No-one should be made to feel like a second class citizen because of where they call home

The remains of Grenfell Tower: a scar on London. Image: Getty.

Seven months on from the Grenfell fire and we don’t yet truly know what will change. The lives of the survivors and our community, certainly: affected indelibly and forever. We will never forget those we lost. The public inquiry is in place and we await to see the lines of questioning adopted and the conclusions it reaches.

But how much the tragedy will change our attitudes and behaviours as a country is still very uncertain. We simply do not yet know whether what happened and what we have seen will change our attitude to social housing and to communities like ours.  

The terrible tragedy also brought out the best in so many. In the aftermath I was part of a community devastated by tragedy that also came together to help so many who were in need. From the volunteers who came to my church and many other centres to hand out food and water, to those with legal expertise who have given their time in the months that follow to offer representation and advice to hundreds of families affected, we have shared a determination that the survivors would not be on their own in their grief.

As our community seeks to rebuild, so too must the whole country look to understand what happened and to find strength from despair. The public inquiry will look in depth at the causes of the fire and the response of the emergency services. But what of the bigger questions, the questions for our society that were posed by what we saw in Grenfell?


Grenfell residents have talked about feeling not listened to and like second class citizens: their voices are too easily dismissed by those in positions of power. While worrying, this is not unique. The experience of those in North Kensington have been echoed by many right across the country who feel the same way.

And Grenfell faith and community leaders, including myself, have talked about those in social housing being stigmatised. But we are reflecting a national problem, not something unique to our particular corner of West London. 

As someone who believes passionately in the role social housing can play in our society, these problems trouble me deeply. We must not miss the opportunity to address these problems. The debate which we promised each other would happen in the weeks after the fire must take place.

So it is to address these deeper questions of power, of community and about the future of social housing that, with the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, we are establishing an independent commission. We don’t start it knowing all the answers and our commissioners are not experts but truth seekers. We hope to find answers through a process which involves as many people as possible, from every region. We believe we need a big conversation involving all those in social housing, all those who need it and all those who live in and around it to chart a better way forward.

No-one should ever be made to feel like a second class citizen because of where they live or where they call home. We need a fresh look at all these questions and we need a new future for social housing which reflects the views of all those who can benefit from it. I hope all those who are able to contribute to this important new commission will do so, so that together we can help shape a better future for us all.

Rev. Mike Long is the minister of Notting Hill Methodist Church and the chair of Shelter’s Big Conversation on social housing.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.