“The Outraged Driver of Kennington Park”: on our irrational attitudes to cycling and carbon emissions

This is not anti-social behaviour, apparently. Image: Getty.

It’s one of the few times I’ve managed seriously to annoy a motorist while stationary on my bike. One dark winter night a couple of years ago in London, I blew my nose while waiting at traffic lights. But, lacking the time to fish out a handkerchief, I snorted onto the road.

It can’t, I accept, have made for a pretty sight. But the reaction of a woman in a car behind still surprised me. Leaning on her horn, she gesticulated her disgust wildly.

The irony of it instantly struck me. In contemporary society, it’s regarded as entirely acceptable to make urban journeys in vehicles that spew out gases that will pollute and warm the atmosphere for a century or more. Clear one’s airways of a little biodegradable mucus, however, and one puts oneself entirely beyond the pale.

But the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I’ve realised the Outraged Driver of Kennington Park was exhibiting attitudes to environmental pollution and emissions very common in industrialised societies across the world. She regarded herself as having the right to an environment treated as she wanted. She felt perfectly entitled to criticise others’ treatment of that environment. Her attitudes, however, made no reference to any ultimate yardstick about the fate of the world environment as a whole.

I am nothing like as exercised about environmental issues as many people assume cyclists are. I enjoy the overall sense that cycling is a rational way to get around – that it makes good use of scarce city space, that it contributes very little to congestion, that it keeps me healthy, that it’s enjoyable. It’s part of that picture that each trip contributes hardly at all to overall carbon emissions. But the environmental factors form only one corner of the overall scene.

That said, I regularly currently confront vivid evidence of the seriousness of the world’s environmental problems. Parts of the Hudson River Greenway, which I use for nearly half my daily commute in New York City, were under five feet – 1.6m – of water at the height of Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Many scientists think such extreme weather events are becoming more common as the world’s climate changes.

The following January, I cycled down to Coney Island, one of the parts of the city worst-hit in the storm, to help clear out a vacant lot that was under seven feet of water on the night the record high water swept up New York Bay. The weather was so unseasonably mild that on the way home it felt oppressively warm. There’s an undeniable sense that climate change is becoming a more urgent, practical issue, which anyone who takes an interest in the wider world needs to address.

The absence of evidence

Yet few of the responses to the issue rise much above the level of honking one’s horn at behaviour one dislikes. I’ve frequently heard it averred, for example, that it’s good for the environment to eat local, seasonal produce.

But very few of the people who claim that can give a detailed accounting of local, seasonal produce’s carbon costs – even though the ships that import food to temperate, rich-world countries use remarkably little fuel. It’s certainly far from clear that buying fruit imported on such a ship from a country where it grows easily is worse than eating greenhouse-grown local fruit that’s come to the farmer’s market in a small, inefficient van.

Container ships: surprisingly okay for the environment. Image: Getty.

Railway lobbyists also make blanket claims that their transport mode is invariably more environmentally friendly than using a car. But, while that is undoubtedly true for a well-filled train in the London rush hour, it isn’t true for a nearly-empty train spewing diesel fumes into the air to move a couple of passengers to their destinations.

When I lived in the UK, my most regular long-distance rail journey was London to Chester on a Super Voyager diesel-powered train. I would give a rueful smile as I remembered that the complex, heavy but fast train issued much the highest level of emissions per seat mile of any UK train model. It was, on average, a better environmental bet to take the train for that journey than to hire a car. But the margin was not very wide at all.

There are some similarly questionable attitudes towards cycling’s environmental performance. I’ve recently come across a number of attacks on cycling’s environmental record that point out, for example, that manufacturing bikes produces carbon emissions – an undeniable point, which makes it clear that one shouldn’t replace one’s bike more often than necessary.

Such attacks generally go on to point out that fuelling a bike involves carbon emissions. There are carbon costs to moving the extra food that cyclists eat that they otherwise wouldn’t. And the food generates emissions that the Outraged Driver of Kennington Park would presumably dislike even more than mucus – in the form of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than the carbon monoxide from cars.

The most entertainingly bonkers attack of this kind I’ve encountered was a blogpost from an Ian Pearson who claims to give “a more accurate guide to the future” (how can he tell?) on bikes’ carbon performance. Cycling might well, Mr Pearson accepts, produce next-to-no carbon emissions per kilometre. But, when a cyclist rides in traffic, he asserts, the extra carbon cost of attending to accidents – and the effect on cars’ carbon performance of slowing down then accelerating to overtake cyclists – probably produces so much extra carbon that it would have been more environmentally friendly for the cyclist to go by car.

The common thread between all these questionable assertions is that they treat the environment’s fate as an abstract matter – as susceptible to objective observation as the question of how to live the good life or whether God exists. People who profess concern about the environment often have a bias in favour of things that appear traditional and prepared without the benefit of complex, modern scientific advances. Many assume locally-produced food must be better for the environment because, well, it feels as if it should be.

Similarly, people who are relatively unconcerned about environmental issues have a tendency to work back from their own behaviour to a spurious justification. “My car’s not as polluting as it might be” gets rationalised into “I am environmentally virtuous”. “I don’t like manoeuvring around these cyclists” becomes “These cyclists are bad for the environment”.

Incentives work

Yet, for the effects of air pollution and global warming, it is ultimately possible to estimate the effects objectively. Scientists now have a reasonable idea of what kind of damage different levels of carbon emissions produce. It is even possible to come up with rough figures for the costs that different kinds of emissions impose on wider society.

In a rational world, governments would now be rushing to take the guesswork out of estimating environmental impacts. Food products would include a label detailing the carbon costs of their production and include a tax reflecting them. Air tickets would include something similar, while the carbon costs of burning each unit of fuel would form a clear and distinct part of the petrol price at the pump. Past experiments with introducing new prices for previously-free goods – such as the Central London Congestion Charge – suggest consumers would move swiftly away from the most environmentally damaging behaviours towards less damaging ones.

Heroes of villains? Image: Getty.

I am robustly confident that such an exercise would make far clearer than the existing tax systems in most rich-world countries that bikes have big environmental advantages over most other transport modes. It is hard to imagine that the change would not significantly increase cycling levels.

The challenge, however, is that such a move would upset groups commonly supposed to be hugely influential – motorists, regular air-travellers and the owners of big houses – while pleasing few others. Governments consequently lay down a few cycle lanes on the roads, offer some subsidies for electric cars, meet some of the cost of better home insulation and generally gesture vaguely in the environment’s direction. Action that would make a real difference remains resoundingly untaken.

That should perhaps be no surprise. Across the industrialised world, governments depend on the votes of people as inconsistent as the Outraged Driver of Kennington Park, Ian Pearson and, come to that, each of us reading (and writing) this site. There’s no firm consensus yet among all those people in favour of firm action to rein in the galloping horse of the worsening global climate.

That many governments consequently seem little more rational on the issue than an irritated, late-night driver may be sad – but it is depressingly understandable.

Robert Wright is US industry correspondent at the Financial Times, based in New York.

This article was originally published on his blog in 2013. 


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.