The 15-minute city backlash is a lesson for sustainable transport

The 15-minute city backlash is a lesson for sustainable transport

Residents and communities must be made feel part of changes to their local infrastructure, writes TechUK’s Ashley Feldman

The recent backlash against the 15-minute city has bemused us all. How can a mundane, if not overreferenced, urban planning theory find itself the subject of protests, far-right conspiracy theories and climate denial?

The idea of a 15 minute-city is that every person has all the amenities they need within 15 minutes’ walk or bike of their front door. However, last month, protesters against a new low-traffic neighborhood system in Oxford took aim at the concept. They argued that the proposals to reduce reliance on cars are clandestine ploys for controlling citizens’ movement through QR codes and other forms of digital surveillance.

Local authorities across the country, from Lancaster to Liverpool and Cornwall, are also being forced to quell concerns that their own sustainable transport plans are a malign attempt to limit civil liberties, fueled by conspiracies regarding state control.

However, bizarre as it sounds, the backlash does raise some key questions around how we communicate and engage with communities as transport becomes more integrated.

Sustainable transport is here to stay

Mobility app Free Now recently published findings showing a 221 per cent growth in the number of multimodal trips, such as e-scooters, e-bikes, e-mopeds, car-sharing.

Chris Skidmore MP’s Net Zero Review, published earlier this year, rightly pointed out that encouraging sustainable transport improves air quality, public health, and wellbeing.

However, what the 15-minute city debacle tells us is that we need to do better in ensuring residents and communities feel part of changes to their local infrastructure.

This is critically important as we look to introduce new forms of mobility such as self-diving vehicles and urban air mobility, which can easily become the subject of undue suspicion and distrust if their introduction isn’t carefully handled.

That means more open conversations, showcasing how services are being designed to enhance quality of life and not just for technology’s sake.

Designing with customer experience in mind

As well as reducing emissions, investing in sustainable transport is essential for ensuring the customer experience is enhanced.

The government recently confirmed its intention to formally create Great British Railways (GBR), in turn delivering major reforms to how the rail sector is operated. Central to GBR’s mission is a focus on the customer, ensuring the experience delivered, from decision to travel to arrival at your destination, is as seamless as possible.

This also means integrating rail with other methods of sustainable transport through a better use of data and digital applications. This is necessary if we are to deliver the level of modal shift needed to help us achieve our national net zero targets.

The critical ingredient, however, will be understanding who that customer is and what they genuinely need.

For too long, services have been designed with only one type of person in mind. The 15-minute city fall out shows us that we need to broaden these horizons, responsibly using data to create services which are inclusive and serve the needs of everyone, not a select few.  

Electric dreams

The same principle applies when considering how we will deliver the 300,000 electric vehicle charge points the government projects we will need by 2030.

You don’t need to look far into history – take 5G masts as an example – to see how a roll out on this scale could generate backlash unless the decision to locate charge points in a given spot can be explained and supported by data.

This is part of the reason why TechUK has been calling for national coordination on EV infrastructure delivery. This means providing support to local councils to gather and interpret data which will allow them to develop local charging plans that they know serve their residents and businesses best.  

If all of this means that those in the sustainable transport world pay extra care to thinking about how communities are engaged, question presupposed notions of “customer”, and use data to back up decisions, then that that is surely a good thing.  So while the 15 minute-city fiasco is a perplexing series of events, there may be some positives to come from it yet.

Ashley Feldman is programme manager for transport and smart cities at TechUK

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