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OPINION

Climate Lockdowns Coming to a City Near You?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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Recently a claim has gone viral about a decision by the Oxfordshire, England county council to divide the city into sectors that can be traversed by walking in 15 minutes or less, and then restrict residents’ travel from one sector to others to no more than 100 days a year—except by special permit available by application and at a price.

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The actual facts of the plan are, frankly, difficult to ascertain. The council has placed a formal document about it online. The document is nearly impenetrable. No wonder reports are highly conflicting—and, I’m pleased to say, generally exaggerated.

There are in fact some problems with the plan, but some reports misrepresent it. The website Joannenova.com.au, generally a reliable site about climate-change-related science, ran a piece headlined “Climate lockdowns coming? You will be tracked in your suburb and happy about it.” WattsUpWithThat.com, another site that runs lots of reliable information about climate science, ran a piece by Eric Worrall quoting Nova’s report at length. Those sources said the plan would “lock residents into one of six zones to ‘save the planet’ from global warming,” adding that this “latest stage in the ‘15 minute city’ agenda” would “place electronic gates on key roads in and out of the city, confining residents to their own neighborhoods.” Residents would “need permission from the Council” for more travel within the city. 

Now, there really is such a thing as a “15-minute city” concept. Wikipedia describes it as “a residential urban concept” linked with the “new Urbanism” of the 1980s”  aimed at making it so “most daily necessities can be accomplished by either walking or cycling from residents’ homes. 

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But, is that what’s really up in Oxford, England—home of the venerable Oxford University? No. (As an aside, it’s not coincidental that this arises in a town dominated by a university. Academia tends to be about as far removed from the real world and its practical problems as can be imagined. I speak from experience after 25 years as a student, Kindergarten through Ph.D., and 16 as a professor.)

Okay, as best I can understand it, relying on a fact check by the Associated Press, what Oxford’s council intends to impose, beginning in 2014, is a plan that will limit drivers, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., to 100 trips per year through “traffic filters”—not “gates,” electronic or otherwise, but license plate recognition cameras—between their own “15-minute” sectors and neighboring sectors. But the sectors are defined not by 15-minute walking distance (about 6 tenths of a mile to a full mile) but by 15-minute driving distance (about 7.5 miles assuming an average of 30 miles per hour).

By application, drivers will be able to get more trips—at a charge. They can still access any part of the city by car without added charges, or fines, if, instead of going directly from their own sector into another, they can use a different route or first drive out to the “ring road” surrounding the city and then back in via another route—thus taking them out of the most heavily congested areas. They can also go through the “traffic filters” more than their allotted 100 times, though they’ll pay a fine unless they have first filed an application and paid a fee. Further, as one city official put it, contrary to claims that the new plan would confine people to within their sectors, “Everyone can go through all the filters at any time by bus, bike, taxi, scooter or walking”—just not by private car. Oh, and commercial vehicles, vans, motorcycles, disabled drivers, and first responders will be exempt from the rules.

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Without excessive length, that’s about as accurate a summary as I can figure for the plan. It isn’t a “lockdown,” and it doesn’t appear to built, explicitly or implicitly, on desires to fight climate change by limiting how much people drive—though it’s likely that such desires lurk in the shadows. Instead, the primary aim seems to be traffic management: giving people incentives not to drive during periods of highest congestion, so those who most need to do so are less hindered, and those who don’t need to have an incentive to enter covered areas in times of less congestion.

That’s no different in principle from what many people already experience in urban areas: HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes and express lanes, some with tolls varying by time of day. In principle, that’s just good economics: prices are higher when products are scarcer and lower when they’re less scarce.

However, such policies inconvenience poorer people more than richer people. Poorer people can’t afford the tolls, or in the Oxford plan’s case, the fees or fines, as well as richer people can. It’s a bit ironic, then, that such a plan would arise in a city, and country, whose political leanings are considerably more socialist/egalitarian than capitalist/meritocratic.

The law of unintended consequences kicks in, too.

Suppose your elderly parent wants to stay in her own home but needs daily assistance with household and hygiene functions. You’re glad to give, but she lives in a different sector. To give her the care she needs every day, you must apply and pay for 265 additional trips per year. What does that do to family ties? It will raise your incentive to hire professional caregivers—care sellers, really—because their vehicles will be defined as “commercial,” but yours won’t. It will be one more pressure on the God-ordained, natural family. Alternatively, you can walk or ride a bike, both requiring more time than driving—and money is time in foldable form. Or, you can take a taxi—which will cost more than driving your own car. Or ride a bus, taking more time but less money.

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Oxford’s congestion-reduction plan is not the draconian “climate lockdown” plan some people have claimed it is. By raising the cost of driving at times of highest congestion, it will reduce congestion. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with it. Some people will gain, some will lose. That’s not unusual in civil society. What’s irksome is when the gains and losses are determined not by people’s free choices but by largely unaccountable bureaucrats.

When He started His public ministry, Jesus cited the words of the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19). Those words “to proclaim release to the captives” and “to set free those who are oppressed” are relevant here. Christians should seek ways to reduce, not increase, unnecessary restrictions on freedom.

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