Reframing the LTN/15 minute city debate
Regular readers will know I’m a Councillor here in Newcastle and last night I gave an informal talk to political colleagues about Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). We have an experimental LTN in the ward I represent, an attempt to stop through traffic in a block of Victorian terraces, but we don’t call it an LTN as that phrase has started to fire up conspiracy theorists.
If you don’t keep an eye on transport matters, the antivax movement has shifted their febrile attention to LTNs and ’15 minute cities’. The latter idea was born in Paris: if you have (almost) everything you need within a 15 minute walk/cycle, then you won’t need to drive so much. While most of us would welcome the idea of having shops, doctors’ surgeries and schools on our doorsteps, the tinfoil hat brigade have reimagined this as a dystopian authoritarian nightmare where you will be confined to that radius, coining phrases such as ‘climate lockdowns’ and ‘departure fines’ to fit their delusion. This is apparently all a communist plot co-ordinated by that well known nest of socialists, the World Economic Forum.
Plans to encourage residents of Oxford to use the ring road instead of crossing through the city centre saw mass protests led by, er, 90s popsters Right Said Fred. As one wag on Twitter said, if the sole achievement of the New World Order is to change traffic systems in Oxford, then they may not be the all powerful globalist cabal that the conspiracy theorists fear.
So, given the febrile atmosphere, I’ve been pondering how to reframe the LTN/15 minute neighbourhood into something more palatable to the public. My breakthrough came when I realised that the LTN concept is far from new, in fact it is very normal. Last night I trialled my ideas on my friendly audience.
“What is the defining feature of a post-war housing estate?” I asked them.
“The cul de sac!” came the reply after a brief pause for thought.
“Why do we have cul de sacs?”
“To stop through traffic.”
I then expounded on my theme. No-one would build terraced residential streets with both ends open to traffic now because car ownership has become the norm. For decades we have been designing out through traffic by default. Nobody complains that, if they want to drive from one modern housing estate to the next one, they have to drive the long way round – it’s just the way it is. The LTN concept is simply the retrofitting pre-war housing estates to bring them up to modern standards. Defining it this way – as an upgrade – makes it easier to sell the benefits.
The downside of post-war estates is that most weren’t designed with local services in mind, assuming that everybody would drive everywhere. So the 15 minute concept is mainly about bringing services into those areas – ie more benefits for residents (Victorian neighbourhoods tend to have better local services as they were designed when walking, cycling and buses/trams were the norm).
Both of these thoughts are classic Green Jujitsu – reframing the concept to mean something positive to the audience. Conversely, the jargon feeds the appetite of the cranks and their paranoid fantasies, so we keep it to ourselves. As John Grant said in the Green Marketing Manifesto: “Green Marketing is about making green seem normal.”