Opinion: 15-minute cities? Yes, please

Cycling Amsterdam
"At one time Bedford had a similar level of cycling to that of the Netherlands."

Imagine, if you will, an alternate reality in which public transport and green infrastructure have been so widely invested in that the whole of Bedford Borough is served by clean, frequent, efficient and cheap buses.

Bedford is a crisscross of accessible tree-lined cycle paths and bus lanes, meaning that anyone can hop on a bus and be at work, school or the thriving town centre in a matter of minutes.

Businesses and organisations have thronged to the town centre, as well as families who want to live in the heart of such a well-connected town.

So few cars need to travel into the town centre now, that the top floor of Lurke Street car park has been converted into a roof-top garden, bar and open-air cinema.

The floor below has become a skate park with a cafe that is run by entrepreneurial teenagers.

Residents are encouraged to cycle through the town centre on clearly marked cycle routes and half of Harpur Square has become a hugely popular and secure bike park.

So incredible is this public transport system that those people who spend all their day on Facebook complaining about everything spend all their days riding the buses and no longer have time for their keyboard warrior-ing. 

What a utopia!

Of course, until governments make huge investments in green policies and ambitious infrastructure projects, this all remains a pipe dream – or, depending on your news source, an enormous conspiracy theory about ’15-minute cities’.

15-minute cities

Until recently, you might have been unfamiliar with the term ’15-minute city’.

If you’re interested in regeneration, the reimagining of town centres and the environment, it may have been on your radar for a while but only since it’s been (erroneously) attached to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN) that the concept has gained more public interest.

In an ideal future world (as imagined above), schools, work, shops, recreation facilities, parks and open spaces would all be easily accessible within an arbitrary 15-minute walk or cycle radius of your home – or easily accessible by reliable and frequent cheap public transport.

As I said – in an ideal world.

The backbone of the concept is vastly improved active travel routes, cheap, reliable and convenient public transport and regeneration of urban centres to provide more mixed use – from residential to workspace, health centres to libraries.

In the longer term, it would lead to a reduced reliance on cars, reducing pollution.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

Ball of confusion

The 15-minute city concept has been popularised most recently by urban designer, Carlos Moreno in 2021, but the concept is nothing new, particularly in the hundreds of years before cars were prevalent.

And according to a 2023 YouGov survey, 62% of people in Britain would support the concept.

However, it’s only since the idea became mistakenly conflated with ‘The Great Reset’, Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ) and LTNs that it’s gained traction – particularly on social media.

You can read Carlos Moreno’s views on its misrepresentation in a Politico article here.

Least logical conclusion

As ever, a certain faction has taken a sensible idea and a small kernel of truth and extrapolated it to its least logical conclusion.

Contrarians and so-called libertarians claim that 15-minute cities are the way that the World Economic Forum (WEF) will control populations’ movements by restricting them to a 15-minute radius of their home.

They believe this is all part of their ‘Great Reset’ as explored in this piece on the Bloomberg website, entitled The 15-minute city freakout is a case study in conspiracy paranoia.

Rather than the 15-minute city concept increasing freedoms by enhancing public transport, improving cycle provision, and creating cleaner air, their dystopian vision believes that facial recognition would be used to monitor your movements.

You would be charged to leave your “zone” and, in one particularly bizarre clip I saw, you would only be allowed to leave your home for 15 minutes a day.

And conspiracists predict that any travelling between “zones” – in your allocated 15-minute window – would be monitored so that your movements could be tracked and controlled and you could only spend your money in government-approved shops within your allowed area.

The issue even made its way to the House of Commons, where Tory MP Nick Fletcher described 15-minute cities as an “international socialist concept” whose ultimate purpose was to “take away personal freedoms”.

And in his speech to the Conservative conference in October, transport secretary, Mark Harper, said 15-minute cities would mean, “local councils can decide how often you go to the shops”. [eye roll emoji – Ed]

As a result, a very practical and rational idea that has huge societal benefits has been hijacked, misrepresented and is being mis-sold back to us as a malevolent tool of control.

Much of this mistrust and misinformation is a post-pandemic phenomenon, gathering credibility and traction on social media.

It has become attached to other conspiracies including China’s social credit system, population control, freedom of speech and infringement on liberties.

Journalist, Jon Ronson, has explored the rise of this misinformation in the second series of his BBC Sounds podcast, ‘Things Fell Apart’, particularly in episode seven, entitled, “You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy”. You can listen to both series here.

Of course, how I have described the 15-minute city concept is willfully idealistic and its implementation in the real world is not without its problems or legitimate concerns.

However, you only have to visit a city with a functional public transport network (London, Manchester, and most of the rest of Europe), to realise that only a maniac would want to drive there.

It’s much cheaper, quicker and more enjoyable to take public transport or cycle to your destination.

But while the lack of investment in public transport and prioritising drivers over buses and cyclists persists, the very idea of getting anywhere in 15 minutes seems laughable.

And since the 15-minute city concept has become weaponised by certain factions and has been made to sound like Marxist mind control, it’s no wonder a life not wedded to our cars seems so unimaginable.

But to make progress, we need to be imaginative and ambitious. We need to create such amazingly efficient, clean, frequent and world-beating public transport that we don’t think twice about using it and we need to analyse and debunk conspiracy theories.

And while we’re waiting, I’ll be looking forward to enjoying a sundowner at the Lurke Street roof-top bar. Cheers!

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