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What Robert Moses can teach us about today's struggle for sustainable mobility and liveable cities

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By Johannes Novy

· 5 min read

Ah, Robert Moses. Have you heard of him? A larger-than-life urban planner infamous for his top-down approach to city planning, his ruthless treatment of minorities and his love affair with cars. Moses, who wielded immense power in mid-20th century New York City, saw the car as the ultimate symbol of progress and modernity, building miles of highways and tearing down entire neighbourhoods in the process. Given his car-centric legacy, you might think that Robert Moses is the last person from whom we should take advice when it comes to sustainable urban mobility. And yet there is a famous phrase by him, used almost to the day 70 years ago to justify his reckless approach to bulldozer renewal, which is quite relevant to the current debate on the need for active transport, the reduction of car traffic and the like: "You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs."

The need to change the way we move around in cities is more pressing than ever. The global climate crisis is worsening, and cities worldwide face issues such as air pollution, traffic congestion, and inadequate public space. The IPCC's "Synthesis Report of the Sixth Assessment Report" released earlier this week underscores the urgent need to transition towards sustainable forms of urban mobility, reducing emissions, and mitigating the devastating impacts of climate change.

Fortunately, both city leaders and city dwellers are increasingly recognising this. A range of initiatives has emerged over the past years aimed at promoting active travel, reducing the dominance of the car and transforming mobility in our cities. Limited traffic zones such as the UK’s "low traffic neighbourhoods" are a prominent example, but there are others too - pedestrianised or shared streets, cycle lanes, congestion charges, emission zones, and the list goes on.

The arguments in favour of these measures are many and varied. For one, they help reduce carbon emissions as well as air and noise pollution and make our streets more pleasant and create healthier environments. They make it safer and more attractive to walk or cycle, reduce car dependency and congestion, and contribute to equity by prioritising active travel and public transport, which are often the only options for those who cannot afford a car. And let's not forget the positive impact on local economies. If done right, green travel initiatives can contribute to economic development by getting more people out and about to linger and stroll without fear of being run over, as this recent example from London shows.

But of course, not everyone is on board with these initiatives. There are concerns - some justified, some hysterical - for example about the displacement and concentration of car traffic elsewhere, increased travel times for those who rely on their cars, the loss of parking spaces, the impact on emergency services and local businesses, and how disabled or elderly people will move around their city. And then there are nefarious forces at work - the interests of the car lobby, the Nimbyism of some residents, the sinister populist undertones of part of the opposition and, along with it, attempts to instrumentalise the issues at hand for other, devious ends.

Perfect examples of this are the recent infiltration of protests against traffic calming measures in Oxford by the Far Right, and the spread of conspiracy theories that seek to discredit the concept of the "15-minute city" by claiming that it is part of a larger socialist plot aimed at restricting personal freedoms and increasing state control over people's lives.

Given the increasingly shrill and raucous protests we have seen in recent years against efforts to make cities and urban transport safer, greener and more sustainable, it is easily forgotten that research suggests that there is frequently a silent majority that is in favour of (or at least not vehemently opposed to) measures to reduce car use and improve the urban environment. This begs the question of how to deal with those who mobilise and agitate against them, often by hijacking consultation processes and making meaningful dialogue impossible.

It is here that the omelette metaphor comes in. It reminds us that progress often means making difficult decisions and persevering in the face of opposition. And it is also a warning that while democratic and inclusive decision-making processes are something we should always strive for, there may come a point when some eggs need to be cracked. Of course, planners should do everything in their power to gain as much support as possible for sustainable mobility initiatives. And of course, they should strive to mitigate any undue negative impacts to avoid backlashes where possible. The success of said initiatives depends on this, after all. That means engaging with local communities, listening to people’s concerns and adapting plans accordingly. It means providing clear, accurate information about what is being proposed and why. And it means being open to compromise and alternative solutions where appropriate. However, it should not mean giving in to typically small but vocal minorities and compromising the goal of making cities healthier, more sustainable and more equitable as a result of hysteria, misinformation or pressure from vested interests.

Whatever one's opinion of Moses, there is no denying that he understood the need for bold actions in responding to big challenges, and this same spirit is required today, albeit for different ends. The issues at stake are too important and the benefits of greener, more liveable urban environments are too great to be sacrificed on the altar of misplaced and often ill-informed resistance. So, let's get cooking and crack those eggs, one omelette at a time.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Photo by Danist Soh on Unsplash
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About the author

Johannes Novy is a founding member of the Sustainable Metropolitan Tourismus Network (SMeT-NET) based at University of Westminster and Paris 1 Sorbonne-Pantheon as well as a member of the Berlin-based urbanist collective u-Lab, Studio für Stadt und Raumprozesse. He has published widely on urban development politics as well as urban tourism and leisure consumption.

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