Traffic is, rightly or wrongly, the hot-button topic in Dulwich at the moment. There are strong views all round. Each side has valid points.
Restrictions on private motor vehicles may benefit some roads more than others; they may increase congestion and pollution in some areas; and they may cause delays for those who are entirely reliant on motor vehicles for transport or carers. It would be foolish to deny these in principle, though their prevalence and scale are empirical matters. On the other hand, these same restrictions promote active healthy travel with its concomitant well-being benefits; they reduce the scourge of air pollution (when traffic is reduced); they contribute to the global fight against the climate crisis (even just to show willing, which should not be underestimated); and they improve road safety for children on their way to school. Again, these cannot reasonably be denied in principle, although again they are subject to empirical evidence on their prevalence and scale.
We all place different normative values on these outcomes (and others - the above list does not pretend to be exhaustive). We evaluate any measures and the status quo in line with that normative weighting. But sometimes we seem to place such different values on these outcomes that it appears there is no middle ground, i.e. no shared conception of the ‘reasonable’ or the ‘just’. In such a context, how should we, as the Dulwich Society and as a community, conduct debate? I propose three key points.
First, there must be no assumption that the status quo is just. Our temptation as rational but lazy creatures is to use the yardstick of what we have experienced. The inconvenience caused by no longer being able to go directly from Court Lane to Turney Road in a car is clearly (all other things being equal) sub-optimal. But we must ask ourselves whether it was ever just for such a route to be possible, looking at it as a matter of principle and bearing in mind that all other things are not (and never have been) equal. The answer may be yes; it may be no. But the fact that it was once possible and is now no longer is irrelevant, save insofar as there was a legitimate expectation of things staying the same. To the extent that there was such a legitimate expectation, it is merely one factor to be fed into the normative matrix that constitutes justice.
Second, the appropriate normative weighting of any outcomes must be informed by their prevalence and scale. Prevalence and scale are questions of fact. We should be careful about asserting that the recent measures make walking and cycling less safe on all but a few roads, when there is academic evidence that the number of children cycling to school through Dulwich Square has risen sevenfold after its recent creation at the Dulwich Village Junction (1). On the assumptions that they also traverse other roads on their way to school and that parents are and have been reluctant to let their children cycle to school unless the route as a whole is safe, that creates a strong factual presumption that children cycling through Dulwich have grown safer as a result of the recent measures. Now, one might, on balance, assign a low normative weighting to a factually significant increase in child safety. One might even take the view that, although it deserves a high normative weighting, it is outweighed by difficulties caused to those entirely reliant on motor vehicles - such a position being all the stronger if one has concrete evidence that such difficulties were both large and widespread. But it is structured normative and evidence-based analysis that leads us to such considered views; that is undeniably better than gut-reactions in either direction.
Third, all must not merely be heard but listened to, provided they come in good faith. This ensures the free market of ideas, or what classical Indian thought encapsulated in the aphorism ‘truth alone triumphs’. Constructive criticism is an unalloyed good. But there must be no ulterior motives: if one’s chief objection to proposals is that a trip across Dulwich by car will take an extra ten minutes, this should be made clear. Nor must there be arguments made without full conviction: a sceptic might wonder how high a priority air pollution is to some parties given the number of wood-burning stoves and cars to be found across Dulwich.
The debate will continue. But perhaps such an approach would help us all understand what we’re really arguing about.
(1) Goodman A (2020) Examining the impact on cycling levels of Streetspace modal filters: a controlled before-and after study in Dulwich Village, London. Transport for Quality of Life
Harry Winter Chair Travel & Environment
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