Why curbs on cars may not survive the pandemic, by Cliff Hague

Since, broadly speaking, the distant consequences of actions are more uncertain than the immediate consequences, it is seldom justifiable to embark on any policy on the ground that, though harmful in the present, it will be beneficial in the long run.”

Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote these words in 1946. Infrastructure and urban development have long and short-term consequences. After the shock of a pandemic on a scale not experienced for a century, should planners hang on to their long-term visions, or prioritise the recovery of the development industry and getting places working again?

Over the past two or three decades, planners in many countries have gravitated in support of a set of principles. The details and design outcomes may be very different – New Urbanist in the USA, high towers in China and elsewhere in East Asia, densification and infill in places settled by European colonists in the last century, such as Australia or South Africa.

The commonality, spurred by concern about a gathering climate emergency, has been that cities should be planned to make walking, cycling and use of public transport easy and attractive, and to discourage car dependency.

Walkable, mixed use neighbourhoods and transit-orientated development, with densities higher around transport hubs, along with a revival of city-centre living, have been the prescription. As labour markets and social norms changed from the mass-production factory and nuclear family to a knowledge-cum-gig economy with student living stretching into middle age, the planned ideal became a practical prescription.

Has Covid-19 ended that era? There has been enthusiasm for widening pavements and creating safe cycle routes, but in our larger cities and for most of the population, the travel choices are car or public transport.

One of these has been demonstrated to be a public health risk, by the toll it has taken on bus drivers’ lives. Even car clubs and other car sharing schemes look risky in an age of “social distancing”. Might a government desperate to kick-start the economy offer a politically popular “Help to Buy (a Car)”-type scheme to enable young people to start motoring and reach more distant jobs? Remember the New Labour government introduced a car scrappage scheme to boost economic recovery after 2008.

A mass switch to car-based commuting would mean gridlock in big cities, a chronic condition that has not stopped the growth of megacities across Asia and Africa. Such congestion and accompanying pollution could lead to people seeking lower-density living outside the city, especially if they can do more work from home. American-style suburban sprawl, prevented by almost 75 years of UK planning, could become the new normal.

A government reluctant to raise taxes or revert to austerity is sure to look to sweeping post-Brexit deregulation to stimulate economic and fiscal recovery. Expect the planning system to be in the headlights.

To escape, a convincing case has to be made that a climate emergency is not an “uncertain future” and that a new, invigorated localism can deliver immediate and beneficial consequences.

Cliff Hague OBE is a freelance consultant and researcher

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