Saturday, 5 December 2020

Fend For Yourselves

The infrastructure versus culture debate continues to fascinate me. I remain convinced it is the infrastructure which creates the culture, but at the same time, there's the tricky problem of the culture which drives the infrastructure.

It's classic chicken and egg because we get who we design for, but where we are used to designing for one group, we continue the cycle. This week, we've seen the debacle over the removal of a pretty basic, but incredibly effective cycling scheme on Kensington High Street, not for any data-led reasons, but because of lots of noise and selected attention by local politicians. 

Culture is an interesting thing because when you're within it, everything seems normal and it is those on the outside are odd. More than that, even if you actually understand that you are outside of thinking which is ostensibly correct, culture acts to keep you where you are. Smoking is a good example. Why would anyone in the medical profession smoke given the widespread knowledge about its harm? Yet, people in the medical profession smoke.

There was (and maybe to some extent) was a culture around smoking for a long time. Infrastructure was provided to enable it with advertising and the basic fact that people were free to smoke where they liked. As it was realised that it was harmful to the smokers and people around them, restrictions started to come in with bans on smoking in workplaces, public transport and then pubs, restrictions on advertising, cigarettes being sold in plain packaging with massive (and graphic) health warnings and mainstream political change. In other words, the infrastructure enabling smoking to be pushed has been gradually dismantled.

Of course, none of this happened in a vacuum. There were (and are) plenty of people who campaigned against change. Some people did (and do) enjoy smoking and merely wanted to continue. Some people came at it from the political (and libertarian view point) that it was not for the state to interfere in people's choice. Then we have the tobacco firms. They were concerned that the dismantling of the infrastructure which supported their ability to sell their product would hit their finances.

There are still people in all three groups out there continuing to resist change and fighting against further restrictions. It also doesn't take much research to find the political lobbyists and the groups they associate with (often murkily funded and with access to the ear of the government of the day). Maybe these days they are fighting a rear-guard action against further regulation, but they are still there and have influence.

When we turn back to our streets, we've many places utterly dominated by traffic. This is no accident. It is as the result of years of developing our infrastructure to accommodate it whether physical or political, with people unable to image anything different given that their daily culture of having to drive is so ingrained. It also explains the backlash that changes to the status quo are getting. We're in our current mess as a result of decades of gradual change and so a physical street scheme (especially the rapid deployment we have seen over the past months) hits the established culture hard.

It's also about how things have become custom and practice. Take the humble zebra crossing. The current rule is that drivers are expected to stop only when someone steps onto the crossing (and the person must be mindful of drivers in doing so). For so many people, it is utterly terrifying to step out in front of a car and so many drivers simply carry on and over time this has led some people considering zebra crossings to be unsafe and demanding signal-controlled crossings instead while ignoring the fact that red traffic signals are no more a physical barrier than painted stripes.

Even further on than this, the whole idea of so called "shared space" has permeated certain parts of political and professional thinking. It's essentially a libertarian proposal which places all highway users in a position of personal responsibility and equal standing. Except some people in a couple of tonnes of steel and glass will bully their way through and many people not so protected won't employ one proponent's tactic of "just walk out waving your arms and stare wildly".

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Swedish Vision Zero and the Dutch Sustainable Safety approaches realise that people cannot be left to their own devices to play nicely and there does in fact need to be state interference with personal choice if people are to be provided with the conditions required to foster a culture where everyone gets a fairer chance of using the streets on their own terms. The approaches recognise and forgive human fallibility and once people are able to experience the change, then a culture develops in which liveability can be the ultimate prize.

As with smoking, there are people who come at this from the point of view that they enjoy driving, or perhaps slightly more truthfully, it's their only option in the way their lives are arranged. Infrastructural issues arising from how we spatially plan our towns and cities have conspired to give us sprawl, services being concentrated rather than being mixed and employment uses remote from where people live (including having to commute in from suburbs to city). This has helped create a culture of long hours and long commutes which at least in some ways, the Covid crisis has challenged with the impact on the concentration of offices and services in one place - we've immediately lost our resilience.

We have also failed to learn lessons from retail parks and the high street. First, allowing retail parks in planning terms a few decades back locked in car dependency and hit the high street at the same time. People got used to the big shop and the big shed, retailers lobbied to be allowed to develop the model, highway management fell into place to accommodate the retail park with huge junctions, multiple staggered crossings and a townscape set up for the model. The political side fell behind the approach hook line and sinker with the promise of employment and developer contributions.

In fact, all we really achieved was low density commercial and retail development which hollowed the high street, encouraged people to drive and left a huge legacy of highway layouts which are expensive to maintain and which are now very difficult to change in favour of other modes for fear of causing congestion. The culture has been painted into a corner.

It's understandable then, when people who have been immersed into the driving culture, that they rail against change so vociferously. They have so much invested in the current culture that they simply cannot see the privilege that they have. Change can only appear as taking something away from them and they see nothing to gain. "I'm alright Jack" pervades the agenda because of the way we have allowed our streets to be dominated by ever more powerful and physically large machinery. For some, it's almost an arms race whether it's apparently to protect their children from other people in battlewagons or simply an apparent show of wealth or status from driving the newest, largest or noisiest vehicle on the street.

We've people with a financial interest in car culture. The car manufacturers to require the creation and maintenance of roads to perpetuate their sales; the financing companies that use debt as their business model to fuel the vehicle arms race; oil companies desperate to keep their businesses going as the world starts to electrify (not to mention the wars linked to non-renewable resources); the advertisers and by extension the media, who need a source of revenue to exist. This is not to mention the political lobbyists and politicians with their own interests.

We won't change the culture without changes to infrastructure, that is certain. Encouragement cannot replace kerbs and asphalt. Expecting entire industries to change through the goodness of their hearts cannot beat regulation. Public space cannot be left to the survival of the most bullish. As we have seen in many parts of Northern Europe, infrastructural change is possible, although the same places are still enabling driving through massive road schemes; but at least the local neighbourhoods are resilient with the idea of the 15-minute city.

As for the UK, I suspect that we'll keep seeing pockets of change appearing despite the all of the embedded car culture we have built up. This will need people to shout about it, to push for it and to call out local, regional and national government which resists it. It means that anyone with influence pushing back are fair game to be called out and in some cases, direct action is going to be necessary. It also means that we need to support leaders who are trying to get change going because they will be pushing back at their own and peers' culture which will potentially leave the isolated and under pressure. But, change we must because the climate doesn't care about your cheap parking space.


  1. You are so right. This was shared to me by fellow campaigner. Having just spent 3 months earnings making one room in my home soundproof so that I can sleep. Are local planning authorities for granting permission for thousands more homes which were all be car-dependent. I ditched my car in may. We must sell the benefits of changing our behaviour. I feel utterly liberated both financially and in my now ability to stop my bicycle outside any shop I wish to with no fear of a parking charge or a fine. I accept that I grew up on a bicycle and have gone full circle returning to the use of the bicycle. where I live we are in desperate need of infrastructure for cycling and walking, the campaign for a particular cycling route known as ChEmroute is already 8 years in in and with very little progress in fact now a potential battle to prevent a shared cycle and footway known as NMU which Stands for non-motorized use. We are not alone and we will have to demonstrate because emails letters etc are having no impact. Gabby ps, I am regularly ranting in my head as I ride the so-called cycle routes and roads in my area.

  2. Very well said. I wish my district and county councils were more progressive, but they are effectively one party states, so change is glacial and cycling infrastructure is at the mercy of developer contributions. No developments, no money.