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Backlash grows against Europe's efforts to restrict cars in cities

Urban centers across the continent have adopted plans designed to steer vehicles out of crowded downtowns, creating so-called 15-minute cities.

Traffic on the Avenue de la Grande Armee in Paris
Traffic on the Avenue de la Grande Armée in Paris. (Stefano Rellandini/AFP via Getty Images)

BARCELONA, Spain — In an effort to ease traffic congestion and curb greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change, municipalities from Barcelona to Brussels have embarked on what has been called a “transportation revolution.” Urban centers across the continent have adopted a host of innovative schemes designed to steer vehicles out of crowded downtowns, creating so-called 15-minute cities — where cars aren’t needed and services like banks, barbers, grocery stores and doctors are a short stroll or bike ride away.

But a fierce backlash has emerged in recent months against the restrictions and plans to all but rid cities of the bulk of their automobiles.

“There’s a new aggressiveness in some of the pushback we’re witnessing,” said Barbara Stoll, director of the Clean Cities Campaign, which works with municipal governments to reduce incoming traffic. “A lot of that opposition is from a very loud minority, largely composed of men who rely on the car, which has on multiple occasions escalated into physical violence and threats to public officials.”

In response to objections from business groups and political opponents, who have demanded that economic assessments be conducted prior to converting more neighborhoods to traffic-free zones, the Barcelona City Council in December froze in place its “superblock” program. A plan to keep cars out of one district in Berlin is also up in the air after candidates opposed to the idea fared well in last week’s elections in Germany.

In sprawling Brussels, where traffic-calming measures that are part of the city’s Good Move mobility plan have created construction quagmires, some politicians are voicing loud dissatisfaction, with one party, the hard-right Vlaams Belang, launching a sarcasm-laden campaign called No Move.

“The only thing that the Brussels government has managed to do is aggravate the traffic situation in our city, which was already disastrous,” the group says on its Facebook page.

David Leisterh, a member of Belgium’s Reform Party, told Yahoo News he now believes that the Good Move plan should go forward only if more than 50% of the city’s population supports it.

“I’m not against the idea,” Leisterh told Yahoo News about anti-congestion measures. “I’m against the way it’s been done so far.”

Traffic approaches the Victory Column in Berlin
Traffic approaching the Victory Column in Berlin. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Claiming that the implementation of Good Move resulted in an 80% reduction in business, Christophe Durieux, who owned the upscale Brussels restaurant Le Rabassier, closed down the popular eatery late last year. “My customers tell me themselves, they will no longer come to my restaurant because it is too complicated,” Durieux told radio station BX1 in September. “It is becoming unbearable.”

Other downtown business owners have taken issue with Good Move. According to a poll conducted by the Neutral Union for the Self-Employed, two-thirds of small and medium-sized businesses in Brussels were considering moving due to the program. “This is a disaster for the vast majority of the self-employed and SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises],” the union told the Brussels Times in response to the survey. “If two-thirds of them already found traffic difficult before Good Move, more than 90% feel it is even worse now.”

Traffic barriers set up throughout Brussels have been vandalized and ripped out, and City Council meetings have turned increasingly testy, with protesters storming one recent meeting and making violent threats against the district councillor in charge of the mobility plan. At another meeting, a protest leader shocked attendees when she likened the plight of cars to Jews during the Holocaust.

“Are you planning to stick colored stars on our vehicles so that we can identify the ‘foreigners’ of the neighborhood ... the invaders, those who should be deported somewhere else?” asked Brussels resident Roxane Henry. “Someone had the same idea in the 1940s.”

In late October, demonstrations against Good Move turned violent with more attacks on traffic barriers. Seeking to control the crowd of roughly 100 demonstrators, several police officers were injured in the melee.

“Our will is to create social cohesion through dialogue and not confrontation,” Brussels City Councillor Vincent Vanhaleweyn, a supporter of Good Move, told Belga News Agency after the incident. “Our will is not to bury the project, but to bring together those for and against it in five months and find a solution for everyone.” Thus far, that hasn’t happened.

In several districts in Brussels, Good Move construction has not only stopped — it has reversed, with crews restoring streets to their original design, as planners go back to their drawing boards.

Even residents who support limiting traffic are ambivalent. “On the one hand, it’s good for the environment, and for reducing time spent in traffic jams — and the reduction of noise is good for residents,” said PR director Catherine Couplan. “But it’s bad for the residents living in streets where traffic is being redirected, and it’s bad for city shopkeepers, whose revenue is being severely impacted.” And while the idea of the city going greener is a long-term plan that Couplan supports, she said the everyday reality of the changes underway simply “creates chaos.”

A street that has been recently
A street that has been recently "pedestrianized" as part of the Good Move mobility initiative in central Brussels. (Milan Jaros/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“The protests seem to be the results of a combination of different factors,” said Stoll, pointing to issues from a “resistance to change” and “the current cost-of-living crisis” to feelings that low-income residents are being unfairly burdened by measures curtailing the use of cars.

In Oxford, England, problems started in late November, when county councillors approved a trial program to restrict traffic on six clogged arteries, a move that would help bolster the 15-minute-city concept. In 2024, officials plan to install traffic cameras and six “traffic filters” — boxes with signs on them informing motorists that traffic is restricted for private automobiles between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. According to the council, the plan is meant to reduce private car traffic on busy streets during business hours; residents will be issued permits to allow them free passage, but nonresident vehicles that drive past filters will be subject to a 70-pound (about $85) fine during the restricted times. After the plan was announced, council members started receiving death threats.

“Staff and councillors have been subjected to abuse due to inaccurate information being circulated online,” Katariina Valkeinen, senior communications officer of the Oxfordshire County Council, told Yahoo News.

That “inaccurate information” began on Nov. 30 in an article by the independent British News outlet Vision News, with the headline “Oxfordshire County Council Pass Climate Lockdown 'trial' to Begin in 2024.” The article claimed the council planned to “lock residents into one of six zones” and keep them confined as part of a lockdown to fight global warming. And from there the fallacious rumors snowballed, portraying the 15-minute-city concept as akin to forced imprisonment in an effort to battle climate change.

In January, a group called Not Our Future began leafleting Oxford homes, warning locals that they were about to become guinea pigs. The group’s founder, David Fleming, was not from Oxford, but he did have a knack for stirring up anxiety. In 2020, he founded another group whose goal was the elimination of all COVID restrictions. A month after the leaflets appeared, several thousand demonstrators took to the streets to protest what they saw as the first steps in a climate lookdown.

Police officers attempt to calm protesters in Oxford, England, Feb. 18
Police officers attempt to calm protesters in Oxford, England, on Feb. 18. (Martin Pope/Getty Images)

“There were lots of signs about 15-minute cities,” resident and reporter Dave Vetter, who attended the protest, told Yahoo News, “some equating them with prisons and in some cases to concentration camps. The rhetoric was quite extreme.”

Jeremy Mogford, the owner of two five-star hotels in the heart of Oxford, isn’t one of the far-right demonstrators who marched through the city on Feb. 18, but he is opposed to the traffic plan and the way it has been handed down.

“Councillors from outside Oxford are the ones who are legislating for what is going to happen in the center of Oxford and affect people who live in Oxford,” he told Oxford Mail. “That is wrong in itself.”

The Oxford County Council put up a website to correct the disinformation, but threats keep pouring in — and not just in the U.K. Urbanist Carlos Moreno, a professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne who is credited with coining the “15-minute city” concept, has found that he too is a target. He told Yahoo News he has been receiving 10 to 20 death threats a day via social media and email for the past month.

“For these people, restricting the role of the car in cities is cutting their civil rights. This is crazy,” he said, pointing out that “cities around the world have decided to reduce the role of the car.” Now he sees those decisions as “the new battlefront,” one that is poised to become even more intense as countries look to fulfill pledges to dramatically cut greenhouse gases.

Stoll, the director of the Clean Cities Campaign, remains optimistic that common sense will prevail.

“It’s not unusual to see pushback,” she said. “But as soon as people see the benefits of these programs — cleaner air, freedom to move around more in cities, increased social interaction and increased retail spending [at businesses in pedestrian zones] — that pushback will die off.”

But like public health measures taken to slow the spread of a deadly virus, finding consensus on efforts to alleviate traffic congestion and slash pollution is surprisingly difficult.

“I think the backlash is just beginning,” Adam Barnett, U.K. reporter at the anti-disinformation group DeSmog, told Yahoo News, pointing to plans to phase out fossil-fuel-powered vehicles in the U.K. by 2030. “There are already lobby groups and politicians trying to keep that from happening. This has the potential to get a lot worse — until the benefits are clearly laid out and people understand what’s going on.”