Episode 115: What the Hell is Happening In the UK?

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Doug Gordon: In September, 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that he was delaying a UK commitment to ban the sale of new fossil fuel-powered cars by 2030.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rishi Sunak: I’m announcing today that we’re going to ease the transition to electric vehicles. You’ll still be able to buy petrol and diesel cars and vans until 2035. Even after that, you’ll still be able to buy and sell them secondhand. We’re aligning our approach with countries like Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Australia, Canada, Sweden and US states such as California, New York and Massachusetts. And still ahead of the rest of America and other countries like New Zealand.]

Doug: The UK’s sudden move from a 2030 ban to a 2035 ban left automakers reeling.

[NEWS CLIP: Until now, Britain has been leading the race to electrify. Car companies spending billions of pounds, including government subsidies, gearing up for the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars. Pushing the finishing line back five years has infuriated automotive giants like Ford, who say it will undermine the industry.]

[NEWS CLIP: The question is making sure the market moves with you, because it can develop the products but unless the demand is there, and any mixed messages can potentially cause consumers to say, “I’ll wait a bit.” That’s not good for the industry, not good for the Exchequer and not good for the environment.]

Doug: Later in September, the Prime Minister announced what he called his plan for motorists: a series of restrictions on local municipalities’ abilities to enact 20 mile per hour speed limits, enforce bus-only lanes, implement low traffic neighborhoods that encourage walking and cycling, and even fine drivers for breaking the law.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rishi Sunak: I’m slamming the brakes on the war on motorists. It’s as simple as that.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, interviewer: How?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rishi Sunak: Well, one thing that I’ve realized if you’re a politician for too long, they always want to make short-term decisions, take the easy way out without any thinking about how that is actually just gonna impact ordinary people. And this war on motorists is a perfect example of that. But what we want to do now is make sure that all these kind of harebrained schemes to force on local communities, whether it’s low-traffic neighborhoods, whether it’s blanket 20 mile an hour speed limits, all of that, we need to stop.]

Doug: Finally, in early October, the Prime Minister announced he was canceling the northern portion of HS2, a high speed rail link from Birmingham to Manchester, the UK’s second and third largest cities.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rishi Sunak: I am canceling the rest of the HS2 project, and in its place—and in its place, we will reinvest every single penny—£36 billion in hundreds of new transport projects in the North and the Midlands across the country. This means £36 billion of investment in the projects that will make a real difference across our nation.]

Doug: Those projects that Sunak said would be made possible by the savings created by canceling HS2 include smaller rail lines and better bus service in more cities, but also a number of highways, roads and other projects meant to benefit drivers and lock in car dependency. Anyway, it’s not clear that the cancellation will save British taxpayers that much money. The government had already bought hundreds of homes along the canceled portion of the HS2 route. Various pieces of infrastructure already in progress will now have to be dismantled, and none of that includes losing out on the economic and social benefits better rail service would have brought two other UK cities and regions along the line. Here are the mayors of Manchester, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands all expressing their disappointment at the Prime Minister’s announcement.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andy Street: You’re telling me we can’t build a railway from London to Manchester? It’s laughable.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andy Burnham: It does not make any logical sense.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tracy Brabin: It’s just a sucker punch, actually, for one person to derail an extraordinary infrastructure project. What a legacy to lead.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andy Burnham: I think the city region was entitled to more respect than it’s been given.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andy Street: Every single promise they make, they break. They are making promises to the north and then casually breaking promises to the north time and again. I mean, it’s a catastrophe.]

Doug: Not to be left out, Boris Johnson weighed in. After all, it was his government that gave HS2 construction the green light after more than a decade of planning. Johnson contrasted the UK’s failure to complete HS2 with China’s construction of 25,000 miles of high speed railway lines.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Boris Johnson: In Chinese universities, they have a set text about the failures of democracy and about how democratically-elected politicians just can’t be trusted to take the tough, long-term decisions that are in the interests of the entire country. And you know what that text is? It’s the story of Britain’s HS2. So read about why it would be utter madness to cancel, truncate or in any way mutilate our ambition of Britain’s high speed rail network.]

Doug: British politics have always been dramatic—especially in the last decade. But when it comes to transportation, traffic safety and the fight against climate change, what the hell is happening in the UK? This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon, and I am sitting here with my co-hosts, Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear.

Sarah: Hello!

Aaron Naparstek: What’s up?

Sarah: So the first thing I want to do is just to make an ask of all of you who are listening. If you like this podcast, if you love this podcast, you can be part of making this podcast by becoming a Patreon supporter. Go to TheWaronCars.org and click on “Support Us“, and then you can enlist in the war in cars for as little as $3 a month. We’ll send you stickers, handwritten note, and you’ll get to feel that, like, warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from supporting something that you care about and love. So do it.

Doug: Also, you can buy War on Cars merch in our store. It’s the holidays. So, you know, get on that. We got t-shirts, we got stickers, we got all kinds of new stuff. Go to TheWaronCars.org. Check out our store and thanks!

Aaron: Oh, and by the way, have you heard that we are going to be doing a live event, a live taping at the 2024 Winter Cycling Congress in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada?

Doug: I have heard this.

Aaron: You heard this?

Doug: Yes. But maybe our listeners haven’t. So this is awesome. We’re really looking forward to it.

Aaron: Yeah, that’s pretty—that’s pretty cool. And if you can make it—I mean, Sarah went to the Winter Cycling Congress once in Finland. It is supposed to be an awesome event. It will be my first one.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s really cool. It’s like people from countries that get cold and wintry but who like to ride bicycles in the cold winter, get together and talk about how to make that possible for people in cities around the world. And it’s so inspiring and really fun, and riding a bicycle in the snow, you guys, if you haven’t done much of it before, I hope we get to do a lot in Edmonton because it’s super cool.

Doug: We’ll put a link to registration in the show notes. So to help us figure out what the hell is happening in the UK, we have the perfect guest. He’s coming back for another appearance. Peter Walker, welcome back to The War on Cars.

Peter Walker: Thank you very much. It’s great to be back.

Doug: So Peter, you are the acting deputy political editor for The Guardian, but you’re also a big time cyclist. You’ve written two books on the subject—well, on walking and cycling, I should say. And the last time you were here, we had you on for a bonus episode to talk about your book, The Miracle Pill, which is great. Everybody should check that out.

Peter Walker: Yeah, and it’s great to be back to basically talk about the one subject where my day job and my niche interest actually kind of cross over. It’s the only time in history that the two things have actually crossed over, probably.

Doug: All right. So, Peter, what the hell is going on in the UK?

Aaron: [laughs]

Peter Walker: Well, there’s a long answer and a short answer. The short answer is the Conservative government, which we have in the UK, in its various incarnations has been in power since 2010. They’ve got to hold an election within about a year. They’re currently polling about 20 points behind the Labour Party, the main opposition party, in the polls. And they’re doing what one MP described as the political equivalent of just pressing every button on a computer to hope it works again. And they’ve devised something called “A Plan For the Motorist,” which they think might help win them some votes.

Doug: So we mentioned the Plan for Motorists in our opening at the top. Could you maybe go into some details about what that is and then we can get into the whys?

Peter Walker: Well, the slightly longer answer is it’s a bit of a mixed bag of stuff which won’t really affect that many people’s lives. It’s a kind of symbolic act, because the government wants to show it’s on the kind of driver’s side against people who ride bikes and things like that. And they’ve not completely fleshed out what it would be, but it’d involve things like cracking down on these low-traffic neighborhoods, which are kind of modal filters, urban ones. It would make it harder for local councils to impose 20 mile an hour limits, which are actually a reasonably popular thing to do. And it would—in general, it fits into this wider, slightly anti-net zero anti-green point of view that the Rishi Sunak government’s got into in recent months. But as much as anything, it’s trying to just symbolize almost this pushback against green almost arguably “woke” ideas you should get if people walk too much or ride bikes. It’s a symbolic thing of them trying to say, “If you drive a car—most British people do—then we’re on your side.”

Sarah: Does Sunak think that he’s gonna get Labour voters over to his side? That this sort of anti-green anti-wokeism thing is strong enough to pull people from Labour to Tory? Is that what’s happening, or is it that he wants to get his base fired up? He wants to get Tories feeling great about being Tories again, which might be a little bit of a heavy lift right at the moment? [laughs]

Peter Walker: [laughs] It’s kind of a combination of the two, in the sense that it all goes back to the very heavy legacy of the general election, the last one we had in 2019, when Boris Johnson, who is the—was the Prime Minister then, won a very heavy victory for the Conservative Party by having this slightly populist, yet in some ways economically slightly left-leaning program, which got a lot of traditional Labour voters in slightly deprived Northern towns to vote for the Conservatives—often for the first time.

Peter Walker: And there’s a slight myth—well, it’s part myth, part true about these kind of voters. They tend to be socially conservative—with a small ‘c’—and because they live in towns where public transport isn’t very good, they tend to drive cars. They’re trying to shore up this 2019 base which is drifting towards Labour more and more. And as to whether it’s gonna work, I mean, I don’t really know. If you showed, you know, polling before they did this, then people saying, you know, “It’s too difficult for me to drive” was probably not in the top 50 issues that were raised. But it’s part of this wider program of almost scrabbling around for anything that could bring back or at least keep this slightly new base which they’ve got.

Aaron: What are motorists presumably upset about here in England? Like, do they have specific gripes? Has there been so much progress on the kind of progressive transportation policy front in England that they have something to really complain about?

Peter Walker: No. I mean, there’s two things going on, one of which is that—as I’m sure listeners to your show know very well, driving a car in a city, in an urban area is quite a miserable thing to do. And, you know, it’s quite a mental leap for someone who, you know, for often perfectly good reasons has to drive, to just admit to themselves this is really not a fun thing to do. It would be much more fun if they could transit or bike.

Peter Walker: But there’s been a lot of coverage in right-leaning newspapers and on TV stations to an extent of these changes, which really only affect a small number of people in big cities like London, maybe a couple of other ones like Bristol, Oxford and stuff like that—places which are not particularly car-friendly places in the first place—like imposing 20 mile an hour speed limits, which are the default in quite a lot of built up areas, but have increased a lot in recent years.

Peter Walker: And then we have this incredibly toxic debate on these things called LTMs or low-traffic neighborhoods, which are—it’s basically the sort of thing the Dutch were doing on a much bigger level from the 1960s onwards. It’s where you have planters or bollards to create a modal filter on smaller residential streets, so pedestrian traffic and bikes can travel all the way through them using them as through routes but cars can’t. And there’s probably, I don’t know, 50 of those in the whole country, maybe 100, and they probably affect one percent or less than that of the population. And they’ve become this totemic issue in newspapers. You know, [inaudible] readers that know the UK media market, are The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail, and you would assume that they’re the least popular policy ever done. They’re not. Polling shows that people like them. But the problem is that the Conservative government, particularly when things aren’t going very well, listen to these newspapers in a very kind of careful way. So it’s this weird, slightly mythical battle against an enemy that A) isn’t that unpopular, and B) doesn’t actually affect most people’s lives. The whole thing’s very odd.

Doug: In doing research for this episode, I wanted to answer that question: just precisely how popular this stuff is. And there was a study by the Department for Transport in the UK that said 61 percent of people would support low-traffic neighborhoods in their local areas. And there also was an election that was not centered around low-traffic neighborhoods, but the pro-LTN councilors kept their seats. Is that correct?

Peter Walker: It is true. Whenever there’s been an electoral test, then councils which have introduced LTNs have tended to do better than not well. It’s a bit of a mixed one, because a lot of the LTNs were introduced during the lockdown time when the government was very much trying to get people off public transport and onto bikes. And some of the London ones in particular were introduced in a bit of a rush and initially didn’t work very well.

Peter Walker: And, you know, as anyone who kind of knows the urban planning world realizes, these kind of interventions can’t just be a piecemeal thing where it’s just a few streets here and a few streets there because people will just displace their journeys and go to different roads. It has to be a slightly bigger thing to provide the disincentive for people to get out of cars. So a handful of these weren’t particularly well implemented in the first place. I mean, they’ve got better now. And with all the polling, it’s a slightly difficult thing, but it depends what question you ask. So if you say to people, “Would you like fewer cars traveling down your local residential street?” almost everyone says yes. But if you posit the polling in a slightly different way of, “Would you like your favorite shortcut to local shops to disappear?” they tend to say no.

Peter Walker: As with all these things, there’s a lot of fuss when they get introduced, but if you leave them for a year then people forget all about them. There was a parallel fuss in lots of cities in the UK where they introduced about 10 or 15 years ago the idea of people on their local street having to pay an annual parking fee, you know, which isn’t much. It’s about £100 or so. And when that first came in, I mean, local councils [inaudible] anger. No one can believe that. But now no one talks about it. It’s like all these things that if you leave them in for long enough, people eventually realize they’re probably quite a good thing.

Sarah: Well, and I’m just thinking about, like, the alternative to living in a low-traffic neighborhood is living in a high-traffic neighborhood. And if you said to people, “Oh, do you want your neighborhood to be an HTN?” then probably they’d be like, “No, actually.”

Doug: Along those lines I was wondering—you’ve sort of answered this question but, you know, we see here, you know, Joe Biden being accused of waging a “war on cars,” and Pete Buttegieg as well. But at the same time, Biden then, you know, has photographs taken of him in an electric Hummer going from 0 to 60 in two seconds or whatever. How anti-car is Labour? You know, like is it so exaggerated in the way that it is here? I mean, what is the opposition party basically saying about this stuff? Are there policies at the national level that we would see change under a Labour government?

Peter Walker: A Labour government would be better in the sense that their transport team has got a commitment to spending more money on not just bikes, but to make it easier to walk and buses and other transit. But at the same time, they don’t necessarily want to talk about it because there is this thing that—you know, all parties, Labour too, run scared of what these right-wing newspapers say. And if you get accused of being anti-car, then there’s some voters for which that will actually put people off.

Peter Walker: So the traditional thing is that both Conservative and Labour governments in recent years have talked about being on the motorists’ side, whilst at the same time quietly building a small number of bike lanes and things like that. It’s interesting that the Conservative Party this time have been the only ones to actually explicitly go against it because, you know, you and your listeners know the arguments better than anyone does, that trying to somehow do a government which can cope with the fact that there’s millions and millions more cars on the UK roads than there were 20, 30 years ago is just not going to work. And the only rational fact, probably the only way to stop that is to, you know—one of the answers is to have more people on bikes. But even though every official and every politician and every MP in the land understands this, even the Labour Party is slightly wary of explicitly talking about it. It’s this weird cultural territory that we’re coming in.

Doug: So Peter, one of the reasons we wanted to have you on is that I was in Europe for various trips. I was in a few different cities, and had the BBC on in my hotel room. And it just felt like every day Sunak was announcing some thing: The Plan for Motorists that we mentioned, but he also announced that he was scaling back a pretty big segment of HS2, the high speed rail which we mentioned in the opening at the top. Talk about this and the reaction that it provoked.

Peter Walker: HS2 is a slightly strange one because it’s a high speed rail project which would go from London to the north of England to Manchester, and then which it was going to go to Leeds. And I mean, it’s been going on for about 20-odd years. Sometimes it feels like it’s been going on longer than I’ve lived because they successfully built HS1, which went south from London into Kent fairly fast.

Peter Walker: But HS2 has become this almost symbol of how Britain can’t actually get anything right these days. The costs have escalated massively. Before the bulk of it was canceled recently, the estimated cost crept up to between £70-billion and £90-billion, which is like north of $100 million, $120 million. And it was delayed, it was years later than it ought to be. But at the same time, this decision that Rishi Sunak did to cancel it is quite emblematic of how transport choices have changed because he canceled not all of it but, you know, a significant part of it, and said he was going to put the money into kind of other more local transport links.

Peter Walker: So some of it was to build smaller local rail lines, which, you know, you could argue both ways with that. But one of the things they’re also doing, they decided to take £8-billion, which they saved on that, which is what, about $10 billion, and they’re gonna use it to improve roads, to use it basically a pothole-filling fund. And some of these actually kind of conservative writers were pointing out that this is such a symbolic thing: you take money out of actual infrastructure that would last 50, 60, 100 years, and use it to actually maintain stuff. Such a—you know, Rishi Sunak’s big thing was he’s saying, you know, we’re taking decisions to the long term, but that’s the absolute epitome of something for the short term.

Sarah: Yeah. And also, the mayors that we heard from on this are mayors in exactly the kinds of areas you’re talking about, right? That the Tories are trying to win their hearts in these northern places, but at least some of those mayors are not happy with pulling the plug on this project that presumably would have made a lot of people’s lives easier and would have had some economic benefits for business and so forth.

Peter Walker: Yes. I mean, one of the things to kind of digress from just the transport angle of it, one of the big problems the UK has got is that probably more than any other major economy I know of, its economic might is just London based. And London is, you know, a kind of drain for talent and infrastructure and all that kind of stuff. And HS2 was meant to spread that around a bit. So not only could people get from London to other cities more quickly, but they could get around the north more easily, too.

Peter Walker: In terms of the politics of it, it’s—without getting too much into the weeds of it—the red wall as they’re called, voters because they used to be, you know, solidly Labour areas that Rishi Sunak wants to keep are more in the towns. And the cities that the mayor represents are kind of Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, et cetera, et cetera. And those urban areas are full of students and, you know, young kind of office workers and stuff like that who tend to be more Labour based. So he can almost happily write off those people who would have got the train into London and things like that, and concentrate on the people in towns who don’t have train stations and need to drive everywhere.

Doug: So along the culture war aspects of this, there was a post that Rishi Sunak put up, it was a picture of him sitting in Margaret Thatcher’s Land Rover, which I think sort of kicked off the cultural piece of this. He posted, “Talking about freedom, sat in Margaret Thatcher’s old Rover. Earlier, I spoke to the Telegraph about how important cars are for families to live their lives. It’s something anti-motorist Labour just don’t seem to get, and it’s why I’m reviewing anti-car schemes across the country.” You know, as an American thinking about the concept of freedom, setting aside whether owning and having to operate a car is a free life, the idea that local councilors are gonna have their decisions superseded or reviewed by the prime minister at the national level, like, I can’t imagine if, like, President Biden weighed in on a bike lane in Park Slope.

Peter Walker: It’s this weird kind of micromanagement thing. Amongst these things they want to do is to crack down on the 20 mile an hour limits and also make it harder for local councils to impose fines for some kind of driving offenses like driving the wrong way into a junction or parking on certain, like, you know, double yellow lines and stuff. And they basically can’t force councils to not do that, so the only ruse they’ve come up with is there’s a national automated license plate recognition system, so you can have cameras which can then read the number plate and send the fines out. And they said that councils that don’t do what they’re told will be cut off from being able to use this, which is not only incredibly micromanagerial , it’s also a very petty thing.

Peter Walker: But the other fascinating thing is that Sunak posing in Margaret Thatcher’s car is a bit strange. I mean, a lot of your listeners won’t necessarily know him very well, but he’s quite an odd man. He’s incredibly rich. He himself worked for a big bank before he became an MP. His wife is the daughter of the founder of Infosys, so has got billions and billions of pounds. And the weird thing is I don’t even know if Rishi Sunak can drive a car.

Sarah: Hmm!

Peter Walker: He’s more of a kind of helicopter man. He’s really very, very rich, and I’ve never actually seen him driving a car. I wouldn’t be surprised if—you know, he maybe can, but there was this famous photo shoot he did when he was the finance minister a couple of years ago where they’d announced, I think, a cut to fuel duty or something like that. And they did this—he’s very big on image, and had this picture of him at a petrol station putting petrol into a car, shirt sleeves rolled up, kind of tie tucked in, looking a bit relaxed, you know, “This is what I do all the time.” But it turned out that this car was one he’d actually borrowed from a supermarket worker because they didn’t have a car around that looked like an ordinary car.

Doug: [laughs]

Peter Walker: They bought this like $15,000 car from somebody who worked there and said, “Look, can we—can we take it for a while?” And when Sunak has to interact with the real world, it doesn’t really often go that well. There’s another famous photo shoot a few weeks before that, where he was being filmed paying for some purchase or other in a shop, and he was trying to use his contactless card, and he was holding it up to the barcode scanner, not the actual payment machine.

Doug: [laughs]

Sarah: Oh my God, that’s like …

Peter Walker: It’s like a member of the royal family.

Sarah: That’s an exact replay of George W. Bush.

Aaron: H.W.

Sarah: H.W. George H.W.

Doug: We should give that context for our listeners who might not be old enough to remember. George H.W. Bush, during the campaign against Clinton in 1992, was using what was then a relatively new but certainly familiar to most Americans checkout scanner and, like, could not scan his groceries because he was just this patrician, wealthy …

Aaron: Like, never shopped in a grocery store.

Doug: No, probably not even as a kid did he ever go into a grocery store. And so it is seen as—I’m sure you could do a whole episode on whether or not this is true, but it is seen as one of the things that labeled him as completely out of touch and contributed to his losing to Bill Clinton. Let’s talk about the—there’s one more piece of this that we mentioned in the opening, and that is Sunak delaying the ban on the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles. It was gonna happen in 2030. He pushed it back to 2035. That does put it more in line with the rest of—well, the rest of the EU—with the EU, I should say. [laughs] And I remember when I was watching this on the news, and part of what struck me as just such an interesting wrinkle in all of this, the reaction from the car companies. You would have thought they were full-in participants in the war on cars as, like, hippie environmentalists who were just so mad at this Conservative because it really messed up with their plans. They have entire, like, supply chain plans laid out for how they’re gonna meet this deadline, and then he just pulled the rug out from under them. I wonder if you could talk about some of that reaction?

Peter Walker: It’s a really interesting thing because Rishi Sunak’s mantra has been, “I’m the guy who’ll take the decisions for the long term,” but he keeps on changing his mind on really big things. HS2 was a complete, utter mess because they made the decision over literally a month or so for a project that had been running for 20-25 years, to the extent that the HS2 project had been compulsory purchasing properties that were gonna run alongside the line. And even as it was being canceled, they were still buying these properties—not actually kicking people out. You know, it was a process that people agreed to go through, but they were spending tens of billions of pounds on properties which now would no longer need to be knocked down.

Peter Walker: And this change, you know, it’s only a five-year change, but the car industry were completely furious. You know, industry groups were completely furious, too. They were making the point that these giant corporations worked incredibly long lead times, and they had gotten used to for well over a decade—actually, no, probably slightly less than that, about five or six years, then they were going to be phasing out from 2030, which is for the sale of new petrol diesel cars. And they suddenly had this thing of well hang on, consumers are gonna want them for five more years and we have to build them, but we’re gradually changing our factories around. And it was this very, very strange thing that it gave him minor credit possibly amongst voters here or there. It pleased this handful of right wing papers, which he seems to avidly read, but the car companies themselves, and more widely the business groups thought is the worst thing ever. They were really, really peeved.

Aaron: So Peter, your new monarch, King Charles, he’s kind of known as an environmentalist, you know, with really seemingly sincere views around, you know, doing something about the climate crisis. And he’s been really good on sort of like biodynamic farming and urbanism and all kinds of issues like these. And just a couple weeks ago, he gave his first King’s speech. He, you know, put on the crown and everything, was dressed in, like, full drag.

Peter Walker: [laughs]

Aaron: And he—he got up there and he had to sort of, I guess, recite these kind of regressive anti-environmentalist policies of the current government.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, King Charles: Legislation will be introduced to strengthen the United Kingdom’s energy security, and reduce reliance on volatile international energy markets and hostile foreign regimes. This bill will support the future licensing of new oil and gas fields, helping the country to transition to net zero by 2050 without adding undue burdens on households.]

Aaron: Can you explain, like, what that was about and how it went down?

Peter Walker: It’s this very strange constitutional thing that the—every time a parliament starts a new term, which is not after general election, it’s every year or so, then you get this very weird state opening where the monarch—currently the king—arrives in this coach and has to read out this very politics-based speech, quite short, about why government will do this, that and the other. And it’s a strange constitutional thing that we don’t have a president, obviously, so the monarch is the head of the country, so the government officially answers to them.

Peter Walker: And it’s quite strange. I mean, Charles did not look very happy reading that stuff out. But with him, it’s hard to tell. It’s kind of his default voice. But when the last state opening of parliament took place just over a year ago, about 15, 16 months ago, the queen was alive still, but she was getting very old and wasn’t at the time particularly well, so Charles stood in for that one. And I can remember being in the office with my politics colleagues watching him read out the speech, and we were going, “Oh my God, he’s making it sound like this—like he hates every word of this!” And someone was just saying, “That’s just the way he always sounds.”

Doug: [laughs]

Peter Walker: He’s just got a very—you know, because you’re wearing this kind of probably two-kilo crown, sweating in this ermine robe, having to read out this rubbish speech to hundreds of people.

Aaron: Right.

Peter Walker: But it is—there’s this interesting constitutional thing that as next in line to the throne, there was a certain amount of leeway for him to make it plain—and he very much does. I mean, he simultaneously believes in green things, but has a fleet of quite gas-guzzling cars, and he flies a lot, but he’s quite passionate about it. But once you become the monarch, all that has got to stop. It’s this basically constitutional understanding that, you know, when you step on the throne, you cannot utter a peep about what you really think.

Aaron: It’s gotta be so humiliating for him, right?

Peter Walker: Well, there’s perks. You get someone to squeeze your toothpaste out and stuff like that.

Sarah: I had this fantasy about him sort of tearing up the speech and tossing it aside and saying, “I don’t believe any of this. Here’s what I do believe.”

Doug: You’re gonna have to wait for season seven of The Crown.

Sarah: Reads the other speech, you know, and just burns it all down, kind of. That he just says, “You know, I spent my whole life waiting for this job and this job sucks, and I’m just going to …”

Aaron: Just going full Johnny Rotten.

Sarah: “I’m gonna actually do something that’s meaningful, and here it is.” But that’s not gonna happen, is it? [laughs]

Doug: I find it so interesting, too, because our view as Americans of British politics is that there’s a lot more, let’s say, talking back to people in power than we often have, you know, the House of Lords as opposed to Congress—not that we don’t have people screaming in Congress but, you know, but even in media and journalism, there’s a lot less just deference. You guys don’t let your politicians get away with as much as our media.

Aaron: Question time, right?

Doug: Right. Exactly. And so to have this tradition where Charles has to basically say, “Yeah, we’re gonna just drill in the North Atlantic for more oil, and that’s gonna help us transition to net zero,” which he had to—I don’t know, did he throw up after he gave that speech? I don’t know how he held it together. It’s such an interesting juxtaposition between, I think, like what you’re saying, like, we would want him to tap into that slightly more British version of things that we imagine.

Sarah: Which is also a Hollywood fantasy scenario. [laughs]

Doug: Yes.

Peter Walker: It’d be great. But yes, I mean, he’s been waiting to accede to the throne for many, many years. And the—you know, I guess the one thing the Chinese Communist Party and the British royal family have got in common is that they ultimately exist just to keep their own presence going for as long as they humanly can. And once you get into that job, you know, you don’t do anything to potentially—you know, they’ve had a lot of scandals over the years, and the only thing that’s held them together is the fact that the Queen was just this incredibly opaque, gnomic person onto which people could project whatever they wanted. And that’s partly because she took over quite young in an era when no one really knew what she was like. And with Charles, it’s a bit more difficult. So he really, really has got to betray nothing whatsoever, but it would be great if he did it. But I think we might need a couple of monarchs. I don’t think William’s gonna do that. Maybe one of William’s kids might eventually do that.

Sarah: So wait, I just want to ask something that it seems to me from the little that I see about the situation that the Tories are in right now, it seems like people really are sick of them and hate them, and that’s coming out in the polling and everything. And I kind of see a similar thing as is happening with the GOP here in the United States of just this realization that things are kind of not going so great and kind of falling apart, as in our case, it’s not so much the polling numbers for them as it is their inability to govern, their inability to agree on anything, and their infighting. But as the chaos becomes greater, then this sort of pandering to the Daily Mail‘s interest or Fox News’ interest becomes more frantic, and it almost feels like they’re just grabbing at anything to sort of counteract the long building anger and resentment that people in the UK have about the austerity policies and the results of that. And can you talk about is that part of the dynamic here?

Peter Walker: I think it probably is. And I think this motorist plan is an element of that because it’s the sort of thing that, you know, even three or four years ago, they would have thought is a bit kind of low rent, is not going to interest enough people. And there’s two things going on: at the one level, you have Rishi Sunak and even government ministers who are happy to occasionally get involved in kind of conspiracy theory stuff—not quite on the level of Trump’s Republican Party, but on a level we’ve not seen in UK politics, well, probably since Boris Johnson or thereabouts, but which is not normally part of the political scene here. So at the Conservative Party conference last month, there was all these weird speeches. The Transport Secretary gave a speech in which he said something like, “And 15-minute cities won’t let you drive to the shops, you know, when you want to.” Which is pure this whole “UN wants to take over the world, 15-minute cities” myth.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mark Harper: What is different, what is sinister and what we shouldn’t tolerate is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops, and that they ration who uses the roads and when, and they police it all with CCTV.]

Peter Walker: And he was kind of challenged on it afterwards and didn’t try to justify it. We had all sorts of other weird conspiracy theories, like one of the government ministers said in her speech that the Labour Party wants to introduce a tax on meat, which it very much doesn’t. Probably a good thing to do in the balance of things, but [inaudible] for the Labour Party to actually do. And at the same time, you have within the Conservative Party this even more hard right populist fringe who think Sunak’s basically being a bit wet and they want him to go further and further and further. And everyone is preparing for the moment when the general election is lost. And if the polling stays as it is, then the Conservative government—well, the Conservative Party—could be reduced to a rump. You know, there’s 650 MPs in the Commons, they could go down to 150, 180. And when it gets down to that, it’s a question of, you know, who’s left. And it could be that the most numerous ones of these kind of hard right populist types, and then they lead the party down what would certainly in current UK voter terms be a cul de sac, because there’s just not enough sentiment for that kind of thing. But then, you know, as you know only too well, something can seem outlandish at one point, but a few years later it could seem what everyone’s talking about. It’s certainly—it’s a strange and slightly alarming time.

Aaron: And it’s interesting, too, because we’re seeing this kind of backlash and culture war building around transportation issues in all kinds of places. So we’re seeing it here in New York where there’s like a really concerted attack on bike lanes and pedestrian projects. We’re seeing it in Spain in Barcelona and Madrid. We’re seeing it in Germany, right? Berlin. I mean, there’s like—I don’t know how specific we want to get into these examples, but it feels like it’s a nationwide trend kind of in line with the rising reactionary right wing authoritarianism that’s happening all over, too.

Peter Walker: I think it’s interesting in that it’s a manifestation of this populist stylization, which isn’t a proper word, of politics in lots of countries. And these populist leaders tend to fixate on things that make people’s lives difficult, and then they blame things which are not to blame for those and say, “Well, if we did this, then your life would suddenly be better.” So it can be immigration. They say, “If you got rid of all the immigrants, then suddenly your wages go up and your schools would be empty. You’d be able to book a doctor’s appointment.” Which isn’t true because these things are down to, you know, rapacious bosses, you know, not enough money being spent.

Peter Walker: And in terms of transport, going back to what I said before, just this idea that driving a car in a city, and the weird thing is is that England in particular, it’s a very urbanized place. About 84 percent of English people live in urban areas. So most people’s experience of driving a car, you know, the majority of car journeys under five miles are gonna be these really miserable stop-start things. You stop at traffic lights, and it always takes you 20 minutes longer than you thought. And there is no one to blame for that, but the fact there are too many cars. And the only way to get around that is by having fewer cars on the road. But that’s difficult long-term stuff. So if a politician comes and says, “Well, there’s actually—” you know, first it’s cyclists’ fault and then it’s pedestrians’ fault, then suddenly becomes it’s the UN’s fault. And that’s quite tempting because if people are not enjoying what they see, then a simplistic answer can be very, very appealing.

Aaron: On the flip side, like, if—I wonder if there’s some bright side where if the Conservatives lose, if these campaigns and these messages lose at the ballot box, then it reinforces that, in fact, you know, having less traffic in your neighborhood, having better public spaces, having a bikeable, transit-friendly place to live is, like, actually—it’s popular and it wins.

Peter Walker: It just takes time, too. As I was saying, I think people see these changes, and after a year they’re used to the thing. “Oh, wow. This is great.” There is a slight issue that every time the kind of political window gets shifted over a little bit, it becomes slightly harder for the other party to move it back. So the fact we will have had, by the time the next election takes place, a couple of years of this very overt anti-active travel talk, it becomes slightly difficult for Labour to talk in a much more overtly pro-transit, pro-bike way.

Peter Walker: But, you know, it’s just a long battle, and it’s this classic thing of taking three steps forward and one or two steps back. And we seem to be currently in a one-or-two-steps-back period, particularly in the UK. But you ultimately get down to the inescapable fact that in certainly a country the size of the UK, there are too many cars and they’re been driven too many times for short distances, often with only one person in it. And there is only one way out of that, which is to offer people alternatives.

Peter Walker: Anyhow, I guess on a more positive note is that when organizations, whether it’s councils or charities, do polling on whether people would like to ride bikes, then the polling in England is really, really strong. There’s this mass of about 20 or 30 percent of people who are saying, “If it was safe, I would definitely ride. There’s all these short journeys that I do.” England is a particularly densely built-up place, so there’s a lot of possibility for people to be able to walk or cycle or get buses for short trips. So, you know, who knows? If you have one or two terms of Labour quietly moving things in the right way, then things could change just as quickly as they’ve gone back again.

Sarah: And it seems also that if there were a government that built trust with the population in other ways in terms of funding the national health care system, funding education, if people didn’t feel so threatened and frightened all the time, then these right-wing tropes wouldn’t have a place to grow. Because as you say, these—these are not really the issues that people are concerned about. Most people don’t really care that much about an LTN. It’s just something to exploit, and it’s exploitable because people are scared and anxious.

Peter Walker: I guess it’s true. But again, this is gonna be quite a long road back, and this is something the Labour Party have been warning for quite a long time, that the austerity policies—which have actually been in place for 30 years—the legacy of that is really very tough. And I think for some of your listeners, they might not appreciate quite how—relatively, in some cases—absolutely poorer a country the UK than it was certainly 15 or so years back.

Peter Walker: There was a story that a colleague of mine did last week on how people make ends meet, and they found that in the last year two million people in the UK had at some point switched their freezer or fridge off because they couldn’t afford to pay for the power.

Aaron: Wow.

Peter Walker: And they found that the people who are on the most common form of welfare, which is Universal Credit, which is not even meant to be for people who don’t work, and it’s to top up pay, of those people, 80 percent of them had at some point in the last year either gone without food, not replaced worn-out clothes, or basically not had basics because they simply didn’t have the money. And this is the reality of life for a really quite high number of people within the UK, and it’s something that hasn’t been seen since probably the 1970s.

Peter Walker: And, you know, you can understand why within that, people are reaching for solutions that sound like they’re easy, but at the same time, to undo that, you could potentially undo it more quickly if you’re a party willing to embrace, say, you know, wealth-based taxes as well as income-based ones. But Labour decided not to do that, so their leeway to pull all this back is quite limited. It’s gonna be quite a slow thing. But, you know, you have to start at some point, I guess. And it does seem as though when the election comes, things are about to slowly change.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, maybe Charles could sell one of his scepters or something.

Peter Walker: He could finance [inaudible], definitely.

Aaron: I think the idea is, Peter, you team up with us, and we release our own plan for motorists. Like, why not? Like, Rishi Sunak can have a plan for motorists, so can we.

Doug: Yeah. I mean, I think it all gets back to what I think we’re seeing here in the US, which is it’s so easy to break things and it is so hard to build things. And once something is broken, getting it back even to a state of good repair, whether that’s actual infrastructure or social infrastructure, you know, our mayor is cutting library funding, and if some new mayor came along and flipped the switch back on, I think it would take a long time to build back capacity to what it was.

Peter Walker: I guess that one of the good things, you know, amidst all this kind of gloom is that if you are a government whose intentions are good but you haven’t got a lot of money to spend on things, then some of this transport infrastructure—not only bike lanes and making it safer for people to walk, but basic transit stuff like having buses run reasonably frequently—in the grand scheme of things is not particularly expensive. It’s certainly not as expensive as a high-speed rail line, and it’s very much not as expensive as, like, building a new main road. So there could almost—in this continued austerity, almost—be a role for active travel because, you know, as we all know, the infrastructure doesn’t cost much, and the economic gains are also very big.

Doug: So Peter, when might an election happen?

Peter Walker: So the very, very latest is January, 2025. It’s almost certainly gonna be either autumn next year or potentially spring next year. And it just depends on, you know, the economic news, how things are going. And if things for the Conservatives are getting worse and worse, they might just go for spring thinking, “Well, it’s only gonna get worse. We want to limit the losses.” But hopefully by this time next year, the election will have been done.

Doug: All right. Well, we’ll have you back to discuss the results. We appreciate it.

Peter Walker: Brilliant. Thank you very much.

Sarah: Thank you.

Aaron: Thank you, Peter.

Doug: You can read Peter Walker in The Guardian, and you can pick up copies of his books, How Cycling can Save the World and The Miracle Pill at independent booksellers, or at our official Bookshop.org page. We will put a link in the show notes.

Sarah: And again, we will be attending the Winter Cycling Congress in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, from February 22 to 24. We will put a link with registration information in the show notes.

Aaron: If you want to support The War on Cars, enlist on Patreon by visiting Patreon.com/thewaroncarspod. Starting at just $3 per month, you’ll get ad-free versions of regular episodes, exclusive bonus content. We’ll send you stickers and a handwritten thank-you note. Thanks to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.

Doug: And don’t forget, for 15 percent off the best rain gear for walking and cycling, go on over to Cleverhood.com/waroncars. We love our Cleverhood capes and jackets and know you will too. Plus, the holidays are coming and they make great gifts.

Sarah: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And this is The War on Cars.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Monty Python: Oh look, is it a stockbroker? Is it a quantity surveyor? Is it a church warden? No! It’s Bicycle Repair Man!]