Saturday, 23 October 2021

Culture Wars

The UK is a driving culture and I think we should be considering the impacts on our society as a result.

I'll level with you. This is an entire area of life in which I am a rank amateur and indeed, it's only really since the pandemic struck that I have even tried to improve my understanding. Other views are, as ever, available.

One thing which I often return to is the idea of we get the people we design for. In other words, the way in which the public realm is designed and managed will elicit a behavioral response. For example, if a road is wide and straight, then people will drive faster. If that road is wide and straight through a shopping centre or a community, then its function directly conflicts with the wider societal use. If we force people cycling to mix with fast traffic, we're going to get "fight or flight" responses from them. 

However, culture goes deeper than this. It goes beyond behavioural responses to the environment and into the habitus of how people develop their attitudes and indeed, how they see themselves in society more widely. Let's take the recent incident of the woman who drove into protesters. The story was inevitable picked up by the right wing press and framed her as a "heroic" single mother trying to get her 11 year-old son to school and who was made late by "smug eco-protesters" as one rag reported it (I won't link to it).

We learn about her expensive car and how the protesters were rude and "drove her to the edge". This apparently justified "nudging" people who she couldn't see from her driving position with a 2-tonne vehicle. It's amazing nobody (as far as I can see) ended up crushed. The woman was also reported as calling the protesters "terrorists" and her story has been through the papers and on a right-wing TV channel. She has become another piece of fuel for a culture war which pitches someone trying to get their child to school (before continuing to work I assume) against people trying to (essentially) raise the climate change alarm. I'd lay odds that everyone involved probably had far more in common that the right-wing pundits winding things up.

What we see here is an overspilling of a culture which has its roots in spatial planning going back decades. The incident occurred on London Road in Thurrock, right next to the Dartford Crossing. On social media, some people suggested that the 11 year old in the story should be cycling or getting the bus to school. Well, we don't actually find out the full details of the journey, but we do find out it's usually 10 minutes. However, have a look at London Road and tell me if you think that is a safe place for anyone to cycle. Looking at the local bus route map, London Road (where the incident took place), only the 44 runs past the junction of the incident and it's not a particularly high-frequency route.

Thurrock has a high level of car ownership. From the 2011 census, we can find 506 cars/vans per 1,000 people, 79.9% of households with access to a car. It's a fairly mid-table position. The borough has lots of large roads, places like the Lakeside shopping centre and a patchy cycling network. It's nothing unusual, there are places like this everywhere. Thurrock grew from villages and settlements into urban sprawl with housing estates and main routes being developed which make driving the easy and attractive option for many - such as being able to make a 10 minute trip because your mode of transport is prioritised.

At a wider level, we also have pressures coming from the car manufacturers to buy the next bigger and better model. The advertising budgets for cars are large and a lifestyle of the free and open road is being sold. It must be working given how popular SUVs like the one in the incident have become. In fact, we have fat and overblown cars which in many ways are less useful than older car designs. Much of this is sold on occupant safety, but the media and the reverence of celebrity do much to influence people's choices. Put simply, a flash car is seen as a symbol of status for some people and when you frame that with the open road that the car was sold on, a protest stopping you doing what you want is a sharp reality check on the thing you have bought into.

Then we have government policy. Lots of talk and money is going into a large road building programme (at least in England), planning policy which reduces planning control over what gets built and rhetoric where those who see a more sustainable are framed as the "green blob" by right wing think tanks and lobbyists. We also see climate change deniers with their tendrils getting into the heart of government and influencing policy.

So, we have had decades of slowly boiling a frog where spatial planning, road design, car manufacturers, climate change deniers and politicians have got us the position where driving expensive and heavy cars for short trips is seen as a normal and rational thing to do. We have a right wing media pushing this normalisation, but we also have media and politicians of every persuasion advancing a narrative that driving is normal and in fact it's something that "hard-working families" need to have prioritised. 

It's against this backdrop of a developed culture that frames anything which changes this un-level playing field as a threat to (car) cultural freedom whether it's reallocation of road space to other modes, low traffic neighbourhoods, clean air zones and all of the other things which gets the usual suspects outgrouping people who cannot or do not want to buy into what is seen as normal. It means that many people are left without a voice or political representation on transport matters simply because the noise of the UK's driving culture drowns them out. This is why we often end up with the media framing cycling schemes as a battle of disabled people vs cyclists, rather than a much bigger group of people who would benefit from de-motorisation.

This is why a protest which disrupts what is seen as normal is an immediate shock to those who have (often unwittingly) bought into this culture and it's why they are immediately at risk of being used by those who profit culturally or financially (maybe both) from business as usual. This is not to condone bad behaviour, but simply trying to understand it a little more.


  1. Given we can already find out the MOT & Taxation status of a vehicle (in this instance, the SUV was untaxed) the single best thing we can do to improve driving standards is to also publish the driving record of the registered keeper. It can be anonymised if needed. Then we could have apps which would immediately highlight which vehicles were more likely to be being driven by drivers who break the law. Imagine it plugged in to Garmin's Varia radar so you could get an alert of an approaching cockwomble. Personally, I'd prefer if we went a step further and published the address of the registered keeper and to hell with the risk of theft. It might make everyone a bit more honest and less willing to spang £50k on a new car at the height of the pandemic as the driver in this incident did.

  2. I like your attempt to understand "bad" behaviour. I would call it inconsiderate behaviour, which recently, is much more prevalent. Eg. Entire roads near here are lined with cars parked on the pavements, reducing access for wheelchairs or people with babies in pushchairs. And yesterday I saw a car pull entirely onto the pavement, blocking it for pedestrians, while the driver consulted her mobile phone.A few years ago surely, pavements were solely for the use of pedestrians.