Can direct action change transport – the largest source of emissions in Devon?

There is a rich history of direct action targeting transport in the UK. Transport Action Network (TAN) evolved from the activists that took direct action to help stop the road building programme in the 90s.

I am in the process of helping Extinction Rebellion set up Roads Rebellion to help tackle transport issues in the UK. My campaigning has been focused at the other end of the spectrum to TAN, using direct action to successfully influence local governments to fund and build protected lanes for people cycling.

Recently, I was in the unenviable position of organising two ‘die-ins’ in two cities. Maria Perez-Gonzalez and Dr Marta Krawiec were both killed whilst cycling by drivers in Exeter and London respectively. People in Exeter hadn’t organised or seen a protest like this previously, Stop Killing Cyclists has been organising them in London since 2013. I got involved at the die-in for Ying Tao in 2016, when thousands of people lay down and filled Bank Junction in the heart of the financial centre of the world.

Western Way, Exeter Die-In – credit Caspar Hughes

We know these protests work. We’ve seen how the Netherlands have reshaped their towns and cities after a schoolteacher started the Stop der Kindermoord (Stop the Child Killings) die-in protests in 1971. He was angry that nearly 3,500 people, including many children, were being killed by drivers in road traffic crashes, and that nothing was being done about these avoidable deaths. So he started a grassroots social movement based on die-ins, this action was chosen to make the dead visible, to give their deaths some impact.

The action worked.

Within a decade towns and cities started to redesign their streets to prioritise people cycling and walking. Today roughly a third of all journeys in the Netherlands are cycled and more than 75 per cent of kids cycle to secondary school. The deputy mayor of London and the chief cycling officer, under Boris Johnson when he was mayor, told transport journalists that the Stop Killing Cyclists London die-ins did two things:-

  • They created conversation about safe cycling amongst the general population, and this generated the acceptance required at the grass roots level for the cycling lanes to be built.
  • The mayoral team said that the die-ins lit a fire under the administration’s desire to implement the cycle lanes.

Since Boris Johnson’s term the mayorship has changed from a Conservative administration to a Labour administration, also now into its second term. Sadiq Khan has built on the work done by his predecessor and is increasing the safe cycling infrastructure in the capital significantly.

Die-in at Bank, City of London. Photo by the author

The climate and ecological crises are upon us; accompanying them is a political crisis. Sir David King says what we do in the next two to three years will affect the next millennia. Where are the crisis meetings? Where are the emergency COBRA meetings? Every mile driven in an internal combustion engine car, every mile flown, will increase the number of people killed by the climate that has arrived on our doorstep. Yet we have a 2050 decarbonisation target, set so far off in the future that we’ll have shot through the temperature increases, which it is intended to stop, decades before we reach 2050. [And we have a government prepared to renege on the Paris Accord to secure post-Brexit trade deals. Ed]

Transport is the single largest sector for emissions in Devon and the UK and it is a sector in which we can make swift gains. Most of our cities are ancient and can easily be turned back into ‘15 minute cities’: cities where people can easily live car-free lives, walking and cycling to school, the shops, the hospital and the gym. For the rest of the country we need to see regular cheap or free renewably-powered public transport to take people to their nearest towns, villages and between cities.

All these changes will bring huge health benefits. The main reason that the Dutch, despite having a worse diet than ours, are the least obese nation in Europe is that they’ve built activity into their population’s daily routines. One third of all journeys in the Netherlands are cycled, families cycle to collect groceries, go to the pub, go to hospital and for all manner of other reasons. In the UK around 2 per cent of trips are cycled (6 per cent in Exeter): one reason why we are the fattest nation in Western Europe. Air pollution will drop drastically: privately-owned cars are the largest contributor to the air pollution crisis that causes 40,000 people to die prematurely every year in the UK.

So, the answer is yes, direct action can make a difference to how we transform our country. Whether protest will usher in the deep and radical change we need to see in the immediate years, to stop the climate and ecological crisis from getting even less controllable, is another question.