Mobility Car-Free How to Get Politicians on Board With Car-Free Measures

How to Get Politicians on Board With Car-Free Measures

Lauren McAskie
I love talking to passionate CityChangers from around the world, hearing their stories and what drives their activism, then writing up guides for others to get inspired by. There's only one thing that could top a car-free city for me, and that's one made out of chocolate... but a girl can only dream. In the meantime, I'll work on making the first come true.

Taking space away from the dominant road user — a.k.a. private cars — is a politically sensitive subject and a brave decision for any politician to make. But getting a political buy-in could be the make-or-break factor for any campaign to reduce personal car use, so it’s vitally important to know how to get politicians on board to support them. This article dives into the key steps you need to take to win over decision-makers and help bring your city one step closer to a less car-dependent future.

There is no single formula for getting political support, and it is likely to depend a lot on your city’s unique characteristics and political climate. Still, there are some ways that you can make your campaign more appealing from an administrative standpoint and things you can do to persuade politicians to buy into car-free changes. Here are our five steps to success:

1. Know Your Political Ambition

If you want to get politicians on board, your first step should be to know precisely what you want them to get on board with. What exactly is it you want to achieve? What are your expectations and ideal outcomes? 

When you have a clear vision, it will help politicians better understand your goals and how they can help you reach them.

When we spoke to Ellen de Vibe, Oslo’s chief town planner from 1998-2019, she talked about the transformation of the city’s centre in becoming car-free and how it faced a lot of political scrutiny in the beginning — but having a clear political ambition was vital for success:

“Most aspects of our professional life are sectorial; so, we must have clear and cohesive strategies when it comes to car-free measures that politicians can easily get on board with. Having an agenda is crucial.”

2. Know the Key Players

The second step is finding out which politicians are most likely to be persuaded by your campaign and getting in touch with them.

You should begin by doing some research into your local levels of government to find out which politicians operate in which departments. The ones who will be most likely to want to help are those who work in mobility, and therefore probably already understand the existing problem with cars in your city.

Perhaps someone has already demonstrated an interest in achieving car-free measures in the past or has previously supported campaigns for similar schemes. These should be identified as the ‘key players’ that you should aim to begin to build coalitions with.

3. Build Relationships With Local Councillors

Clare Rogers, a mother and sustainable transport activist from Enfield in Greater London who helps set up low traffic neighbourhoods in her area, said that one essential ingredient to successful campaigns is having a positive relationship with politicians.

“It’s not just about shouting and throwing stones at windows”, Clare said. “We should take our politicians to areas where cars have already been removed, to actually show them what it looks like and the benefits that come from it.”

It’s important to get politicians away from looking at mobility issues from behind a screen — to get them out of their office and show them the street from the perspective of a pedestrian or cyclist so they can understand the problems first-hand and decide for themselves what actually can be done to solve them.

She drew on the experience of Enfield MP Feryal Clark, previously a transport cabinet member in Hackney, where incredible progress has already been made in reducing motor traffic. 

Clark said that ten years ago, she would drive her car everywhere, but thanks to the local cycle campaigners who helped educate and build a strong relationship with her, she is now a committed advocate. She has helped implement dozens of low traffic neighbourhoods and school streets, even in the face of some initial public uncertainty and unpopularity.

Clare says that the assurance of political will is vital, as a strong commitment to the cause will enable politicians to be resilient to public backlash and still make the right decisions for healthier cities at the end of the day.

4. Point Them Towards the Facts and Figures

Another strand to getting political buy-in, according to Clare, is showing decision-makers that measures actually work once they are implemented. We should point them in the direction of the facts, figures, and polls that show how similar car-free measures have been successful and are supported by the public.

For example, one of the things that convinced Boris Johnson to push ahead with implementing more low traffic neighbourhoods was the Department of Transport’s opinion poll which found that 66% of people living in and low traffic areas actually support them.

“It’s extremely convincing when you see the numbers — so we should push politicians to look at them.” Clare continued, “when you leave them to look at their email inboxes, they will hear from a lot of angry people. But when you ask them to look at the quiet majority from a neutral, professional standpoint, they will be more likely to get on board.”

5. Plan Schemes According to the Political Cycle

A final thing to keep in mind is that if you are thinking about initiating a campaign for any kind of change to reduce car use, you should be aware of planning it carefully around the political cycle. For example, try not to start up your campaign right before a local election, as some politicians may fear that if they show their support, it could derail voting. 

This will allow more time for your proposals to be better understood, gain popularity and become accepted by the public, therefore also becoming more appealing for politicians to invest in. 

This should ultimately help to maximise political gain and minimise the risk that opposing politicians and bodies will try to get car-free measures removed — which could also cost your local council more money in the long run.

Get Politicians in to Get Cars Out: Summed Up

Cars have been king in our cities for over a century, so naturally, any decision to reduce them will come with its controversy. That’s why getting the right politicians on board who are whole-heartedly committed to the cause and who really want to see their cities become happier and healthier is so important.

There is no rule book when it comes to getting decision-makers’ support, but when you’re ready to get political, these five actions will be the stepping-stone to success in making cities less car-dependent and more liveable places for everyone!

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