n a blustery evening in early March, around 200 people gathered in Wesley Memorial Church, central Oxford, with the aim of fostering a rebellion. They held signs. They chanted, “Take back democracy!” and “Free our streets!” The compere, Alan Miller of libertarian campaign group Together, quoted Immanuel Kant and compared their cause to both the American revolution (favourably – they were the Americans) and the Salem witch trials (unfavourably – they were the witches).
You almost forgot it was about traffic congestion. Or at least you would have, if the meeting had not been delayed 15 minutes due to traffic congestion.
“Welcome everyone around the world,” Miller began, referring to the livestream, which would have sounded grandiose, except Oxford’s traffic-calming measures had, improbably, become a truly global story.
The previous month, thousands had marched Oxford’s streets in protest at the council’s plans to make them walk them. Many had parachuted in, convinced this was the new front line. Climate-change deniers like Piers Corbyn showed up to deny the climate. Anti-lockdown campaigners like Laurence Fox showed up to say it was lockdown gone mad. A neo-druid showed up for reasons that were never entirely clear. A local issue, many felt, was being pulled on global strings. “Council – who do you put first, the people or the World Economic Forum?” read one sign. Along Cowley Road, in east Oxford, a group chanted, “Jews will not replace us!” Even Right Said Fred turned up to say it was the thin end of the wedge. It made The New York Times.
And slightly lost among the headlines were the residents of Oxford themselves. The ones for whom their car was freedom and felt that freedom stripped away. The ones who merely worried about their businesses, or jobs. The ones who felt the plans prioritised a cargo-bike middle class and that an already divided city was being divided further still.
But the question remained: how much had one infected the other?
From an outside perspective, the measures were sweeping but hardly suspicious. Bollards had been installed on side-streets to effectively make them cul-de-sacs and prevent rat-running. These created “Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods” (LTNs) by pushing all through-traffic to the main roads.
Plans to bring in “traffic filters”, meanwhile, had been approved the previous November. Also known as bus gates, private cars would only be able to use certain key arterial roads a limited number of days per year between 7am and 7pm (Oxford residents would qualify for 100 permits, Oxfordshire residents 25; everyone else would be charged).
Finally, a Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ) was set to be extended in the very centre of the city, charging all private non-electric vehicles that enter at any time (like the traffic filters, there would be exemptions for tradespeople, blue-badge holders and taxis, among others).
Overall, the scheme was intended to be both carrot and stick – by limiting non-essential car journeys, the idea went, Oxford, a medieval city designed for horse and cart, where the average speed of traffic in the centre had dipped below 5mph, would become a safer place to cycle, a more pleasant place to walk. The buses might even run on time.
Uniquely, it managed to be both specifically boring and wildly controversial. Videos soon emerged on social media of the bollards being set on fire and wrenched from the ground. Others emerged of residents guarding their bollards or standing in high-vis jackets where their bollards used to be: You shall not pass. You shall use the Iffley Road instead.
A curious civil war began to break out. You were either for the bollards or against them.
But as the protests showed, something more insidious soon took hold. As part of Oxford City Council’s “Local Plan 2040”, it had proposed the idea of a “15-minute city”, the notion being that essential goods and services should never be more than a 15-minute walk away. The concept wasn’t exactly new – it had emerged in the Sixties – but had gained renewed traction thanks to a 2020 TED Talk from urbanist Carlos Moreno.
Emerging from lockdown, some saw it as a de facto device to keep them permanently penned in. Rumours swirled that you’d be confined to your 15-minute “zone”, or even street. The permit system, clearly, was part of it. At the February march, signs read, “Say no to human enslavement” and “15 minute city is a dystopian hell”. Piers Corbyn railed against “20-minute cities”, inadvertently relaxing the terms.
On stage, Miller said the conspiracies from some were now being used to shut down reasonable debate from the rest. “Anyone who challenges these things or asks questions is a conspiracy theorist.”
He introduced the panel, all stridently practical rather than conspiratorial. Some, like East Oxford restaurant-owner Clinton Pugh, were furious about what the LTNs were doing to their trade. They had pushed so much traffic to Cowley Road, on which Pugh owned three restaurants, people had stopped coming, he said. Others, like local campaigner Richard Parnham, stuck strictly to the facts, flicking through slides of bus-gate data with the zeal of a man uncovering Watergate.
A politician, Conservative shadow highways county councillor Liam Walker, whose day job involved working on events at Silverstone race track, made political hay, promising if he was elected the first thing he do would be to turn every ANPR camera off. (His boss, leader of the Conservatives in the council Eddie Reeves, would later tell me this was a mistake, on the basis he might have to actually do it: “And he fully accepted that argument. In his defence, he was illustrating for political purposes just how and why this matters”.)
Yet when it came time to take questions from the audience, the focus notably shifted. These measures, many believed, were just the start.
Before the event had begun, I had spoken briefly to two ladies sat behind me, both of advanced years, only one of whom – Caroline – gave me her first name, as neither trusted the press. They weren’t conspiracy-theorists, nor Covid-deniers, but both were vehemently anti-lockdown and anti-masks. “I was against everything, absolutely everything… are you going to call me a Covid-denier now?”
I assured her I wasn’t. But the link, she felt, was clear. First she couldn’t leave her house, now she wouldn’t be allowed to drive from it. As audience members took to the microphone, lockdown was mentioned again and again.
A man called Mark, who introduced himself as a “leading anti-lockdown campaigner” in Oxford, worried how registering for passes would work: “What’s it going to be – a portal so they can track your journeys?” One hundred passes, he felt, would soon become 75, then 10. “It’s dystopian.”
An ex-army man called Mick Stott introduced himself as the founder of Guardians 300 – an anti-vaccine group, I later noted, linked by The Guardian to threats on Professor Sir Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical officer. “Today it’s your car,” he said. “Tomorrow it’s going to be you and your family – they will be the things they control.”
A local hotelier called Jeremy Mogford began by saying, “My views have been well publicised in the local paper” – Mogford had recently made headlines by comparing highways councillor Andrew Gant to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted medical experiments at Auschwitz – and proceeded to explain he was crowd-funding a legal campaign. “We went through the pandemic – no, that’s not enough, let’s ram a few more restrictions on people.”
A woman spoke of “drug-dealers” on her street “shooting up in broad daylight”, though it was never quite made clear how bollards and planter boxes had encouraged this.
The most remarkable moment of the evening came when a slight, bespectacled man took to the microphone and said he wanted to be the one person to speak in favour of the measures. “Something that has not been mentioned one single time this evening is climate change,” he said. “We’re in a climate emergency and…”
The crowd, many of pensionable age, started booing and heckling him. More than once, Miller, the compere, was forced to take the microphone to tell them to stop. “Rubbish!” someone behind me shouted when the man started speaking again. “Turn off the BBC!” shouted another.
I would later learn his name was Jamie Hartzell, director of Oxfordshire Liveable Streets, a group that had campaigned for many of the measures now being enacted. He told me many had come up to him after the meeting to tell him he was wrong about climate change. One person repeated a conspiracy theory that polar bear numbers were actually on the rise. It was being supressed, they told him, by Canadian scientists.
Alan Miller’s Together began as a group protesting Covid passports. They were, Hartzell felt, “using this issue as an organising platform.”
“We were told the science is clear. And we are going to keep you safe”
linton Pugh likes to say he helped make the Cowley Road what it is today. When he opened his first restaurant here – Café Coco, some three decades ago – the area had something of a bohemian vibe, a hint of a hipster starter-upper, but without the dining to match. A handful of Indian restaurants here, more than a handful of empty establishments there. Pugh saw potential.
The area, in east Oxford, had long been the poor relation to the more gentrified Jericho to the city’s north and the smart Summertown beyond that, where imposing Victorian townhouses trade for London prices. Cowley was working class, studenty, home to the city’s burgeoning migrant population. It was also, he says, more than a bit rough.
He remembers asking his first chef, a 6ft4 giant of a man who’d been in the Egyptian special forces and was a former army boxing champion, if he could teach him self-defence. He broke his hand just deflecting a kick to his testicles – a reflex his daughter, the Oscar-nominated actress Florence Pugh, can likely be thankful for.
“It was a different road,” Pugh, a 64-year-old whippet of man, tells me now in Café Coco, over coffee, the day after the Together meeting. “And like any rough area you think hopefully you’re going to change it, and I changed it.”
Walk down Cowley Road now, and you’ll find Persian restaurants nestling next to vegan cafes, trendy tapas joints along from Nepalese, Turkish and Caribbean eateries, grocery shops specialising in Asian and Korean food, Italian delis, an Arabic Souya supermarket, even a shop specialising in Russian and Baltic foodstuffs. It’s gained such a reputation it even spawned its own cookbook (The Cowley Road Cookbook: Culinary Tales and Recipes from Oxford’s Most Eclectic Street.)
Pugh feels somewhat protective over all of this. He opened Café Baba, his Spanish restaurant half a mile east, to purposefully develop the road from that end too. The site of Café Tarifa, his Moroccan-themed cocktail bar, was going to be taken over by Barracuda Bars, but he managed to get in there first: “I didn’t want that kind of nightlife being introduced.”
Yet now, he says, he’s putting them all up for sale. The only restaurant in his Cowley Road empire still making money, he says, is his tapas bar Kazbar, a stone’s throw from where we sat. And he blames the LTNs. A survey he helped put together states that 95 per cent of Cowley Road business owners say footfall and turnover has fallen as a result.
Once installed last summer, he says, so much traffic was pushed to the main arterial roads customers started saying a 20-minute journey was suddenly taking an hour. They soon stopped coming. In Café Coco, he’s stopped opening on certain days.
“I’m struggling to pay my bills. I had to borrow money from my daughter to pay the wages for Christmas. At the beginning of Covid I was telling friends it felt like I was standing on a cliff waiting to be pushed. I just didn’t think the council were going to be the ones to do it.”
He can’t help but feel irked at the locals on their now-quiet side streets who support the measures. The ones, he says, who bought houses to be near the vibrant road he helped create – and one, he feels, they’re now killing.
Pugh, clearly, is not a conspiracy theorist. He admits something needed to be done about Oxford’s traffic, but simply feels the council’s measures are ill-thought-through. Last November, he took matters into his own hands and put a sign up on the side of Café Coco protesting the measures (“Destruction of the Cowley Road by Oxfordshire County Council,” it began).
Like many against the LTNs in Oxford, Pugh soon came into the orbit of Alan Miller’s Together organisation. Miller encouraged him to make a video of other Cowley Road business owners speaking out against the measures, which he did, and one criticising the council himself, which he also did. Together published them on their YouTube channel in January. A few days later, he received a letter from the council about an “unauthorised advertisement”, threatening to fine him up to £2,500. He couldn’t help but feel the timing was suspect, not least as the same spot had previously advertised “Oxford’s best burger” (Café Coco’s, needless to say) for years. Where had the burger police been?
I ask Pugh what he thought about Together’s meeting the night before.
“From what I gather they’re fighting for democracy,” he says. “I don’t really know what they’re about.” But he was, he says, less than impressed by some of the speakers. Specifically: “Some of them are obviously barking fucking mad.” He remembers a lockdown-sceptic telling him, “It’s all coming out now.”
He found this particularly maddening in part because of his daughter, Florence, who suffers from both asthma and tracheomalacia, respiratory conditions that saw her forever in the local hospital as a child, and ones that make her particularly suspectable to Covid.
“Florence would have died if she’d have had it. When she gets a bug she gets pneumonia very quickly.”
Two days after Together’s meeting, I came down with Covid.
“Residents hit back, forming ‘The Human Bollards’ WhatsApp group”
hen the bollards were first installed in March 2021, in the greater Cowley area, it went as any mildly divisive traffic-calming move from a local council could be expected to go. At one end of selected streets two “planters” were placed – large wooden containers with plants – with a single plastic bollard between them.
Some grumbled. Some wrote letters. A van was reported to have “rammed” one planter by The Oxford Mail, but closer reading revealed it had merely nudged it forward a few feet. It was considered news that an anti-LTN TikTok video got 50,000 views. A pro-LTN gnome was stolen. A reward was offered for its safe return. One planter was the victim of arson, but that was easily dismissed as a one-off. Those who loved them loved them dearly – their streets were safer, their children could play. Those who didn’t signed a petition. It did not make the national news.
It was only when the second set were installed, either side of the Cowley Road in May 2022, that the War of the Bollards began. As Jamie Hartzell of Oxfordshire Liveable Streets put it to me: “It’s the new Israel-Palestine”.
The tabloids hungrily reported the highlights. The bollards driven over, the others set on fire, the ones wrenched from the ground. The 79-year-old man who was punched. The hundreds of thousands spent by the council replacing them.
What went unreported, however, was an underground pro-LTN resistance movement that soon formed to foil them. Residents organised, created WhatsApp groups, updated spreadsheets, set up round-the-clock video surveillance and even installed a vast network of Apple AirTag trackers. They were safety conscious as hell, and they weren’t going to take it any more.
When the LTNs were installed in the Divinity Road area of east Oxford, on Friday the 20th of May, Tim (not his real name) was overjoyed. Over 6,000 cars had previously barrelled through his neighbourhood every day. Suddenly, the roads were quiet. Neighbours stood and chatted. He normally drove, but now felt safe enough to cycle. He was a new father. This felt good.
LTNs were hardly new, having first been introduced in Hackney in 1974. By 2020 there were over 100 LTNs in London. No wars had broken out. Most studies showed the impact on arterial roads was negligible.
By the weekend, however, the plastic bollard had been run over, and the cars came again.
At first, the vandals merely left them as they lay, or just threw them to the side of the street after wrenching them from their moorings. Pro-LTN residents, spotting them, simply slotted them back in. A bollard war of attrition began. But conflict fosters innovation – the bollards began to be moved further and further away. They were chucked over fences or hidden in undergrowth. Before long, he says, several would be missing at any one time. Residents hit back, forming “The Human Bollards” WhatsApp group. Every night before a school run, a request would be sent: “Who’s up for tomorrow?” The next morning, volunteers would stand where the bollards used to be, facing the wrath of anti-LTN motorists as they did so.
But Tim knew this was a temporary fix. One cannot human bollard forever. And so he suggested to the group: how about AirTags? The Apple-made tracking devices, he knew, were no bigger than a 50p piece. If they could be fitted to the inside of bollards, they could be located via his iPhone and retrieved almost instantly. A month after the bollards had been installed, he snuck out to a recently ran-over bollard on nearby Southfield Road, affixed an AirTag inside it using waterproof gaffer tape, and slotted it back in. “There was so much adrenaline from doing it,” he says, “because anyone messing with the bollards would be watched. But it was exciting. No-one guessed we were doing this, but it seemed obvious to us.”
He didn’t have to wait long – it was stolen the same day. He located it in a nearby front garden almost instantly. It worked. The group decided on the 20 most important bollards to track. Over £600 was spent on AirTags alone. Operation bollard-tracker began.
At first, with all the trackers sending updates only to his phone, Tim tracked them down himself. But they were being stolen so often it soon became unmanageable. His wife had a word. “She was getting fed up of me spending so much time on it. It was taking over.”
Technically, the AirTags were supposed to alert him once they were moved, but in reality this rarely happened. So they set up a system: the Human Bollards Group, now over 50-strong, would act as spotters, alerting the rest via WhatsApp when they saw one missing. Tim would send a screenshot of the location, and a human bollard would be dispatched to save their plastic counterpart. Tim even trained a deputy: half the tags would be linked to his phone, the other half to hers. And they found them everywhere.
On garage roofs and back gardens. In cars and vans. In university grounds and church yards. In the local O2 music venue and at the ASDA High Wycombe. One was in a nature reserve. One was in a cab office. One was tracked slowly drifting down the Thames. The furthest was in Sonning Lock, some 40 miles away. But the human bollards went and got them all.
“I think we got a bit obsessed,” he says. “But the bottom line is most of these people have kids, and they’re trying to protect their streets. And we were angry about the bollards not working. But people went to extreme lengths to get them back.”
When a bollard was tracked to a house, they alerted the police.
At its height, he says, they were tracking down 20 bollards a day, many of them multiple times. “The worst ones went missing four or five times a day. They were just going in and out again.”
A spin-off collective dubbing themselves “The Anti-Vigilante Group” monitored the anti-LTN Facebook groups for any potential threats, and took great joy at seeing their bafflement at how the bollards were being retrieved so swiftly. But the anti-LTN enemy soon hit back, and started filling in the bollard posts with tarmac, meaning they could no longer be slotted back in. The human bollards despaired. Others could see the funny side. “Oh boy, the sexual tension between the bollard vandals and the bollard vigilantes is quite something,” wrote Cowley Road resident Eddie Jacobs on Nextdoor. Something had to give. Luckily, something did.
In March this year, the county council replaced the plastic bollards with wooden ones. These slotted into metal bases cemented into the ground. Yet as soon as the first two were installed, I’m told, vandals removed these too, while the concrete was still wet. Eventually, council workers decided to install just the bases first, tarmacking over them before they set, slotting the posts in later.
After nearly a year of bollard turf war, Tim felt he could finally rest. “Just to have a couple of days without anything happen felt like heaven,” he told me.
It lasted two weeks. One disappeared completely, which shouldn’t be possible unless you had the key. (They knew bin men and emergency services had them, but they also knew Cowley Road shop-owners, many against the LTNs, had been given them too). Another was sawn off with a chainsaw. When we spoke, in late April, another had disappeared completely just the night before. But they had video of this incident, thanks to a network of home CCTV cameras Tim had helped set up in the houses of the human bollards, trained 24-7 on the sites that suffered the most crime. If you’ve seen social media footage of an Oxford bollard being vandalised, chances are it was filmed by a human bollard.
It showed men in a van wearing orange high-vis jackets taking it away with ease. It was hard to believe they had not been given a key.
Tim isn’t AirTagging the new bollards – it would require drilling into them, making himself potentially liable for criminal damage. But he did recently take a walk around the new posts with the council official in charge of their installation, and briefed him on how they could track the bollards themselves. “It would save the council thousands of pounds, and hopefully catch the people doing it.”
I later speak to the founder of the Anti-Vigilante Group, who also asked I don’t reveal her name. After monitoring what she saw as vague threats to pro-LTN residents when the bollards first went in last year, she told me such inflammatory language has, thankfully died down. But only because, she said, they’d focussed their ire elsewhere.
“Ever since the [February] march, there’s much more talk of 15-minute cities, many more people are posting videos in the groups about that,” she says. It happened, she says, “ever since the anti-LTN people teamed up with Together.
“We went through the pandemic – no, that’s not enough, let’s ram a few more restrictions on people”
peak to anyone in Oxford about the travel measures for long enough, and two key groups will invariably be mentioned: Oxfordshire Liveable Streets (very pro) and Reconnecting Oxford (very anti).
If Oxford’s metaphorical civil war were an actual one, these would be the campaign headquarters. Critics of the former will describe them as smug, selfish and almost exclusively middle-class, a NIMBY coalition so embedded with the council’s decision-making processes they practically make the decisions for them. Critics of the latter will describe them as car zealots who see a convenient way to get to the shops in the same way some Americans see second amendment gun-rights.
One thing, however, both sides can agree upon: Oxfordshire Liveable Streets was organised, Reconnecting Oxford was not. The former got many of their proposals pushed through, the latter are only just now playing catch up. Both vie to get pro and anti-LTN stories in The Oxford Mail via an affable cub reporter named Ed.
Oxfordshire Liveable Streets is steered by a striking young woman named Zuhura Plummer, who used to glue herself to things as a member of Extinction Rebellion. Reconnecting Oxford is run by a middle-aged man named Richard Parnham, a legal academic who has spent much of his free time over the last two years sending over 100 Freedom of Information requests to Oxfordshire County Council. When I mentioned his name to a council official in March I could hear an audible groan. His never-ending FOI requests, they told me, were taking up all their resources. Parnham wants to be able to drive his car, Plummer learnt to walk on anti-Apartheid marches. Parnham is a dog person; Plummer, cat.
Oxfordshire Liveable Streets was founded by a group including a commercial solicitor, a business lecturer and a consultant that specialises in climate policy. Reconnecting Oxford, on the other hand, must rely on the local pest controller, Pete (“He runs the anti-LTN hub in Cowley,” Parnham tells me), and the woman who runs pet-sitters Hot Diggity Dog. If Parnham can occasionally be inclined to describe the battle in terms of a gaggle of working-class resistance fighters against a middle-class Death Star, it’s perhaps not hard to understand why.
“It’s really a grassroots resistance,” he says. “We’re having to mirror the pressure groups on the other side.”
Parnham first moved to Oxford four years ago to do a postdoctoral degree. Not long after, he says, he attended a meeting about a proposal to place traffic restrictions on Marston Ferry Road. It didn’t seem to make sense: the road was wide, had a dedicated cycle lane, a walking route, it was designed to link neighbourhoods together. Where was the evidence this was a good thing? Did they have pollution or traffic monitoring data? He was about to put in the first of a great many FOI requests. “It just seemed evidence-free.” He also realised one group was at the heart of it. Their name: Oxfordshire Liveable Streets. He went to another meeting about a bollard on Walton Street. Again, Oxfordshire Liveable Streets were there.
By the time the government announced £3.3bn in funding to foster post-pandemic active travel, with two tranches of funding – first £225m, then £200m – specifically earmarked for LTNs, it was Oxfordshire Liveable Streets, he says, that were the council’s consultee of choice.
“The finger of Oxfordshire Liveable Streets is in every single pie. They’re always involved in consultations. They get advanced sight of things.” When the funding became available to apply for, Parnham says, the council was “scrambling around for ideas, and the pressure groups were handing them these things on a plate. The council chairwoman said thank you very much, and just handed them in as a proposal.”
It was telling, he says, that the first LTNs focused on an east Oxford neighbourhood called Florence Park. “Lo and behold, the Oxfordshire Liveable Streets crew live there. It’s social cleansing. If you don’t have a particular lifestyle, or a family within walking distance, if you’re not able-bodied, you can frankly fuck off out of Oxford because they don’t want you.”
Parnham tells me a story about two neighbouring roads: Divinity Road and Morrell Avenue. The former had a resident’s association, the latter did not. Divinity got a bollard, Morrell “got all their traffic dumped on it. Oxford in a microcosm”.
A look at the map suggests it’s not quite that simple: Divinity Road is perpendicular to Morrell Avenue, not parallel to it. But the point remains. Elizabeth Baddeley, director of the nearby JCP Estate Agents, told me that while the LTNs have yet to impact property prices, she’s done multiple viewings on Divinity Road with buyers who told her they wouldn’t have even considered the road beforehand. (But typically of the issue in Oxford, it’s an even split – just as many people, she tells me, don’t want to live on an LTN road due to their cars.)
Parnham claims to personally walk everywhere, so I wondered why traffic measures have come to obsess him so.
“It’s personal for me,” he says. When he first moved to Oxford, his dog was sick, and required daily injections. His vet was on the other side of a proposed barrier. “I would have to go on a four-mile diversion around a ring-road, and it struck me that in an emergency…”
“Oh my God, the dog!” Zahura Plummer of Oxfordshire Liveable Streets says when we later meet for lunch. “Richard Parnham’s dog is why we can’t have nice things!”
She first met Parnham when she was campaigning for the traffic filters in 2020. She invited him into her pop-up shop to show architectural drawings of the car-free haven they had planned. Parnham, who was pushing a pram, declined. He was vehemently against it. Why?
“He said he really liked to drive his dog for a walk in University Parks in [central] Oxford.”
Couldn’t he walk the dog in South Park, which was closer to him? No. “She likes University Parks,” he said.
Plummer peered into the pram, and realised the dog was inside. “And this dog, I swear to God, it was grey around the muzzle and barely able to breathe while lying down. This dog hasn’t been walking anywhere. So the reason we have all this is because Richard Parnham had a dog on death’s door.”
Plummer admits Oxfordshire Liveable Streets’ first campaign to get LTNs in Cowley was in no small part because “that’s where most of them lived”. But rather than it being a class war, she says, it was merely “rebalancing the city”. Leafy, well-to-do north Oxford, she points out, “had influential people who had time to campaign for things”. Some roads had barriers installed, others were made one-way, but crucially it never had east Oxford’s rat-running problem to begin with.
As for influencing the council: well, yes, that’s the point. “I think we’ve always been fairly well thought of.”
Still, she says, she does worry how the new measures will affect some people. She often wakes up at 3am worrying how it will impact single mothers. “But we can’t just do nothing.”
She left Extinction Rebellion, she says, as she didn’t feel she was making much of an impact. The problem was just too big. In Oxford, she says, she feels she can make a difference.
“I want to imagine myself in 30 years’ time cycling the streets with my grown-up children and know I had a role in it.”
We later walk past a Pedal & Post bike, one of a fleet of delivery cargo bikes now thriving as they deliver 1,000 parcels a day to Oxford’s bollarded streets. They plan to expand into Reading, increasing their revenue to £5.5m. “They’ve got a share offer coming up, you could invest,” Plummer says to me. I later look up the names of Pedal & Post’s directors and come across a familiar one: Jamie Hartzell, the man I watched bravely defend LTNs at the Together meeting the month before, the director of Oxfordshire Liveable Streets.
I later speak to Hartzell, who told me he first had discussions about joining Pedal & Post a couple of years ago, just before the pandemic. It was founded in 2013 by Christopher Benton as mobile coffee shop Pedal & Pour, but officially changed its name in January. Hartzell joined last autumn to help with the share offer, six months after the latest LTNs were installed. He became a director in March.
“I was campaigning long before I joined Pedal & Post,” he says of any potential conflict of interest criticism. “Pedal & Post is part of the solution. If we’re going to have traffic filters and things, deliveries will still need to find a way to get around.”
“The bottom line is most of these people have kids, and they’re trying to protect their streets”
ndrew Gant arrives to our interview as you would exactly expect a council cabinet member for highway management who’s become the face of active travel, to arrive: by bike, with a slight sheen of sweat. Along with his role as a Lib-Dem councillor – part of a Labour-Greens-Lib-Dem alliance that run the council – Gant is a classical music scholar who lectures at the university.
He must, I begin, find it slightly insane that traffic-calming has become a globally-reported controversy. “Yes, that’s a good word for it! And shocking. And surprising. Not least because Cambridge, Bristol, York, Bath, London… they’ve all done similar things.”
A public meeting on the traffic filters in September, he says, was particularly “spicy”. (Plummer had previously given me a more detailed description of the event: “People were screaming, shouting, grabbing the microphone. The councillors couldn’t speak. It was appalling,” she told me, noting one person was convinced the scheme would involve booby traps, which suggests a budget stretch).
The anger from some, he says, has forced him to change the way he works. He’s stopped using social media altogether and has had to take extra precautions with surgeries after several people became aggressive. “That’s been a real eye-opener.”
One time, waiting outside Sainsbury’s for his wife, “a couple of guys came up to me, stuck a mobile phone in my face and said, ‘You’re destroying our lives, what have you got to say about it? We’re going to put it on social media.’”
The police even had to take out a restraining order on a man who showed up at his house. “It was for my safety. The behaviour he was displaying was intimidating. Not just to me, but to my family, to my neighbours.”
A common complaint from those against the measures is that the council is somehow being undemocratic in enacting them. Partly, this comes from the Experimental Traffic Regulation Order (ETRO) used to install them, legislation issued by the government to speed up post-Covid active travel schemes by enacting them first and conducting a consultation on their effectiveness afterwards.
But it also comes from misinformation. Nearly everyone I speak to in Oxford who is against the forthcoming traffic filters – including a Conservative councillor in Ian Snowdon – tells me confidently that 93 per cent of people oppose them. It is not remotely true. It comes from an analysis of consultation comments done by an outside agency (DJS Research) that found seven per cent of respondents were overwhelmingly supportive, eight per cent overwhelmingly negative, and the rest somewhere in the middle.
The Oxford Mail ran it as a front-page story, saying “only seven per cent of public supports scheme”, but they could have easily framed it as “only eight per cent of public against scheme” – both would technically be accurate while also being wildly misleading. (The story no longer appears on The Oxford Mail’s website; the editor, Andrew Colley, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Oxfordshire Liveable Streets later commissioned a YouGov poll that found 60 per cent of residents were supportive with only 30 per cent opposed.)
One story that did break through came from one of Richard Parnham’s many FOI requests, with emails seemingly showing council officials withholding vital traffic filter modelling data before the consultation took place. Including it would have meant delaying the consultation – and missing a deadline for the government’s Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas (ZEBRA) grant as a result, worth some £32.8m. They went ahead without it. The first of 159 new electric buses will be on Oxford’s streets later this year. It didn’t look great. Leader of the Conservatives in the council Eddie Reeves later told me it was “a sham consultation”.
“If there is that perception, it’s wrong,” Gant says, “And frankly anyone who has said that is either mistaken or being deliberately misleading. The data referred to in those emails was simply not available at the beginning of the consultation.”
Earlier this month, Oxford’s Conservative MPs David Johnston, John Howell, Robert Courts and Victoria Prentis wrote an open letter to express concerns that the traffic filter decision had been taken before consulting the public.
Pollution data for east Oxford’s LTNs will be released later this year by Oxford’s council. The question remains: have they reduced pollution, or merely concentrated it, the residents of Oxford’s throughfares bearing the brunt?
The only indication so far comes from a raw data set taken from east Oxford’s 16 pollution monitoring stations, released following an FOI request from – who else – Richard Parnham. It shows, almost across the board, that pollution levels have decreased. Though as Parnham was only too keen to point out to me, the majority of monitoring stations are situated on roads now blocked off with LTNs. “They’re gaming the system!”
The idea with LTNs is that traffic will “evaporate”, a road-planning term that’s actually more about human behaviour than cars. Most comprehensive studies have found traffic does not behave like water – the same volume increasing in pressure as outlets narrow – but rather the volume itself decreases. People seek alternatives.
Yet in Oxford, there’s one thing Gant, the shadow Conservative councillors, and even Oxfordshire Liveable Streets all agree on: that has not been the case. Official data has yet to be released, but everyone will tell most journey times have doubled.
But they also agree on something else: the traffic filters and the LTNs were designed to work together. The filters would reduce overall traffic, the LTNs would channel what was left. Yet the filters have been delayed until autumn next year, after a key thoroughfare into the centre of Oxford – Botley Road – was forced to close to allow a £161m upgrade of Oxford Station. In the meantime, too much traffic is simply being squeezed through too few roads.
“Yes, that leaves us a gap where the traffic situation is at unacceptable levels,” Gant says. “It’s given us a headache, that’s for sure. So yes, we have a problem. Absolutely. I agree with that. And I’m working very hard to try and find what the solution might be. And it’s not easy, I’ll be honest with you.” What are the options? “Well, we’re looking at every option. That sounds like a politician’s answer, but we absolutely are.” There’s a small pause. “You’ll say I can’t think of any. Well, you know, I’m doing my best.”
“It’s social cleansing. If you don’t have a particular lifestyle, or a family within walking distance, if you’re not able-bodied, you can frankly fuck off out of Oxford”
n March, a by-election for Rose Hill and Littlemore saw an independent candidate running on an anti-LTN ticket come within 123 votes of unseating the Labour candidate. The next time there are local elections, the results will answer a lingering question: are the marches and the protests and the vandalism merely an aggrieved minority? Or are Oxfordshire Council going against the will of the people?
Everyone will have to remember that it is still just about traffic.
When I later speak to Alan Miller of Together over the phone he tells me his organisation will be helping in any way they can to help drive the vote for anti-LTN candidates. It is, he feels, not just about traffic, but civil liberties, suppression. The nature of free speech itself, albeit when it comes to driving.
“People have a sense that the last three decades has been largely one of technocratic control,” he says. “With very little public engagement. Where the great and the good decide they know best.”
He is, as many told me he would be, extremely engaging, remarkably personable. It’s only when I mention the March meeting, and use the phrase “climate-change denial” when referring to the hostility towards Jamie Hartzell, that it shifts.
“Do you know where the term denier comes from?” he says, curtly. “It comes from Holocaust denial right. And it’s very insulting for something so reprehensible where everyone knows six million people died, and talk about something that’s going to be in the future. I think it’s abhorrent and…”
This is more than a little strange. I mention “denial” is used in many other contexts. 9-11 deniers, for instance. The word, I point out, comes from the 14th century.
“But when you use it in that context,” he continues, “in a political context…” I suggest we move on, but to no avail. “We need to have an open debate and discussion. You can’t have Galileo or anyone without questioning. We were told the science is clear. And we are going to keep you safe. And you must do this. ‘The science says’. Well, the science never says anything. And that’s during lockdown. And it’s become abundantly clear.
“But the idea that we just limit and restrict and shut down and stop, which is what’s happening. We’re being told, you must stop this, it’s a climate emergency. The environment’s being killed, and if we don’t do this now, we’re going to be stuck. And people are not stupid, right?”
It goes on like this for a while, before Miller talks about his upcoming work. He’s in the middle of organising a demonstration in London against Sadiq Khan’s Ulez expansion scheme.
We end the conversation just about amicably, with Miller saying, “I look forward to seeing this. I’m slightly nervous, but anyway.”
I later look at images from the April 15th demonstration in London. People carried the same signs they were given at Wesley Memorial Church in Oxford in March. They read, “Take Back Democracy” and “Free our streets”.
Some were simply against the measures. Others held signs that said, “Climate Change: Global Fraud” and “London: Pioneering Prison Cities”.
Piers Corbyn showed up in a transit van, but got stuck outside the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. He caused a tailback of honking cars as far as the eye could see.