In this series of interviews our volunteer interviewer and writer Louise Turner has been speaking with leading voices in climate activism, discussing why climate justice is a feminist issue.
Hirra Khan Adeogun leads the Car Free Cities campaign for climate action charity, Possible. The project addresses the health and climate impacts of private motorised vehicles across four UK cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and London – and in Paris and New York. Its aim is to create more urban space for people and nature, clearing cities of air pollution and promoting healthy, active travel like walking and cycling. Hirra previously worked for Amnesty International UK and extensively explored marginalised identities as a researcher. She is also a Wen trustee.
Hirra, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Can you tell us a little bit about your work on Car Free Cities?
Car Free Cities is a big project aiming to have cleaner, greener, safer cities that are better for people and the planet.
We focus on private car dependency because we recognise that lots of people don’t drive because they want to but because our cities are designed in such a way that the alternatives seem unfeasible. If we had cheap, efficient public transport that was easily accessible, more protected cycle lanes and safer roads, showers and secure cycle storage – what would happen? We know active travel (like walking and cycling) is better for our health, and individual agency has a place in it, but a lot of these issues are structural. We want to apply pressure to councils, local authorities, mayors, businesses, and government in general to help us decarbonise our transport systems.
We’re clear that we’re not talking about cities without any cars at all. Emergency vehicles are necessary. There are some people, including some disabled people, who can’t get around without a car. But with the right support and infrastructure, the majority of people can make the transition and leave the streets free for those who absolutely have no alternative.
What are low traffic neighborhoods?
Low traffic neighborhoods prevent people from shortcutting down minor roads, keeping the majority of motor traffic on major roads. Major roads are made for heavy traffic flows whereas minor roads aren’t constructed for that purpose.
A low traffic neighborhood uses a ‘modal filter’, which can be a planter, a bollard, sometimes the use of cameras, to stop people being able to shortcut through. It’s called a modal filter because you’re filtering different modes of transport. People can still walk and cycle down the road, and if you live on that road, you still have access to it with your car. It reduces traffic, makes the air cleaner, makes roads safer for kids to play outside, and for walking and cycling, and makes roads quieter and more peaceful places to live.
How did you become involved in this work?
So I’m a city kid through and through. I’m from east London, raised in an urban environment and that’s home for me. When I went to university, I began meeting people who hadn’t lived in cities before, and many of them characterised cities as very cold and isolating places. But for me it’s the complete opposite. To me, cities are the thriving heart of community spirit. So I always had a strong kind of passion towards urban life and questioned the role that cities play in the environmental movement.
And of course, I live in Tower Hamlets and I love to get involved in local issues so I’m a trustee of the Women’s Environmental Network. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.
How do you see the links between the climate crisis, health issues and health related inequalities?
It’s central to what I do. I always say Car Free Cities is about the climate crisis, but also about so much more than the climate crisis. Toxic air comes to mind – our communities are blighted with polluted air because of car use and governments need to be held responsible for that. Of course, polluted air has an environmental factor to it, increasing CO2 and temperatures. It also has an incredibly negative impact on our health, our wellbeing, and our connection with the environment. I think the two go hand in hand.
I’m loving that the environmental movement has shifted over the past ten to fifteen years so people are easily making these links. I think that’s now very much front and centre.
In terms of these solutions around travel, what impact do you think they could have for women, particularly those with unpaid care work who might make multiple journeys rather than a single commute?
I think there’s a lot in this. We have a research project coming up looking specifically at equity and mobility access.
It’s important to note that overall women – especially low paid women and the vulnerable people they are caring for – are less likely to own a car but are more likely to suffer the harms caused by cars (from air and noise pollution, injuries from crashes, etc.) But there’s also a fair amount of research on the gendered nature of how urban transport networks have been built, which can make some women more reliant on cars or needing to make more difficult public transport trips than men.
When thinking about unpaid carers, if it takes a community to raise a child, we also have to take seriously how cars and traffic sever our sense of community. Research shows that people living in low traffic areas have many more connections to the people on their street than those living in high traffic areas, because it’s a lot safer to meet and create community.
If we seriously implemented the idea of the 15 minute neighbourhood, it would also mean that many of the types of journeys that unpaid carers currently take – the school run, to the local shops or local park, to the GP – are within easy access without a car, but these are slightly longer term solutions.
For more immediate solutions for individuals, cargo bikes can be revolutionary in terms of overall cost to own and maintain the vehicle, the time saved not sitting in traffic, helping to build regular physical activity into daily schedules, and improving mental wellbeing. There are of course multiple barriers to cycling for women specifically, and providing safe, protected cycle routes to give people the confidence to use a bike has to be high on the agenda for all cities.
What are some of the obstacles to eliminating car dominance?
Since World War II, cars have played a central role in our culture – they’re not just vehicles, car manufacturers have made us fall in love with a hunk of metal, given them personalities and names, associating them with privacy, autonomy, speed and freedom. So the cultural aspects of car dominance is one of the biggest obstacles we face.
And then there’s the very powerful car lobby. When we’re using cars, we’re not actually carrying the full cost of what it takes to own and use a car. The fuel lobby has worked hard over decades to secure tax cuts. If you look at Transport for London, that’s not nearly as subsidised, we pay something like 90% of the cost to take a journey on the tube or bus versus these great big tax cuts on our cars. So you think car ownership is cheaper, but it’s not, it’s just governments have made decisions on which to prioritise.
What I would say is, particularly for women, safety is paramount. You can’t get people to leave their cars without offering them something that is objectively better. We want to see more protected cycle ways. We want to see more training being given. We want to see subsidised cycle schemes. We want to see better infrastructure for cycle hire schemes.
And there’s also health factors. We have managed to engineer physical activity out of our lives but now how do we factor physical activity back in? It makes us healthier to just get moving and it shouldn’t have to be that you have to go to a gym and pay for a gym membership. I think we need to stop and think carefully about how we’ve structured our societies. Physical activity should just be part and parcel of going about your daily life but pre-lockdown modern living made that very difficult for many of us.
“What I would say is, particularly for women, safety is paramount. You can’t get people to leave their cars without offering them something that is objectively better”
Do you see, as with car free cities, more collective solutions as emblematic of the type of shifts we need to address the climate crisis?
Yes. 100%. I think seeing ourselves as individuals rather than as part of a collective has been very damaging overall. So almost every answer I gave comes back to community because it’s community action that creates change. What we do has an impact on others and what others do has an impact on us. We are intrinsically linked. Even with something like transport, which people assume is an individual decision, it’s not. There are loads of factors at play. In Britain, a high figure of adults can actually cycle, but we don’t cycle as a commute. It’s not that we can’t, it’s just our society doesn’t normalize it. So it’s going to take a complete societal shift to get us where we need to be.
“It’s going to take a complete societal shift to get us where we need to be”
In terms of class and car ownership, do you feel these kinds of collective solutions have the potential to help with broader inequalities?
Yes. So, this is something that’s really interesting, whenever I start with car free cities, people immediately go, oh, well, what about poorer people who can only drive their car, but actually if you drill down into the figures, poorer people, particularly in London, don’t own cars, so they walk or they take the bus.
So here in Tower Hamlets, we have the lowest car ownership rates in the country. I think 60% of people don’t own a car in Tower Hamlets, and yet we have one of the worst air pollution rates. And it’s because people drive through Tower Hamlets. It’s very close to the city of London, people drive through the borough to get to the centre but we have to deal with the toxic air, noise, stress, congestion and traffic danger.
Disabled Londoners and those with health conditions make 32% fewer car trips each day than other Londoners: yet as pedestrians disabled people are five times more likely to be injured by a motor vehicle than non-disabled people. Black, Asian and other ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by air pollution from motor traffic. A large proportion of the workforce of taxi drivers and bus drivers are from ethnic minority backgrounds, and are thus consistently exposed to vehicle fumes for long hours.
London has buses, tubes, cycleways, there are alternative modes of transport. We don’t have to rely on the car, but the reason we do is because it’s been a policy decision over decades to prioritise the car.
I saw this amazing graphic where someone had designed a house and put a massive car garage in the middle, and the point was nobody designs a house like this, why would you design your cities like this? And that’s exactly what we’ve done. Now we need to turn that tide. We need to make that change.
“So here in Tower Hamlets, we have the lowest car ownership rates in the country. I think 60% of people don’t own a car in Tower Hamlets, and yet we have one of the worst air pollution rates. And it’s because people drive through Tower Hamlets”
What are your best hopes for the future of this work?
It’s really difficult because I think on one end of the spectrum, it’s really bleak. We look at the climate crisis and we’re no longer talking about if people die on a mass scale, we’re now talking about damage limitation, how many and when? And that is a very, very sobering thought.
But also, as we’ve seen with Covid, we can make radical change if we, and those in power, decide to do so. We can turn our lives upside down, and that’s what it’s going to take, but we can do it if we decide we want to. So I would just encourage everyone to push those around them, those with power and influence, to take the crisis seriously.
Ultimately, I want to see cities that are thriving, that are healthy, that are happy. I think we’re already seeing a shift away from mass car dependency, particularly amongst younger people, who are recognising the economic and environmental costs and choosing alternatives.
So, it’s a mixed response there. There’s the looming negativity of the climate crisis but there’s also positivity like shoots of grass coming up in the ground.
Thank you so much for speaking with me, Hirra.
Louise Turner is an MSc Environmental Governance student at The University of Manchester and volunteer at Wen.