A 15-minute walk on the wild side

There is no idea too moderate or sensible that conspiracy theorists can’t tar as a Marxist plot to turn us all into slaves in some dystopian new world order. Well, at least that’s the impression you might have gotten in seeing how, of all things, plans to make city and town centres less awful is in fact some fiendish plot to take away our liberties, as I explored in the Business Post in early March.

IF YOU COULD somehow start from scratch and design the perfect city or town for the 21st century, what might it look like? Ideally, you could comfortably reach your workplace, schools, shops, healthcare locations and recreation spaces on foot or by bike in 15 minutes or less, as well as being able to stroll to a public transport hub to take you further afield.

In this ideal world, rather than people sitting in traffic for hundreds of hours every year, car ownership in urban areas would be very much the exception, with most people opting for car rental or sharing for the odd occasion when a set of wheels is needed.

A recent YouGov population study found that one in three people in Ireland would ideally like to live in a so-called 15-minute city, yet only one in ten say they are within comfortable walking distance of these key amenities today.

To make the 15-minute city a reality requires compact urban development, with enough people living in close proximity to support local shops and services, and high-frequency public transport. A study titled Close to Home published in 2021 concluded that Irish cities “have a unique opportunity to increase the quality of urban lifestyles, catalyse local economies and support the country to live and work more sustainably”.

For many of us, the 15-minute city arrived unexpectedly and as an unwelcome intrusion when, in March 2020, the first national pandemic lockdown came into force. This initially limited people to venturing no more than two kilometres from home.

In a matter of days, the patterns of working, commuting and recreation that had dominated our lives for decades were swept away. Many worked from home for the first time in their lives, while children endured endless Zoom classroom sessions from their bedrooms.

Amid the gloom, there were some tangible upsides. My teenagers dusted off their long-neglected bikes and cycled off to meet their pals every day, scooting around the near-deserted streets of south Co Dublin. They finally got to enjoy the kind of freedom of movement our car-choked roads have denied to generations of children. They cycled more in those first few months than in their entire lives prior to March 2020.

Those fortunate enough to have key amenities close at hand are likely to have found the whole Covid lockdown experience far less stressful. Indeed, 59 per cent of respondents to the YouGov study described walkability as making their neighbourhood a more desirable place to live.

In some respects this is all painfully obvious, yet the overwhelming primacy of the private car has so distorted both the built environment and our ideas of what freedom and choice are that for many, their belief in their absolute right to drive and park anywhere, any time, is unshakeable.

Indeed, opposition to this most benign of notions “building urban areas that meet the needs of the people who live there without forcing them into their cars” is gaining traction. It has been co-opted by right-wing conspiracy theorists as some kind of Marxist attack on your freedom and part of a cynical ploy to enforce what they describe as “climate lockdowns”.

Many of these strange ideas were incubated online during lockdown, when medical professionals attempting to control a dangerous novel virus were denounced as part of a sinister plot to imprison and subdue the population.

While it is understandable that a minority might prefer to believe conspiracy theories than trust their doctors, given the very real constraints that Covid regulations placed on people’s lives, the storm around something as innocuous and benign as progressive urban planning has caught many by surprise.

This spilled on to the streets of Oxford in England last month as a result of a planned trial by the local authority of a low-traffic neighbourhood, an area within the city where, as the name suggests, vehicular traffic is restricted to allow more safe space for the public.

Astonishingly, this most fringe of conspiracies attracted around 2,000 people on to the streets, toting signs with slogans like: “Say NO to the new world order. Say NO to 15-min prison cities. Wake up, people!”

Years of decline, worsened by growing inequality, while politicians stoke up anti-migrant xenophobia to distract from the post-Brexit economic fiasco, has seen the once politically moderate Britain become a breeding ground for paranoia and extremism.

Climate deniers have for years attempted to portray action on the climate emergency as cover for a sinister globalist agenda to take away people’s liberties. Prior to the pandemic, this absurd fallacy had limited traction.

However, Covid changed everything. The trauma it created “has been weaponised by the anti-climate lobby, who now condemn any public policy as an infringement on civil liberties” and draw direct comparisons with Covid, Jennie King of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue told Desmog.com.

The group styling itself “Not Our Future”, which stirred up opposition to traffic restrictions in Oxford by promoting conspiracy theories, is supported by a network of climate denial groups, including the London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation, an organisation that has consistently refused to disclose its funding sources.

While not embracing far-right conspiracies, proposals in Ireland involving even modest modal shift away from the absolute hegemony of the car have sparked bitter opposition.

Residents in Sandymount in Dublin took a successful High Court action against a six-month trial of bike lanes, while attempts to provide safe cycle lanes to a local school in Deansgrange sparked sustained opposition from local businesses. Meanwhile, in car-choked Galway, councillors last year rejected plans for a trial cycleway out to Salthill.

Last week, it emerged that a memo on developing a new strategy to cut Ireland’s dependence on the private car was deemed too controversial to be included on the cabinet agenda, with politicians from both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael running scared of offending motorists.

The net effect of this is to leave Ireland’s 2030 transport emissions targets in tatters. For as long as politicians are more concerned about lobbyists and special interests than they are about climate breakdown, this failure of ambition and of imagination will persist.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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