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Transportist: Is the 15-Minute City a Cage?
Following Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”
Yet there have been attempts to turn the planning concept of the `15-Minute City’ into a front in the ceaseless culture wars that are crucifying contemporary civilisation. [Oxford] In a world recovering from the needless (and in the end, largely irrelevant) covid-19 lockdowns1 imposed by frightened politicians on the compliant masses, one can understand why the idea of being forced to stay within your neighbourhood might be seen as a threat that can be easily exploited by demogogues.
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This is being exploited by the same people (fascists, yes, literally neo-nazis - I won’t provide links to give them more attention, but they are there) who would be happy to containerise ethnicities not their own in ghettos of even smaller than a 15-minute walking radius, if not murder them outright.
I wrote a book “The 30-Minute City: Designing for Access”, but have yet to receive the same level of ire (or any ire, yet), so apparently 30-minutes good, 15-minutes bad? The basic idea is to design cities and networks so people can reach more destinations (in particular jobs, but other activities as well) in less travel time, especially by walking, biking, or public transport.
Part of the problems is that we should be talking about 15-Minute Neighbourhoods and not 15-Minute Cities, because (a) that’s what we mean, and (b), the only reason to live in larger metropolitan areas is to can interact between neighbourhoods — otherwise, everyone should live in a small town and save on real estate costs.
This article (in news.com.au, i.e. Murdoch papers) discusses the controversy but conflates 15-minute city with “Smart Cities”, which I had really hoped we had buried. The adjective “Smart” before anything (smart roads, smart cars, smart cities) is a red flag. This article by Oliver Deed argues the 15-minute city is about improving lives, not controlling them.
So what is a `15-Minute Neighbourhood’? It’s one where all your daily needs (food, doctor, library, schools, etc.) can be met within a 15-minute walk from your home. This does not necessarily include your workplace, although it may.
The conspiracists have replaced “can” with “must”, changing opportunity into a constraint. Charitably, they have difficulty reading. Uncharitably, they choose to misinterpret and mislead.
I understand why people don’t want their steering wheel ripped from their hands, people like their cars. They are useful, people have emotional attachments to vehicles and the experiences associated with them, they are freedom. And they have been subsidised for decades, the car driver hasn’t paid for all the social (or even infrastructural) costs they impose on everyone else. This status quo subsidy is assumed to be the norm.
I also understand the cynicism and distrust of urban and transport planners, who would, if they could, reduce people’s car usage (I know that's the outcome of the policies I support). Even if planners motives were pure of heart, (which might be perceived as annoyingly righteous), they couldn't actually reduce car use in a meaningful way,2 because they are largely powerless, but that’s another matter.
I also understand why you might not want a shopping centre on your street, too many strangers trying to park in front of your house, and polluting your air.
But I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to be able to have shops, libraries, schools, or doctors offices within walking distance, which is all this is really about.
If you were a conservative, you would want to recall traditional neighbourhoods and small towns, where this was the default.
The ability to not have to use a car scares some people so much that they want to ensure places are designed so that you do have to use a car, even if you don’t want to.
They are imposing a different, and much smaller, cage.
Lockdowns meant different things in different places. The general western-countries Lockdown in March and April 2020 was wrong, if understandable due to the novelty of the situation, with justification about keeping the hospitals flowing in case people had problems other than Covid. Later lockdowns were entirely avoidable. Encouraging people to work from home, take sensible precautions, stay home if ill, etc. is one thing. Prohibiting them from leaving their neighbourhood, visiting relatives or friends, or even going to the beach, with the hope of “elimination” (as the case in Australia, China, and a few other places) was just deluded. (I wrote this in June 2020) At best you pushed it off and deferred some deaths, some life-years may have been saved at the cost of quality-of-life for everyone else. But unless the whole world were to cooperate on eliminationism, it wasn’t going to happen. It took China until late 2022 to realise this.
We know this because we have road pricing almost nowhere.