How built-in automobility has turned clean air into a culture war, and what we can learn from centering political economy

Against the backdrop of the Tory party conference, Sunak unveiled a handful of pledges purporting to ‘back drivers’, including the clampdown of 20mph speed limits, low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) and the apparently ‘aggressive’ 15-minute city theory. Somehow, innocuous and relatively benign planning policies have become a significant area of political contention. Rewind to July, and Labour’s failure to take Uxbridge and South Ruislip in the by-election was taken as unequivocal proof that the ‘war on cars’ is a vote-loser. The Tory party appears to be leveraging  this narrative, hoping for similar success in a General Election. This strategy has contributed to already growing scepticism around clean air policy, where conspiracies related to traffic mitigation have started to emerge. There are a number of reasons why clean air policy is finding itself embroiled in a culture war, but centering the political economy of automobility helps to point to some of its origins. Right-wing populist groups are grabbing hold of these debates to rally their troops, but looking at this phenomenon as purely an opportunistic ploy overlooks that capability of the automobile industry itself.

LTNs, the expansion of ULEZ in London, and vague planning theories like 15-minute cities have divided communities and, in some cases, been articulated as part of wide ranging conspiracies. These often hyper local (and to many hyper boring) policies have captured residents’ imaginations and become a key national political battleground. The disproportionate response from opponents, and sometimes advocates, can be better understood when considering the symbolic and cultural attachments people have to their vehicles, including associations with freedom, masculinity and status. These associations, however, are not a naturalised result of car ownership but symbolic properties that have been engineered by the industry itself. The financial and political entanglement of automobility, how our cities have come to be built around cars as part of a structural bias towards high energy lifestyles, has contributed to frustrations sometimes expressed as conspiracy. Policymakers are left at a difficult junction where, on one hand, they cannot sufficiently untangle cities from cars and, on the other, they are increasingly seen as part of a nefarious cabal of world elites whenever they try.

The expansion of the automobile industry created drastic changes in mobility patterns, with cities and suburbs dependent on private vehicles as other transport provision was deprioritised. In the mid twentieth century, a particular kind of economics began to shape policy that prioritised growth by any means. In this new paradigm, fossil fuels became the main apparatus at growth’s disposal and cars an essential vehicle for maintaining the demand that growth relied on. There was an exponential rise in road building, while public transport was burdened with unfavourable transport policy and economic strain. The auto industry worked hard to ensure cars remained king, dismantling public transport infrastructure, reframing traffic related deaths as ‘accidents’, cycling as an impractical alternative and pedestrians as ‘jaywalkers’ to keep the focus of blame on the deviant walker (see Grant Ennis discuss the ‘dark PR’ of the automobile industry on The War on Cars, or just watch this video to understand how the pedestrian, still, is always to blame). Decades of building cities around cars, and delegitimising alternative transport options, has normalised automobility to such an extent that imagining cities without cars, or even the individual accountability of drivers, is rendered a cognitive challenge

Even in the context of current clean air policy, the supremacy of the automobile endures. In London, traffic mitigation policies can be broadly categorised into three areas; active travel policy (promoting walking and cycling), polluter pays principles (ULEZ, Congestion Charge, etc) and technological fixes (mostly electric vehicles). Each of these, however, still operate in a car dominant context. Quieter, traffic free streets are demanded to keep cyclists safe (pedestrianised areas are good, but keep cycling as the inverse of driving and purely a leisure activity, rather than a practical alternative), and polluter pays principles may slow down emissions but as long as drivers can pay a bit extra, manufacturers can continue to operate at the same speed. Similarly, the auto industry found a winner in EVs, with manufacturers financing their eclectic capabilities via the profits they continue to draw from high polluting vehicles. In all cases, car reliance is not sufficiently challenged, and as well as falling short on ambition these approaches have also served to frame the clean air debate as a particular class conflict, where working drivers foot the bill and middle class cyclists enjoy the tranquillity of closed streets.

The dichotomy between ‘the people’, usually everyday workers, and the ‘elites’, governments and (in this case) cyclists, is a key rhetorical tool of the far-right, and one that has been useful in appealing to opponents of traffic mitigation policy who have been hit by extra costs or road closures. A chain of equivalence has started to connect traffic policy to a host of other grievances, increasingly unrelated to driving. A venn diagram has started to emerge of traffic mitigation policy with anti-vaxx, anti-mask, anti-government and other related conspiracies. This was made visceral at anti-LTN protests in Oxford early 2023, with opposing residents standing side by side with self proclaimed white nationalists, holding placards laden with conspiracy and antisemitism. A similar pattern emerges online, with WEF-based conspiracies shared alongside islamaphobic rhetoric, assusing London Mayor Sadiq Khan of being a ‘terrorist plotting in mosques’, or suggesting migrants are housed in hotels while being trained to patrol 15-minute cities. Right-wing populist groups (including those involved in Oxford and subsequent protests) are having success with these policies, but they can part than the automobile industry for that success, and the way in which cars were made an expression of Western culture and individualism.

Manufacturers have long hidden behind a false image of hyper-individualism, with new models developed to give the illusion of personal expression, and a well-funded car advertising industry ensuring cars became the making of the modern, hyper-consuming (usually white) man, personifying the ‘American dream’. This individualism remains a sticking point in the face of demands for collective action, with the backlash and conspiracy to traffic mitigation policy attached to a long history of climate denial, and resistance to behaviour change that counters challenges of promoting high consumption. With cars having taken on the role of representing freedom and expression, demand for any sacrifice has allowed cars to become the latest front in far-right groups fighting against elite control. This sentiment, combined with the fossil fuel industry’s PR machine, has left policymakers in a difficult bind. DeSmog investigated the science denial PR machine behind the Oxford rallies, finding links to multiple Tufton Street groups, huge fossil fuel investors and the infamous Koch Industries.

The political economy of car dependence reveals a complex network of interlocking stakeholders bolstering car consumption, leaving automobility deeply embedded in a structure of power where states and manufacturers sustain driving as the dominant mode of transport and a cultural object to reinforce social identities and individualism. Policymakers try to curb miles driven without disrupting the capitalist market, and covert stakeholders bolster grassroots resistance. In this context, conspiracy theories are able to arise more easily. More theoretical frameworks are required to fully unpick the rise of far-right conspiracy. Much of the opposition to traffic mitigation is really nothing to do with traffic at all, but the political economy of automobility itself can be too easily overlooked. By retracing how cars became embedded in a broader structural dynamic, we can glean a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities policymakers face in their efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of automobility.

Edie Gill Holder is a campaign manager specialising in clean air campaigning and sustainable cities. With a background in documentary filmmaking, she explores how creativity can bridge the gap between socio-politics and culture. She is also an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths, and recently completed her MA there in Political Communications.