such changes and wonder: what took us so long?

James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation think tank

What do you think of the plans to pedestrianise Oxford Circus? Let us know in the comments below.

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