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19 June 2023

The 15-minute city is a working-class nightmare

A car-free lifestyle is only possible for those whose profession and income permit it.

By Michael Lind

Is there a global conspiracy to confine people to “15-minute cities”? At the recent UK local elections, MPs and councillors heard this message from voters. The commitment of a growing number of cities such as Bristol, Ipswich, London, Birmingham and Oxford to limit car usage in particular districts and neighbourhoods has been seized upon by the paranoid as further evidence of a “Great Reset” directed by the economic elites of Davos that uses climate change as an excuse for social regimentation. In parliament the Conservative MP Nick Fletcher denounced the 15-minute city as an “international socialist concept”.

It may not be international socialism, but the concept has been embraced by many on the centre-left, including the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, comprised of nearly a hundred city governments around the world: “In a ‘15-minute city’, everyone is able to meet most, if not all, of their needs within a short walk or bike ride from their home.”

Although the name is new, the concept is not. A recurrent goal of urban reformers, from proponents of the “garden city” in the 1900s to advocates of “transit-oriented development” in the late 20th century, has been the creation of car-free, village-like environments in which most places could be accessed on foot or on bicycles, with mass transit for longer journeys.

The idea of the 15-minute city sounds appealing. Who wouldn’t want to have everything they need – work, healthcare, education, shops, leisure – within a short walk of their front door? But only brief reflection is needed to demonstrate how impractical the idea is. Consider work. The majority of Americans in the private sector work for companies with more than 500 employees. Some of these firms, such as coffeehouse and drugstore chains, may have establishments in many neighbourhoods, but other jobs require employees to commute to a central office or warehouse or store. Even if more firms adopt a hybrid model, allowing employees to often work from home and sometimes requiring them to join colleagues in a physical office, that hybrid office is unlikely to be within walking or bicycle distance of most workers.  

Mere access to public transport is not enough. A Brookings Institution study found that only around 30 per cent of potential jobs were accessible to American urban residents using mass transit – even with 90-minute commutes each way. Experimental voucher programmes by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development showed that low-income workers with access to cars were twice as likely to get jobs and four times as likely to remain employed. Except in a few of the world’s densest cities, such as New York, Tokyo and Paris, public transport is no substitute for the speed and convenience of point-to-point travel in an individual vehicle.

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Then there is retail. There is a reason why, in the US and other countries, big box stores with bargain prices are located on cheap suburban or exurban land. You may be able to walk to a grocery or chemist in your city, but thanks to high land prices and property taxes, the local corner store is likely to have limited space and fewer, more expensive goods. Housing space, too, will be limited in a 15-minute city. No matter how much urban journalists glamorise micro-apartments and minimalism, most people in Western democracies prefer commuting to their workplaces and shopping centres and having bigger homes with more room to accommodate children, relatives, pets and possessions.

As it happens, we know how much time most people are willing to spend on an average one-way commute: 30 minutes. This is known as “Marchetti’s constant” after the Italian polymath Cesare Marchetti. According to Marchetti, the time allotted to commuting is more or less invariant, but the distance depends on modes of transportation and their speeds. A 15-minute city by car, with everything in driving distance in half an hour, would be much larger than a 15-minute pedestrian city.  Marchetti’s generalisation is remarkably robust. In Britain the average commute in 2021 was 27 minutes, with 68 per cent commuting to work by car.

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Many of those who condemn automobiles for ruining cities appear to forget that in most cities and villages, cars and trucks replaced not pedestrians but horses and horse-drawn carts, carriages and wagons. Traffic congestion and noise are nothing new.  

If cars and trucks are banished from the pedestrian village, how are medics in ambulances to get to victims of heart attacks? How are the infirm elderly to be taken by relatives and friends to medical appointments? Groceries might be taken home from corner stores in small quantities every day, if you think daily shopping is one of the pleasures of life. But how are beds, sofas, tables and book-cases to be moved in and out of houses or apartments, if rented or hired trucks and vans cannot get close?

One solution is to limit the vehicles allowed into a neighbourhood to those who live and work there – and to necessary service vehicles. But such neighbourhoods already exist. They are called gated communities, and most of them are enclaves for the affluent and the rich.

The term “mixed-use” is frequently found in the literature of urban utopianism. What about “mixed-class”? Class-mixing through urban design is another idea that seems appealing, until it is remembered that in pre-modern societies aristocrats and patricians, servants and tradespeople often lived under the same roof without physical proximity reducing social distance. In modern societies the wealthy spend considerable amounts to be surrounded by wealthy neighbours, apart from the occasional live-in servant and visiting service providers.

In 2010 New York City reformed zoning laws to encourage luxury apartment complexes that included affordable housing for low-income residents. Thus originated the “poor door” – an entrance for the poor residents separate from the main entrance for the affluent apartment-dwellers, the 21st-century version of the tradesman’s entrance in an old-fashioned country house. A complex named One Riverside Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has 24/7 doormen, two gyms, a swimming pool, a movie theatre, a basketball court and a bowling alley, with river views and an exclusive courtyard for rich residents – while the affordable section lacks amenities, including doormen. Such discrimination may be the price of having any of the Eloi of Manhattan share an address with local Morlocks.

The point may be moot, because most working-class people in Europe and North America live in the suburbs and exurbs. The use of “urban” as a synonym for “racial minority” and the assumption that suburbs are homogeneous and white is half a century out of date. In the US suburbanites outnumber urbanites in every racial group, including African-American and Hispanic. Indeed, the gentrification of cities tends to be a process of whitening, as well-to-do white people drive up urban property values in fashionable areas, pricing out people of other ethnicities with lower incomes, who find new homes and jobs in increasingly diverse metro peripheries. In the UK over 80 per cent of the population is suburban.

The car has become a symbol of the low-intensity class war between the metropolitan overclass and the mostly suburban, multi-racial working class in western democracies. Elite professionals and managers can live without cars of their own in major cities, relying on walking, biking, public transport, or taxis, including Uber and Lyft. I was one; for three decades I did not own a car when I lived in upscale neighbourhoods such as Chelsea and the Upper East Side in New York and Adams Morgan in Washington DC.

But my car-free lifestyle was possible only because my profession and my income permitted it. Many working-class people, from repair technicians to delivery drivers, must have the use of their own vehicle or a company vehicle during business hours. In Britain “White Van Man” has become a symbol of a segment of the working class.

In the 20th century the factory was the site of the most intense class conflict. In the 21st century it is the automobile. In France the longest-running protests since the Second World War, those of the gilets jaunes, began in 2019 with a nationwide protest against a fuel tax hike – itself a symbolic gesture that would do little to alter climate change but imposed real costs on suburban workers and businesses. Canada’s Covid-19 regulations triggered the trucker protests last year that prompted Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, to declare a state of national emergency. In March the Farmer-Citizen Movement became the largest party in the Netherlands by appealing to many working-class suburbanites as well as farmers upset by government efforts to shrink Dutch farming in the name of combating climate change. 

Many metropolitan progressives have sought to claim that these protesters were, if not sinister far-rightists, “petit-bourgeois”, not genuinely working class. But the reclassification of many workers who would have been employees in the past as contractors, by businesses seeking to minimise labour costs, has created a growing precariat of people who are nominally self-employed but part of the working class by any sensible definition.

In deindustrialised countries in which factories have been shut down by offshoring or foreign competition and in which strikes by decentralised service sector workers are difficult, the traffic blockade using cars or trucks shows signs of becoming the equivalent of the sit-down strike at the assembly line in past decades.

Even paranoids have real enemies. There is no Davos conspiracy to confine everyone in 15-minute concentration camps. But the majority of working-class people of all races whose suburban lifestyles depend on cars to get them to work, shops and homes can be forgiven for being resentful of environmental regulations whose cost falls on them in the periphery, rather than on upscale professionals in pleasant urban enclaves. Every utopian urban plan has a social address. The 15-minute city is an overclass dream and a working-class nightmare.

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