Some cities and boroughs are starting to make modest changes to residential streets to enable socially distanced travel, but they face a battle because of the language they use.
Faced with the dilemma of how to ease lockdown without overcrowding public transport and resuming spread of the disease, or else seeing their cities grind to a halt as everyone clogs them up with single occupant cars, (some) councils are realising that they need to take urgent action to enable walking and cycling.
Most are realising that the best action you can take in an emergency, when things need to be done quickly, cheaply and effectively, is filtering through motor traffic out of residential streets that are used by motorists as ratrun shortcuts. Modal filters can be as quick and cheap as dumping down a concrete block, forklifting in a flower planter, or concreting in a bollard.
What’s stopping them being used more widely, or installed more quickly, is people kicking up a fuss about them, and telling councils that they don’t want them. Often even it’s the people who have the most to gain from these actions who are objecting. Not just the residents who will benefit from walking and cycling being enabled for them and their neighbours. The local business owners who stand to benefit from a population who enjoy walking and cycling to local businesses rather than feeling they have little choice but to get in their cars, at which point they may as well take the easy route to the big barn store with the big car park on the ring road. The professional drivers who will otherwise face being stuck with everyone else in the gridlock that will cripple us if people have no alternative but to drive everywhere.
Those people should be allies in clamouring for quick action. Instead, they fight it. Because they’ve misunderstood what it is and how it will impact them. And you can’t blame them for doing so. The media might be slightly to blame for misrepresenting filtering, but they’re really just reflecting councils and campaigners who make the same mistakes when promoting the intervention.
Don’t close the roads
The most obvious mistake is talking about “car bans” and “closing roads”. It’s entirely understandable that people run away with the idea that they won’t be able to drive a journey that they can only imagine themselves driving if you’re talking about a car ban. It’s understandable that people will assume that they won’t be able to access their own house — even if they are disabled, or have a van for work — when you tell them you want to close their road.
Bristol, to take just one of many examples, is working on pedestrianisation of a few more narrow shopping and cafe streets in the old city centre. Those streets were already very low traffic thanks to a clever system of opposing one way sections; 99.9% of residents of the city will never have driven on any of them anyway; and those who do have legitimate business doing so will still be able to get access. But somebody got overexcited and oversold what is happening as a “car ban”. Opponents were able to turn it into a scare story for suburbanites and a battle in some sort of culture war. But lots of people with no such malicious intent heard the words “city centre car ban” and had perfectly understandable questions about hospital access, people with mobility needs, and goods and trades. Questions with easy answers, but questions that wouldn’t have needed answering if the proposal had been described more accurately. The project’s going ahead, but a bunch of effort and political capital was wasted on what is really a very small and timid change, because it was sold as something radical.
Don’t try to convince people they can cycle
A subtly different manifestation of the same phenomenon can be found all over social media. Twitter these days has sadly transformed from being a network for discussing with friends and colleagues to being a place where strangers who don’t understand one another, because they have entirely different frames of reference, shout at eachother.
So a random on the internet hears about a “car ban” or a “road closure” and raises an objection.
“What about the disabled? What about the elderly?”
And they get bombarded with strangers telling them about the amazing people who cycled into their 90s, and the normal folk who happen to use bikes and trikes everyday as mobility aids because they have difficulty walking. Tweets pile in full of pictures of old people cycling on strange foreign Dutch cycle paths.
“What if I have to carry boxes of heavy tools and equipment to do my trade? What if I need to buy a washing machine? How will I do the weekly shop?”
And they get bombarded with strangers talking about cargo bikes and sharing pictures of fully loaded PedalMe trailers and washing machines on giant Dutch trikes. Tweets pile in full of people stuffing their panniers with the weekly shop, and talking about how cycling has reunited them with their local butcher and baker and they now make smaller shopping trips 3 times a week.
“What about the hills? What about the rain? How will I visit my distant relatives?”
All the questions and objections will be met by hundreds of strangers tweeting: actually, it’s fine, you can cycle, try it, you’ll surprise yourself. And they’re usually correct, but they are never going to convince anyone that cycling will be for them in a tweet.
When I see these questions, because I’m a sarcastic twat who has the urge to wind up people I don’t like online as much as the next sarcastic twat, I want to reply:
Well what if I’m not elderly?
Well what if I don’t need to carry a fridge?
Well what if my journey isn’t to visit distant relatives?
(In the end, I don’t, because I know that to somebody with such an alien frame of reference, it would be interpreted as callous disregard for their needs, rather than as a commentary on their own disregard for the needs of others.)
Because the point we need to get across is that modal filters do not make any journey impossible. A modal filter doesn’t prevent driving for the elderly, the disabled, trades, goods, anyone else who has a legitimate need to drive, or for that matter, anyone who just has a preference for driving. “What about X?” What about it? Just continue doing what you do now, if you like. Chances are, your journey will be identical to how it is now, or at most, you’ll need to take a short detour that adds a minute to your journey.
What the filter does do is give people who aren’t elderly, don’t need to carry a fridge, and aren’t making a 250km journey, the option to not make their journey by car. They create choice for a lot of people, without taking any choice away from anybody.
So much of this discourse is people screaming about their choice being taken away from them, when the exact opposite is true. No option is being taken away from people. Nobody is being banned from driving by a bollard in a back street. But some people are being given an opportunity to make journeys by means other than a car, where previously that option just wasn’t realistic.
And yes, often the people doing the screaming are awful, entitled people who are inventing excuses, protecting their privilege, and pretending to care about the disabled and elderly people whose needs they don’t actually understand because they’ve never asked.
But just as often it’s people who have genuine questions, because they’ve heard that the council’s going to close their road, and that sounds an awful lot like they’re going to be banned from using their car. Piling in on them on twitter to tell them that, actually you can cycle with a disability, you can cycle with a fridge, you can cycle long distances, is only going to entrench their misunderstanding and their opposition.
Tell them it’s OK: they can still drive all their journeys. Nobody’s banning cars. Nobody’s closing the road. They’ll work out the cycling by themselves later.