The Oxford Incident
Understanding is not agreeing, and explaining is not excusing
I saw this tweet recently, from a progressive transit advocate:
I had, at some earlier point, heard something about Oxford doing something like this, specifically. However, it didn’t really register for me; I didn’t touch on it, and didn’t even think of touching on it, in my own piece on 15-minute cities and the conspiracy theories surrounding them. I even read and linked to pieces which mentioned it further down, and basically missed it because I was skimming at that point or had already read enough to make reference the piece.
But first of all, if you don’t know what all this is about, here’s a bit of background from my initial piece:
The “15-minute city”—a trendy name in urban planning for walkable, amenity-rich urban neighborhoods—has apparently ended up at the center of a new (or, perhaps, updated) conspiracy theory.
From a piece in Wired:
“With help from right-wing figures in the US and UK, including the author Jordan Peterson, the 15-minute city concept has become entwined within a much bigger universe of conspiracies based around the idea of a ‘Great Reset’ that will see people locked in their homes by climate-obsessed autocracies.”
A lot of this stuff really took off during the pandemic, but it goes back to the 1990s, with “Agenda 21,” “Smart Growth is socialism,” etc. What seems to happen is that progressives or left-wing organizations champion this stuff, which serves as a signal to conservatives that it must be suspect. This pulls it out of the realm of reality and public policy, and into a much more abstract realm. This is how you get the absurdity of people who love classic small towns and Main Streets, and yet who, if you described those things to them vaguely, would condemn them as left-wing social engineering.
Urbanist writer Andy Boenau has a fun piece on the conspiracy theories surrounding 15-minute cities, which seem to have arisen, in their current form, from the fact that Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (of “you will eat the bugs” and “you will own nothing and be happy” fame) endorsed the idea.
Basically, two things—the Oxford proposal which sort-of tied 15-minute cities to mobility restrictions (they were two different things, but a lot of people conflated them), and the World Economic Forum endorsing the concept—birthed this current incarnation of “cities are socialist hellholes and liberals want to force us to live in them.” It’s more or less an updated version of the Agenda 21 stuff.
I listened to Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns Podcast episode on this a couple of weeks ago. He takes a sort-of sympathetic view, trying to understand how conservative impulses can lead to skepticism of urban life and cities, especially when it feels engineered in a top-down manner. It’s a long podcast with no guest: Marohn talks about a Dave Chappelle joke, the Canadian trucker protests, Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations, COVID rules, etc. He tries to suss out where the fear and skepticism of 15-minute cities might be coming from, and concludes that the 15-minute city is really the answer to these fears: in reality, it’s a small-scale, communitarian way of life, in contravention to the huge top-down systems (including gas and oil) that we rely on but broadly distrust.
What Marohn never mentions, even in passing, is Oxford’s travel-restriction proposal or Klaus Schwab and the WEF. I don’t know if he skipped this stuff, preferring to take a more indirect and high-level approach, or if—like me—he missed it.
So basically, all of this very abstract guesswork that folks like me and Marohn engaged in, trying to figure out and sort of reverse-engineer this bizarre conflation of traditional urbanism with lockdowns and imprisonment—maybe we didn’t have to do all of that! Maybe it sounds condescending in a way, if you’re one of these 15-minute city opponents, to have someone spend an hour or write 2,000 words about why you’re wrong without apparently even being aware of the immediate reason for your fear or skepticism.
I do think all that other assorted stuff that precedes the 15-minute city kerfuffle—Agenda 21/leftist war on cars/cyclists are elitists/Smart Growth is communism/they want to pack us into apartment towers and make us eat bugs/Obama is trying to use poor Black people to ruin the suburbs—is explanatory here. And I do think part of it is a reaction to what were, in an American context, unprecedented public health interventions.
But the discrete flashpoint here wasn’t any of that, which is a consistent background noise for anyone working in this area. It was rather a notable British city actually proposing limits on where/how/when people could drive! The conspiracy theorists were wrong about what this meant and what it portended. It’s a fairly common sort of thing, especially in the UK. It isn’t the first step to authoritarianism. But, strictly speaking, they were not wrong that it was being seriously entertained in the real world. And a lot of us urbanists basically missed that.
Now, further down, Hayley Richardson amended her initial tweet with this (accurate) clarification: “Update from folks in the UK: no outright bans were ever proposed - you just have to pay a lot of money after taking your allotted number of trips. Sorry to participate in the conspiracy-making!”
Some folks replied that this was basically just congestion pricing or toll roads; nothing to see here. I don’t quite agree. From a Bloomberg piece:
At issue was the proposed introduction of six new traffic filters intended to limit car use through residential parts of the city at peak hours. Monitored by automatic license plate readers, these filters would fine drivers from outside the county of Oxfordshire who entered central areas during high-traffic periods. Oxford residents will be allowed fine-free peak-hour access for 100 days per year, with residents of the wider county able to apply for a 25-day fine-free access permit.
This is design-by-committee rather than real-life conspiracy theory. But the scheme is complicated, and it treats different people differently. It is reminiscent, to me, of what’s become known as “social credit.” What that basically refers to, in my understanding, is the implementation of public policy by means other than the equally applied, dispassionate law.
The bit in Marohn’s podcast where he discussed the Canadian trucker protests was very interesting. He noted that he thought it would have been fair, and in keeping with liberal-democratic norms, to have seized and impounded the truckers’ vehicles, and issued them fines and towing fees. That, in other words, was the dispassionate, procedural approach to people blocking traffic and turning their vehicles into a public nuisance. It would certainly have still drawn criticism by the truckers, but it would have been within bounds for everyone. At least, Marohn supposes that. If it’s not true, it should be true.
But instead of doing that, Marohn observes, the government froze the bank accounts of people involved in the protests. There are probably arguments for and against this, in different cases, for different actors, and for different alleged crimes. (Like, for terrorism.) But in a law enforcement situation, it is more akin to “social credit” than it is to rule of law.
And that’s the subtle difference between a toll road—everyone pays this much, all the time or at these hours—versus the complicated Oxford proposal. I think that distinction is real, and I don’t see any reason why the simple, broadly applicable approach should not be the best practice. Frankly, even just closing some of these streets to car traffic entirely would read as more fair than a system that tracks or discriminates between individuals.
Now, if like me, you don’t subscribe to any of these conspiracy theories, maybe this all feels like a distinction without a difference. Or maybe it feels like giving the loons too much credit. I just don’t think it is.
I think it is important that urbanism, broadly understood, does not appear as a wonky, technocratic, top-down effort. Urbanism is not an elite, boutique movement; it is human civilization’s land-use status quo.
There’s another interesting element here. Many people take it for granted that a limit on car travel of some sort is a restriction on freedom of movement. And, in turn (as one of my frequent Twitter interlocutor notes) they conflate movement with access. In other words, the “against” argument goes like this:
15-minute cities involve limiting car travel
Therefore, 15-minute cities are an attempt to limit freedom of movement
Freedom of movement is how we get to things
Therefore, 15-minute cities are an attempt to limit how many things we can get to
The whole point of the 15-minute city, however, is to expose these logical steps as such. The car is not movement, and movement is not access. Proximity is access, and movement (by car) is a way to bridge decreasing proximity. Which is just about inherent in the car-dependent pattern!
Take a look at this bit from a neat early 1970s essay, “The Social Ideology of the Motorcar”:
The more widespread fast vehicles are within a society, the more time—beyond a certain point—people will spend and lose on travel. It’s a mathematical fact.
The reason? We’ve just seen it: The cities and towns have been broken up into endless highway suburbs, for that was the only way to avoid traffic congestion in residential centers. But the underside of this solution is obvious: ultimately people can’t get around conveniently because they are far away from everything. To make room for the cars, distances have increased. People live far from their work, far from school, far from the supermarket—which then requires a second car so the shopping can be done and the children driven to school. Outings? Out of the question. Friends? There are the neighbors… and that’s it. In the final analysis, the car wastes more time than it saves and creates more distance than it overcomes (my emphasis).
In other words, even on the open road, you’re frequently going nowhere fast. The distances in America between everyday amenities and services did not preexist the car; they were caused by it. It’s like setting up a woodworking shop in your garage, buying a sawdust-collecting vacuum system, and then wondering, “What did I do with all this sawdust before I had a vacuum?”
Think about how even in fairly remote areas, every small town had everything you needed. On Twitter, someone recalled their small-town childhood, at a time when these small-town economies still existed:
I grew up in a small town in the 50s-60s. It had a village with a main street. It had 2 drug stores that sold lots of things besides drugs, a butcher shop, a delicatessen, 3 barber shops, beauty salon, shoe store that repaired shoes too, 2 bakeries, a hardware store, a small restaurant with excellent food, 2 stationary stores with lunch counters, small super market, insurance & real-estate agents, a hobby store, movie theater, music store, bar & grill, other end of town had some more of the same.
Yes, the car opens up access to more places. But the car also diminishes the place-ness of particular places. And the effects of the car on land use in turn make the car necessary. We have a name for the pheneonon by which using something makes you dependent on it.
The 15-minute city is an attempt, in some ways, to reduce the dominance of the car in urban life. But more than that, it’s a modern description—a little clumsy, a little incomplete—of what true urban settlements actually are. It is our modern attempt to look at old towns and cities, describe them, and effectively reverse-engineer them.
Much of the bafflement and skepticism of urban life stems from the fact that genuine cities now feel almost like historical artifacts to us. We don’t build them anymore, and most of us don’t live in them anymore. They’re like grandma’s rusty hand-cranked cookie press. “Sure, it was good enough for her, but it’s not good enough for me. And if she could have bought an electric press, she would have.” And maybe she would have.
But maybe the car is a different sort of creature from an electric kitchen gadget, with far greater social consequences.
And maybe we don’t know what we’re missing.
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