Alex Klaushofer
8 min readJan 18, 2024

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Picture from Archdaily

Next month, on February 29th, the father of the 15-minute city is going to give a talk at Oxford University. Carlos Moreno is an urban planner and the professor at the Sorbonne who coined the term 15-minute city’ at COP21, a model for future cities which has since been enthusiastically embraced by bodies such as the UN and become the focus of numerous websites.

The idea behind the event is clearly to gain support for an experimental scheme that was approved by Oxford County Council in November 2022 with cabinet member Duncan Enright explaining in the Sunday Times that the idea was to turn Oxford into a 15-minute city.

In autumn 2024, six traffic filters will effectively divide the centre of Oxford into 15-minute zones, with the owners of private cars allocated 100 permits a year to drive into them. The city will be monitored by ANPR cameras and any journeys taken without permits will result in fines. Unsurprisingly, the scheme, along with Oxford’s low traffic neighbourhoods, has generated a lot of controversy.

Almost a year to the day from Moreno’s talk, I published a piece on the Australia-based website Mercatornet which sought to examine the conflation of the 15-minute city concept with driving restrictions and why rational discussion on the subject had become so difficult. The site has since become Mercator and the piece is longer available. So, as it contains some useful context, I am republishing ‘why have 15-minute cities become “the hottest conspiracy theory of 2023”’ below.

As my university city, Oxford has a special place in my heart. It’s where, as my mother observed when I came home after the first term, I got my ‘bicycle calves’.

Something strange is happening in the United Kingdom. An innocuous idea, not particularly original and not in itself controversial, has become the focus of a kind of war. It’s a war between people and authority and an ideological war between different sections of the population.

At the heart of all this strife is the 15-minute city, an urban planning concept developed by academic Carlos Moreno to address the ills of modern city living and embraced by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo as part of her 2020 election campaign. The idea is that everything you need for day-to-day living, such as shops, employment, education and health services, should be found within a fifteen minute walk or cycle ride of your home.

So far, so ideal. As a born Londoner who has spent most of her life living in the British capital, I understand all too well how the city that grew from a series of villages has the potential for that kind of self-sufficiency. Reporting on public services in the early 2000s, I’m also familiar with the way councils used to use their limited funds and influence to promote local living. Back then, the trend, expressed in faddish terms such as ‘regeneration’ and ‘localism’, was benevolent and enabling.

But the 15-minute city has turned coercive. Oxford County Council is currently implementing a scheme to divide the city into six zones and limit the movement of cars between them. Drivers will have to apply to the council for a permit allowing them to make a hundred journeys a year — about two trips a week — between the newly-created districts, while those from the surrounding areas will be allowed twenty-five trips. The restrictions will be enforced with number-plate recognition cameras and drivers of unauthorised journeys will be fined.

Unsurprisingly, the scheme has provoked widespread protest, both among residents wondering how they’re going to live under such conditions and people concerned that the 15-minute city will come to their patch too. Their concern is well-founded: a number of other councils have professed interest in following suit, while Canterbury is considering banning driving between neighbourhoods altogether. Meanwhile, more and more Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) are being introduced, using the planters used to close roads ‘Because Covid’. In London, the Mayor’s proposed expansion of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) is causing a rebellion by councils who fear the daily charge to drive a non-compliant vehicle will close businesses and cripple poorer residents.

The bizarre intertwining of social engineering with traffic management thinly veils the blatant incongruity at the heart of 15-minute city: the fact that there are no plans to support the creation of facilities in the new zones. The assumption seems to be that limiting driving will cause the necessary services to appear, either because they are already there but ignored by joyriding residents, or because restrictions on movement will somehow force new amenities into existence. But jobs, schools, health facilities and businesses don’t manifest at will, nor do the people we want to see or events we want to attend conform to municipal boundaries.

On your bike!

The response to objections by supporters of the scheme is simple: those who want to leave their zone more than permitted can walk, bicycle or get the bus (if there is one). And here comes another bizarre feature of the anti-driving movement: the lack of willingness to consider the human costs and practicalities. The fact that public transport is limited and some people are not able to cycle or walk any distance goes unacknowledged, as does the fact that others can’t get to their job or juggle work with family responsibilities without a car. Tradesfolk can’t transport tools and materials without a vehicle, and householders sometimes need to pick up heavy items from a shop or take waste to the tip. Community events tend to depend on one or two good folk driving crockery, costumes or equipment to a nearby park or hall.

Yet — here’s more strangeness — none of this seems to matter to the supporters of such schemes. Instead of discussing the implications of the policy in a reasoned way (I’m old enough to remember when we did do this, more or less, in Britain) objections are dismissed with suggestions that are patently absurd: plumbers can use tricycles, the Underground or riverboats to transport their equipment between jobs. Far worse is the painting of anyone who objects as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ or a member of the ‘far right’. And these crude ad hominem tactics come not from angry keyboard warriors but the mainstream media, well-resourced publications with editorial standards staffed by people trained in critical thinking.

Conspiracy labelling

Hard then to make sense of this non-sequitur in The Times: ‘What are 15-minutecities and why are anti-vaxxers so angry about them?’ or this strapline from Wired UK: ‘A movement to promote neighbourhood with amenities within walking distance has enraged far-right activists, climate deniers, and extremists.’ Comments from the father of 15-minute cities in this Forbes article shed light on the thinking: any criticism must necessarily come from a demographic that is recognisably mad and bad: ‘in an all too typical Venn diagram of tinfoilhattedness … they share climate denial, downplay of Covid harms, and anti-vaxxer beliefs.’

As protests have mounted, the pattern of the repeating simple ideas, tainting by unwarranted associations has replicated across the media. The Guardian bemoans the fact that MPs have now joined ’the online conspiracy theory’ in expressing objections, a viewed echoed in The New Statesman, while The Conversation dubs them ‘the hottest conspiracy theory of 2023’. It looks increasingly as if the mainstream media is engaging in wilful misunderstanding, distracting from the right-under-your-nose point that the proposed restrictions do little or nothing to alleviate traffic problems.

The reason given for this regressive discourse is that objectors are exaggerating, characterising the measures as ‘climate lockdowns’ which will confine residents to their zones. And it is true that such language is inaccurate: beyond their permitted drives, Oxford residents will still be able to leave their area via the ring road, provided they have the time and money for the longer trip. But requiring residents to have a permit to drive grants local authorities unprecedented new powers, and the fines look very much like a tax on movement.

The feeling that a diminished way of life is being imposed from the top is heightened by evidence that authorities are blatantly disregarding public opinion. Oxford County Council’s Duncan Enright told the press that the scheme was ‘definitely’ going ahead before it was officially approved. In Bath, meanwhile, a councillor responded to an objection with the statement that an LTN can go ahead in the face of clear public opposition ‘because the proposal will help to achieve wider council objectives’. And in London, it seems that the results of the consultation about the expansion of Ultra-Low Emissions Zone were skewed: the mayor’s office excluded 5,270 responses opposing the ULEZ expansion as ‘copy and paste’ jobs but just three in favour on similar grounds.

Making sense of the non-sense

The tendency to take control and impose your own version of the world, psychologists and political theorists remind us, is a perennial temptation for humans. The authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century, from Stalinism to Albania under Hoxha where private cars were banned, are testimony to the evils of political perfectionism, how the intention to create a good society, when imposed by force and without regard for the diversity and messiness of human life, inevitably leads to dystopia.

Perhaps there’s something in the urban planning mindset, with its aspiration to create ideal spaces, that can tip into ideological thinking and make its proponents feel entitled to override the wishes of ordinary people. You can hear it in the words of José María Ezquiaga who, in June 2020, led an attempt to divide a Madrid neighbourhood into ‘superblocks’ measuring 500 x 500. ‘With little more than a few cones and signage … vehicles that are not residents or merchants can be prevented from passing,’ he remarked with satisfaction. The plan failed.

The bureaucratic mindset that prevails in the town hall undoubtedly shares this tendency, but money comes into it too. A recent investigation by Bloomberg showed how London councils are making millions in annual revenue from cameras at specific junctions. A revealing conversation between councillors suggests that local authorities are counting on fines from drivers to fill their coffers. ‘Is there a risk that the revenue we are predicting won’t be obtained because motorists wise up to the restriction and start complying?’ asked Robert Canning in Croydon.

From civil strife to civil discourse

So how are we going to get out of this civil strife which risks dividing citizens physically as well as ideologically?

Here’s a thought, in fact, three. Firstly, if we have the slightest desire to have a peaceful society with any level of maturity we need to stop engaging in a childish public arguments consisting of name-calling and wilful misunderstanding. Secondly, we need to separate the issue of traffic restrictions from the complex question of how to create flourishing neighbourhoods and live in greater harmony with the earth.

The third thought, while somewhat old-fashioned, sounds radical in these coercive times. How about shifting the attitudes and emotions underlying the control-and-punish approach and replacing them with respect and trust for our fellow humans? What if, instead of spending millions on cameras and administrative systems to issue permits and fines, councils used that money to seed local community projects? Just imagine, instead of corralling, prohibiting and infantilising, the good that could come from citizens giving free expression to their own inner authority and creativity.

Alex Klaushofer writes on the changing times at Ways of Seeing.

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