Discussion on SCORAI Listserv March 2023

Maurie Cohen

Has anyone been paying attention to how car-free lifestyles have become a subject for contestation in the culture wars in the US and UK over the past few weeks? 

Two articles about an event that took place in Oxford last month:



(The articles report on a demonstration in Oxford, England by a far right group against a plan for traffic constraint, ‘say no to 15 minute cities’. They protested against traffic filters for low traffic neighbourhoods maintaining that they would impose surveillance and limits on freedom of access and civil liberties. A UK member of Parliament called it part of ‘an international socialist conspiracy’.   VB)

Ashley Colby

This would be an expansion of the surveillance state, a way to potentially extract fines from people, regardless of their need to access spaces for work nor any limits on targeting already disadvantaged individuals, plus an expansion of the bureaucratic state (apply for a permit to be able to drive places).   These measures are draconian and not well thought out. The New Urbanists advocate for the 15 minute city but are frustrated that their (good) ideas are being discredited by bad policy that leaves the public distrustful of the idea.

Why focus on monitoring people’s license plates, charging fees and requiring permits when you could implement policies for urban development like:

  1. mixed use zoning
  2. pass laws requiring pedestrian friendly infrastructure and retrofitting
  3. expand public transportation and build mixed-use zoning to meet needs around transport hubs
  4. develop more pedestrian and cycle accessible green spaces
  5. build community involvement into policy making to ensure needs of residents are met

The distinction here is a focus on power. Who is on the receiving end of coercion when policies call for surveillance of citizens, limiting mobility (potentially despite the need to access places of work), and increased bureaucracy? In this case it is putting the onus on the individual citizen to be on the receiving end of all the risk and responsibility, neoliberal indeed. On the other hand, policies can put the onus on the meso scale of businesses, urban planners and citizen groups to come to mutually agreed upon “coercion” (i.e. money for pedestrian pathways) that are beneficial in comparison to cost (burden). Many environmental policy makers seem to only want to yield the stick, when we have so many carrots at our disposal. A beautiful, walkable life is extremely attractive! This is why people come from all over the world to visit these walkable towns and cities of Europe and elsewhere.

New urbanism Steve Mouzon elaborates on “there is a difference between coercion and enticement”



Nils Larsson

Ashley Colby’s comments indicate a view that is excessively negative about the reasons behind the policy. It seems very reasonable to facilitate local use while putting some difficulties in the way of outside motorists. How else can traffic and parking in the neighbourhood be minimised? 

Joe Zammit Lucia

No policy will please everyone and objections will always arise. That is the essence of democratic politics.

One issue is that, in the UK, there is always a backlash towards policies that are perceived as being coercive. This has been an issue for the green movement for decades. Many politicians have said that they are sympathetic to the green movement’s objectives but they cannot go along with their suggested approaches because they are overly coercive.

The challenge is always to come up with policies (and communicate them carefully) that can carry a significant proportion of the population along with them. A policy can make perfect sense from certain perspectives (and, almost inevitably, not from others) but it’s not effective if it generates significant backlash.

William Rees

The requirement for a driver’s licence or to pay income tax are ‘coercive.’  The policies requiring these and dozens of other things are necessary for civilized existence — they are in the public interest.  The trick seems to be to convince people that ‘coercion’ is essential for the common good; other forms of  persuasion are likely to fall prey to the public good free rider problem. I.e., if I do something voluntarily such as give  up my car or freeze in the dark to reduce emissions, I make a major sacrifice for the public good.  However, I receive only an infinitesimal share of the benefits which mostly go to society at large. That is, the public get a free ride on my sacrifice for the climate crisis.  

Bottom line: if we are going to make a transition to a just sustainability, Garett Hardin’s “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” is a necessary policy frame.

Robert Rattle

There is a mix of technological solutionism and data-driven urbanism at play with the more aggressive approaches. They are not strictly urban planning efforts. State surveillance is a subsidiary of surveillance capitalism since the surveillance infrastructure is largely driven and owned by private interests.

My question is: if CCTV and ALPRs are used in these cases, why not elsewhere, along with automatic red light and speed cameras?

As Herman Daly and John Cobb note, the market cannot determine sustainable scale or just distribution (only efficient allocation when all price signals are accounted for). The Government’s role is the former two.

‘Mutually agreed upon’ is manipulated by many forces beyond the decision making architecture of the individual, and the very data that has been collected through the IoT, including data-driven urbanist pet projects, is a key source for algorithmic behaviour manipulation, including the truck convoys from barely a year ago.

Re ALPRs and surveillance – ALPRs collect location information, a particularly sensitive data point that cannot be anonymised. While in theory public ALPR systems do not track the individual, the data can be used to develop intimate profiles and track personal lifestyles, associations, travel patterns including times, political affiliations, emotions and behaviours. Where their use is not highly regulated (e.g. private sector involvement) that data can be and often is sold into the behaviour futures markets and combined with other big data sets.




The key sensitivity is the geospatial nature of the data collected by ALPRs, and smart city sensors in general. ALPRs, CCTVs etc. can also easily be layered with additional tech such as facial recognition. Many private systems already do this. There is some basis to those conspiracy theories. Besides, how are pedestrians and cyclists protected?

Esthi Zipori

Data surveillance is a real issue when it is used in the name of “smart cities” or achieving sustainability by efficiency. The Sidewalk Labs failed project in Toronto has a few interesting examples of excess surveillance (counting how many people sit on a bench) in the name of efficient management of urban spaces. But introducing six new traffic filters in a residential area that will be monitored by an automatic license plate reader is not coercive nor an extension of a police state. It is simply a tool to limit drivers’ access to roadways. The camera is reading the license plate, not photographing the person inside the car.