Carbon, Cars and the Impending Culture War

July 31, 2023

TItle image: “Impending Culture War”, produced in Midjourney by Keir Regan-Alexander

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Anyone who has done public consultation for a development project knows that (in general) people love their cars.

We present building projects, neighbourhoods with green open space, car-free public realm and almost always, we end up talking about cars; Where can they go? Where can they be parked? How many new people will be moving into the area and bringing their cars with them? How will we all park our cars? Will the development lead to more traffic? Are you closing any roads?

There is rarely a satisfying answer for people who ask these difficult practical questions, because the truth is that cars are antithetical to the orthodox view of good urban planning.

Even the most ardent motorist would have to agree; they are noisy, they pollute the air and they are dangerous when moving at any speeds of over 20 mph. For a designer, they are pretty much the last thing you want around if you want to create a pleasant public realm. So we plan for them early, we align designs with policy and try to keep them “back-stage” and reduce road coverage and as much as is possible.

Our attachment to our cars goes back a long way. The growing trend of car ownership was central to the plans for rebuilding the country after the second world war. By the mid 50s, trips by car exceeded those by public transport for the first time ever. Car ownership was the very mark of modernity. When central planning for the extended transport infrastructure of the UK began, the movement of people across the country by automobile was the cornerstone of the strategy. The history of Town Planning is therefore laden with examples of crude overpasses and motorways that cut deep scars into major UK Cities during the 1960s, and no wonder — they were predicting exponential growth in car numbers at this time.

Artist’s impressions of the Arterial “A” Ring extracted from MT 110/3.

And cars remain just as central to popular discourse and everyday life in 2023 — with car ownership at over 75% nationally. During the Covid lockdowns, in our existential need for open space and clean air, we began to close so-called “rat runs” in many neighbourhoods. Large immovable planters and benches were placed at the end of roads. This had a duel impact of reducing through traffic (good), but concentrating it on the remaining roads (bad). There is a socioeconomic correlation with such road closures and who exactly benefits from such closures, but that’s another story. In general Local Authorities are discouraging use of cars through planning policy, but people are using their cars as much as they ever did before.

While many people like to think they are doing their bit to reduce car travel emissions, public transport infrastructure outside of the big cities in general isn’t up to much and most of the country travel to work by car. More than 70% in fact with higher rates in some regions. That is true across Britain, except in parts of Scotland and London in particular, where it is less than 30%. So, if I could posit a crude assumption, we might generalise that metropolitan areas are more anti-car and rural areas are more pro-car.

At the recent by-elections in Ruislip and Uxbridge, the expansion of ULEZ (an Ultra Low-Emissions zone where more polluting vehicles have to pay a levy to enter) proved to be pivotal at the ballot box for single issue voters.

Cars are a wedge issue that transcends your location, age and background. They are a subject that can divide people that might otherwise agree on their politics. They invoke emotional decision making … does this sound familiar? Cars are a bit like Brexit.

Rishi Sunak
has scanned the cultural horizon for an issue that will really rile people up and he’s found one. The PM is in the process of lining up a major culture war around cars, drilling for cheaper petrol and low pollution neighbourhoods. The reason he’s doing it is clear — he wants to win an election. He knows that culture wars can divide an electorate and make an election win more likely for an incumbent. So, he’s picked his wedge-issue and he will present his case without nuance as a binary choice and force people into camps; It’s an “us against them” dynamic, a zero-sum game.

Excerpts from Rishi Sunak’s twitter (X) feed. The prose is awash with words like “freedom”,”Thatcher” “anti-car”, “anti-motorist” and “New Oil”

Just like Brexit, people are being whipped into a frenzy online and it’s been brewing for some time. I live right on the boundary of the ULEZ and have seen the protesters out on their weekend protest drives; a long tailback of angry people, honking their horns and wrapping their cars in large banners.

The first time I saw them I was genuinely confused — from my perspective, what’s not to like about ULEZ? We have young kids, we want the roads filled with slow-moving electric vehicles that don’t pollute the air. When I first heard of it, I looked up the impact on our family and quickly moved on. I didn’t spend time considering the cost to van drivers and commuters with old vehicles that they can’t afford to replace, who have little ability to change their location and who can’t afford such levies when they travel in and out of the capital.

Maybe the reason this wasn’t on my radar is that I’m not seeing it — I’m not being pushed pro-car, pro-oil information on my news feeds, so it’s not filling up my brain space. One can imagine the algorithms of social media going into overdrive as they spread angry messaging, cleverly threading a needle of division by pushes videos at motorists showing people abusing Just Stop Oil protests, drivers screaming at Insulate Britain sit-ins as they block motorways and hear Brexit heroes call ULEZ an “anti-enterprise and anti-Tory” scam.

One of the problems we face currently is the presentation of complex problems and ideas as overly simple. Simplicity is alluring, it’s how we wish the world were. Simplicity tricks you into arguments with strangers and removes the potential for common ground. Simplicity turns your ears off.

Don’t fall for it and don’t let this messaging trick you into loathing your neighbour.

The only way we are going to get through the environmental crisis is together; collective action, consent from the electorate and policy that works for people.


Cars are really useful. Many people’s livelihoods are dependent on car use. Most people can’t afford to replace their petrol cars with electric right now and the supply chain isn’t ready in any case. Our national infrastructure has been designed around cars and, at present it is totally dependent upon them.

Also True:

A petrol car emits about 4.6 tonnes of carbon per year. Manufacturing electric cars requires lots of carbon and rare metals that have to be mined. The planet is getting hotter every day. Petrol emissions penetrate the cells and organs in our bodies and cause diseases like asthma, strokes, heart attacks and dementia. Pollution effects the brain development of children.

A politician presenting a roadmap without acknowledging these difficult truths, doesn’t have a credible solution.

Disclaimer: I live within ULEZ and own a car, but I don’t currently qualify for the levy charges.

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