Wednesday, 30 March 2011

“EU To Ban Cars From Cities by 2050”

So ran the headline to a story in the Daily Telegraph about Siim Kallas, the EU transport commissioner, who said that fighting the rise of greenhouse gas emissions would mean “no more conventionally fuelled cars in our city centres…Action will follow, legislation, real action to change behaviour." The Telegraph turned to The Association of British Drivers (“For drivers who can THINK for themselves”) for its considered view on the proposal, which it dubbed as “economically disastrous and a "crazy" restriction on mobility.” Spokesman Hugh Bladon reportedly went on to say "I suggest that he (Kallas) goes and finds himself a space in the local mental asylum…If he wants to bring everywhere to a grinding halt and to plunge us into a new dark age, he is on the right track. We have to keep things moving. The man is off his rocker."

How sad, and predictable, that the Telegraph did not get a comment from someone who might a) have agreed that transport in our cities is a problem b) that solving it will need measures to constrain the growth of private motor traffic and c) that it could be a major step to making our cities better. Instead, as always with measures that seek to constrain the growth of traffic, the frame was about taking away the rights of the motorist. Behavioural economics shows that framing something as a loss (taking away the right to drive your car in a city) plugs into our loss-aversion. Studies on loss aversion show that we get about twice as much unhappiness from a loss as we get happiness from an equivalent gain – losing £10, means that you’ll need to find £20 to get back to the same level of happiness. So when a policy involves a loss, policymakers need to emphasise the benefits.

And the benefits will need to be around double the value of the loss. In the case of curbing cars, this should be easily demonstrated, since it means that we’d get better cities, cities that are lively, healthy, attractive, sustainable and safe – cities which improve people’s quality of life, cities which are on a human scale, cities that are open to different activities and possibilities, ensuring multiplicity and diversity. A couple of days ago in London, the idea that There Is An Alternative (to public spending cuts) got around a quarter of a million people onto the streets, highlighting along the way how we might re-imagine our cities. It’s time that well-intentioned (?) but bureaucratic law-making machines like the EU began to apply some of what we know about behavioural economics to help get the message across. As those of us who live Outside The Box already know, cities are for people, not just cars.

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