Expert Comment: Let's bring the city centres back to the people

Tuesday 31st Jan 2023, 10.16am

If authorities succumb to the pressure of the demands for data, clean air/low/zero emissions zones could be at risk – even though they offer an opportunity to improve inner city air quality and improve public health. They are also a radical challenge to the widespread belief that the best mode of transport is the internal combustion car and that the ability to leave one’s car at the door of one’s home, office or shop is an inalienable right of every resident.

Downsides of disruption discourse of climate delay

Policies that change our daily energy or mobility practices are difficult to implement when the main motivation is climate or environmental protection. Politicians are often afraid of losing votes if they back radical moves. To avoid taking difficult-to-accept actions, some use a variety of tactics, such as exaggerating the negative impacts of climate action. This makes those politicians a classic example of what social scientists call climate delayers – those who do not deny climate change, but justify inaction or inadequate action. Climate delayers deploy a variety of arguments against low emission zones, including citing the potentially disastrous consequences for business, the inconvenience and the injustice for the poorest residents, and the lack of popular support.

Truth is, it is not clear how to measure the impact of such zones on the reduction of emissions in a city – which is why experimentation is so important

In the background, there are doubts about the effectiveness of such policies and narrowly-defined air pollution reduction targets can be used to underline these claims.

Truth is, it is not clear how to measure the impact of such zones on the reduction of emissions in a city – which is why experimentation is so important.

There are questions such as to where to install the measuring apparatus, whether emissions will increase at the zone’s periphery and what can be treated as a success worthy of a huge rearrangement of traffic. These arguments might be combined to represent exaggerated negative impacts, relying on political perfectionism; in other words: if it is not 100% perfect and does not remove all the problems, it is not worth doing.

From data fetishism to community experimentation

Evidence-based policymaking is clearly important. It allows measurable goals to be set and a pathway to be planned. It establishes a link between policy and science.  But when evidence becomes more important than the goal, or a numerical target becomes the goal, evidence-based policy can actually become a barrier.

Petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles pollute urban air and contribute to climate change; that’s well established. But perhaps it does not make sense to measure the effectiveness of policies solely by pollution rates. Changes in the culture of movement and use of urban space are also important for residents – and policymakers.

Data fetishism is not the goal of climate policy. And data cannot replace public debate

Data fetishism is not the goal of climate policy. And data cannot replace public debate. Collective attempts to understand the problems and find ways to solve them, along with a vision of what sort of community you want to achieve, must be considered too.

An experimental approach, one that enables anyone affected to test and discuss different options provides an opportunity to make real changes. A ‘zone’ may not be perfect from the outset – it should be open to development. Experimentation must be open to debate and involve residents. There can always be unintended consequences and ways to make improvements.

The time needed to develop new habits and find alternative solutions that meet different needs is also important. Possibilities include more accessible or affordable public or shared transport, new ways of delivering products and services, greater availability and convenience of Park & Ride schemes and other models of alternative access from the periphery to the city centre, and more space in our city centres for people, whether moving or not.

Above all, it is important to talk to a diverse range of local people, to understand how the introduction of a zone in a specific area changes everyday life.

See here for a longer opinion piece, published last week in a Polish newspaper, co-written by Prof Tim Schwanen and Dr Hannah Budnitz