This post is an attempt at pulling together a number of threads to work out why the rhetoric we’re bombarded with about adjusting our lifestyles to cut down the amount of CO2 we generate contrasts starkly with a reality that actually forces us to emit more. Regardless of where you may be on the issue of CO2 emissions and climate change, this piece will hopefully prompt you into considering how we have a planning system that fails to be future proofed and is incapable of anything remotely resembling joined up thinking. This is because too many planning decisions assume near universal car ownership continuing into the future and do not allow for the developments of any meaningful and fair for all alternatives to a vehicle based society and economy.
Health and equity
For the record, our concerns about increasing levels of traffic tend to focus on the health risks from vehicle emissions, noise pollution and the pressure to build more road capacity which will lead to a loss of farmland and damage the landscape. The reason for this stems from the years we spent living in Thurrock, a borough located to the east of London on the Essex shore of the Thames estuary. A borough whose health and landscape are under threat from the proposed Lower Thames Crossing. A borough that has suffered a lot from polluted air as detailed in this piece from the Thames Crossing Action Group: LTC toxic triangle – Thames Crossing Action Group 24.6.21. Opposition to the Lower Thames Crossing transcends political boundaries and that’s reflected in the campaign against the scheme focusing on the issues of air pollution, noise pollution, the loss of farmland and further damage to a landscape that over the decades, has been pretty badly abused in places.
There are also issues of social exclusion to be taken into consideration with an economy and planning system that acts against those of us who don’t drive. It’s not just the planning system that works against building a genuinely sustainable and inclusive future for all of us – a failing public transport network also has a lot to answer for as well. People look at the public transport options on offer and conclude that even for something as basic as getting to and from work, they often have no option but to drive. With the bombardment of rhetoric about not driving on the one hand, and having to deal with the consequences of some pretty bizarre planning decisions and a piss poor public transport network on the other, many people will understandably feel that whatever they do, they can never win.
In an ideal world, our cities, towns and villages should be places where all of us can live fulfilling lives – they should be for everyone. There’s a fair bit of rhetoric from city ‘leaders’ about how they want to transform their cities into healthier and more equitable places to live. Rhetoric that in many cases can best be described as hot air and if we’re being blunt, utter bullshit. It’s just a shame that in the middle of an energy price crisis, that hot air can’t be captured and usefully used for a district heating scheme! This is just one of many examples of this hot air: Bristol One City – Climate Change. What follows is a brief examination of how the reality of what people have to deal with in their daily lives is at odds with them being urged and increasingly pressurised into cutting down or even giving up driving.
The odds are stacked against us
Looking at the Avon region, the pressure to cut down on or even give up driving doesn’t only not acknowledge the reality of what’s going on – it flies in the face of it! Any resident of Bristol, Bath and the surrounding region will tell you that the place can be a nightmare to get around. A poor public transport network that’s still deteriorating is not going to help with making the place a healthier and more equitable place to live in. It’s certainly not going to encourage people to move away from driving.
The bus ‘service’ has been afflicted by a range of issues, all of which have impacted the service offered to bus users across the Avon region. A number of these issues are direct consequences of the Covid lockdowns and restrictions over 2020/21 that impacted the way we worked, shopped, travelled and enjoyed our leisure. Bus usage fell dramatically and has still yet to recover to 2019 levels. One of the more serious factors is the shortage of drivers. Bear in mind that even before 2020, the bus service across the region had a reputation for unreliability. Even if the political will was there across the board to invest in and boost bus services, it would be some years before people were confident enough about their reliability to swap the car for the bus.
Then there’s the rail network. When we were living back in Thurrock in Essex, we didn’t appreciate how good the rail service we had from c2c was relative to the offering we now get from GWR. There simply isn’t the capacity to move the number of people in and out of both Bristol and Bath and between them that London and the South East enjoys. Serious investment is needed and even if the political will was there to deliver that, it would still take some years to make a significant difference to the rail network in the region. There has been talk of an underground railway for Bristol for some while and feasibility studies have been undertaken but the widespread opinion is that this is just one of Marvin Rees flights of fancy that’s never going to get delivered. Meanwhile, Bristol, Bath and the roads in between continue to snarl up, screwing up the bus services and adding to the problems with air pollution in the region. Given both the parlous state of the bus and rail services, it’s not surprising that a greater percentage of people in the Avon region compared to Greater London and the surrounding area choose to drive.
For sure, there are token gestures to try and con residents of Bristol that attention is being paid to the rail network. One being the construction of a railway station at North Filton to ‘serve’ the nearby YTL Arena that’s due to open in 2024. The railway station at North Filton is due to open in 2025. When it does open, it will be served by one train an hour in each direction. It will barely make a dent in the number of people attending events at the arena, the majority of who will have no option but to get there and back by car.
In the face of a failing bus network and a rail network that is not comprehensive enough to properly serve cities such as Bristol and Bath as well as the surrounding towns and villages, we have another ‘development’ that flies in the face of logic. Namely the decision to allow Bristol Airport to expand the number of passengers it caters for from 10 million a year up to 12 million. For people outside the Avon region, it should be pointed out that Bristol Airport is in the countryside, south west of the city boundary in North Somerset. It’s nowhere near a railway so the only way of getting there is by road. Any expansion of passenger numbers will result in an increase in the volume of traffic on the roads leading to the airport. At the time of writing, the decision to allow the airport to expand is rightly the subject of a legal challenge.
For sure, we’re being encouraged to cycle and walk more. Cycling…both Bristol and Bath are pretty hilly in places and unless you’re super fit, cycling is not really a viable option. Not only that, the actual physical provision for safe cycling is patchy and not exactly coherent: Why was there no consultation before removing Cheltenham Road cycle lane? 21.10.22. When there are cycle ways across pedestrianised areas, they’re not always clearly marked, leading to pointless conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. Who should be natural allies but find themselves at loggerheads because of the actions of the selfish minority of cyclists who show utter contempt towards us mere pedestrians.
Set up to fail
Everything is heading in the wrong direction, isn’t it? On the one hand, people are being nagged to leave their cars at home and use a combination of public transport, cycling and walking instead. Yet the public transport infrastructure isn’t there to facilitate this. It can be argued that the cycling infrastructure is a long way from where it should be. Speaking as mere pedestrians, we often have cause to think that we’re right at the bottom of the pecking order. As well as this, there are the aforementioned developments such as the YTL Arena at Filton and the expansion of Bristol Airport, both of which will lead to an increase in road traffic in Bristol and the surrounding areas. You couldn’t make it up, could you?
Regardless of some utterly bizarre planning decisions and a public transport system that’s demonstrably failing, the rhetoric designed to make us adjust our lifestyles in order to emit less CO2 shows no sign of letting up. This is despite it being blatantly obvious to any thinking person that everything is set up to frustrate any attempts to adjust our lifestyles. Making people feel that whatever they do, they can’t win will generate cynicism and with some, outright hostility to being lectured on how to lead their lives. It really feels that we’re being set up to fail, doesn’t it?
Is there a way out of this?
Back in March, we made an attempt to pose some possible solutions. This attempt came in the form of an examination of this concept: 15 minute cities / neighbourhoods – a good or a bad idea? 23.3.22. As mentioned earlier, neither of us drive so instinctively, we have a fair bit of time for the concept of a 15 minute neighbourhood. Being non drivers and relying on public transport and walking greatly influenced our choice of where to live when we relocated from Thurrock down to the West Country, which is why we live very close to Keynsham town centre and also to the railway station. Essentially, we found our own 15 minute neighbourhood. However, we’re also acutely aware of how what seems to be a pretty sound concept for the future of our urban areas from the cities through the towns to the suburbs and even the villages can be twisted and used as a means of social control. Restricting people’s ability to move around is a classic means of social control.
We’ve got a dilemma haven’t we? There is the possibility of planning our communities that will reduce unnecessary car journeys. The point is that it has to be brought about in such a way that the vast majority of people will be happy to own the concept and will willingly work towards bringing it about. The problem is that as pointed out in this piece, the planning system delivers outcomes that necessitate more car use! This is exacerbated by a public transport system that’s not adequate to meet current needs, let alone any expansion of demand.
Until a way can be found to persuade people that restructuring our communities so that unnecessary car journeys are reduced can be found, many will resist it. One reason they’ll resist it is that rightly, many people know that they have very little control over the big decisions taken by government on behalf of their corporate and fiscal masters that shape our lives. A consequence of this is that people will understandably resist what they see as social control. Restricting how people move around is seen as a coercive form of social control – it will be resisted.
Until that balance of power is redressed by a drastic change in social and economic relations (a.k.a. a revolution) we won’t get anywhere. Some political tendencies have joined the dots and make explicit the links between who holds the power and our inability to properly shape the future direction of the communities we live in to bring about an equitable, inclusive and sustainable future. One that also respects individual freedom. Other tendencies fall back on what’s perceived to be hectoring people to change their lifestyles – a stance which understandably generates a lot of resentment.
Unless the issues of who holds power and whose interests it’s being exercised in is addressed, we’ll never get to a point where there will be a consensus towards developing our communities in a way that’s sustainable and future proofed. We’d like to suggest that those tendencies who hector people take a step back, reflect on why they’re getting hostility and then think about how they can address the issue of power relations that’s holding us all back. Then, we may be able to develop the kind of holistic, joined up thinking we need to go forwards to fight for the future we want.