I’ll confess. I own a car. Growing up on the border of Hertfordshire and London, a car was just a usual thing people had.

Whilst public transport, in my case, was always available and somewhat reliable, my first instinct was to take the car. The problem with this is that government policy is to move away from the car and promote more sustainable forms of transport. One of the ways to do this is by delivering car-free developments, but as those of us who work in public consultation know, this is never an easy sell.

We can speak from experience that people believe cars should go hand in hand with new development. The evolution of planning policy has been such that there has been a significant focus on ‘car-free developments’, especially in town centres and cities. This is due to a multitude of reasons, but the main one is climate change and the push to net zero.  

However, Brits’ relationship with cars is such that many cannot fathom new development without having swathes of car parking spaces, even in major city centres. The notion of no car parking spaces for 200 new homes for example would lead to a multitude of objections, even if the development is served by good public transport, as is the case in many London sites. More often with large-scale regeneration, local authorities aren’t bold enough to bat back public pressure on cars. 

This isn’t a policy problem. The Government, the Mayor of London and the majority of local Councils all have policies on developments in city and town centres and their relationship with cars. The problem with cars is behaviour.  This isn’t helped by the inability of local and national governments to communicate they are moving forward with a car-free approach in cities for fear of being punished at the ballot box. So how do we go about changing behaviour rather than policy? There’s no right answer here, and whilst discouraging car use through Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ and other methods have proven to be effective in reducing traffic in polluted neighbourhoods, they are unpopular and are city focussed. But perhaps that’s where the focus should be.  

Maybe the answer is part of the old proverb – build it and they will come, or rather build it and people will get used to it. Local government, particularly in cities such as Oxford and Cambridge, should eventually legislate for car-free developments and prioritise granting these planning permission i.e., bring proposals like these to earlier committees. 

However, before enacting this change, they must fast-track public transport initiatives to ensure that people within a city (including its outer fringes) can get good public transport links to the rest of the city. By offering a viable alternative, perhaps you would take people’s cars off the roads. Behaviour changes by being proactive and offering a viable alternative, not by imposing regulations on a populace that doesn’t have a choice. 

By developing this pattern, people in cities theoretically would get used to seeing developments with no increase in cars on their road network. Yes, there will be some initial backlash and protest, but isn’t this the case with most controversial legislation? Think of the smoking ban in 2003. It was unpopular in 2003 when it was first brought in, but year after year it has gained public support. 

Behaviour changes aren’t easy, and they take significant time to do. For those of us who follow the government’s net-zero agenda, it’s ambitious but climate change is a significant problem. If the groundwork for behaviour change isn’t laid down now, we, as a country, would miss this chance to protect our environment.  

Whilst cars are a necessity, especially in villages and most towns, we need to be better at discouraging their use in city centres, where pollution is more pronounced. A bold vision is what is needed, and it comes down to our country’s leadership to deliver that bold change, no matter what the public opinion.