Why LTNs make (some) people mad…
Over the last six months, I’ve been carefully watching the Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) end of the culture war play out as it is a microcosm of change management for Sustainability. An acquaintance made a comment on social media saying if we can’t change access to a few roads to favour greener transport then how are we ever going to tackle climate change? I replied that, in my opinion, this is probably one of the trickiest societal changes to make.
My reasoning is this: if you change to a green electricity supplier, there is no impact on your lifestyle. If you get your house insulated and a new low carbon heating system installed, you’ll go through a short period of disruption, but life will quickly go back to normal. If you have to sort your waste for recycling, it’s not a huge deal. Cutting meat from your diet is actually quite trendy. But transport infrastructure determines much bigger lifestyle choices.
The last 40 years of human development have largely been predicated on the individual owning a motor vehicle. If you look at an old map of a city, you’ll see homes, shops and factories sitting cheek by jowl, a real contrast to our current city zones of out of town shopping centres, business parks and sprawling suburbs. If you have everything on your doorstep, you don’t need a car – but if everything is in its own separate zone, then you have to move further to get there. And once you get car culture in your blood, you are likely to make long term decisions such as your home, job and even your kids’ schools with the assumption you’ll be able to drive between them. Meanwhile public transport has deteriorated through neglect and cycling is seen as a niche.
Of course not everybody has a car – 37% of the households in my city don’t – and those people get by just fine by taking a different mindset. When I lived carless in London, my choice of flat in the suburbs was always determined first and foremost by proximity to a Tube station which could take me to my central London job (my second criteria was a cornershop to pick up a paper for the commute). I hate driving/sitting in traffic, so, even though we’ve owned a car until recently, we bought a house within walking distance of the city centre and the kids have all gone to nursery/school within walking or cycling distance.
So, if we want to cut traffic carbon and particulate emissions, we’ve got to convert people from the ‘drive everywhere’ mindset to the ‘everything on my doorstep’ mentality. This is where it gets tricky as plonking some concrete blocks across a popular rat-run is a really brutal challenge to the individual behind the wheel. Not just to their convenience on a particular route, but to their entire lifestyle – home, job, leisure, shopping, kids’ school etc.
It is a well understood phenomenon that most people believe that action needs to be taken to combat climate change, but when they are told they have to change, they will often react badly. Personally, I know at least six, maybe twelve, people who see themselves as ‘green’ (some of them actual environmental activists) who have reacted negatively to local traffic reduction measures, sometimes in rather intemperate terms. Too many people think that Governments, industry or ‘neoliberalism’ (boo!) can magic away carbon dioxide without individuals having to change their behaviour. Frankly that’s self-delusional nonsense. It is extremely uncomfortable to face up to the fact that we are part of the problem and that’s what an LTN does.
Working in a client’s organisation, I swerve this psychological conundrum using Green Jujitsu techniques to get people to see themselves as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. In wider society, it is a lot more difficult due to the huge numbers of people concerned. Generally, local authorities consult people within the area affected, but they can’t easily engage with those passing through as they could live anywhere in the surrounding region. This is reflected in my empirical observation that most people within an LTN like their streets being quiet and safe, but it is those from further afield – who see those residential streets as a ‘traffic circulation system’ – who self-combust.
I’m afraid I don’t have a solution to this problem, except that over time, people will adapt their lifestyles to match the reality they face. The problem is that could take decades – but it must be done.