Why do traffic reduction schemes attract so many conspiracy theories? | Peter Walker

Jordan Peterson is rarely lacking in strong opinions, but even by the standards of the Canadian psychologist turned hard-right culture warrior, this was vehement stuff: a city is planning to lock people in their local districts as part of a “well-documented” global plot to, ultimately, deprive them of all personal possessions.

Where was this? Not Beijing, or even Pyongyang. It was Oxford. In the days since Peterson’s tweet – viewed 7.5m times – officials in the city have fielded endless queries from around the world asking why they are imposing a “climate lockdown”. Inevitably, there have also been some threats.

Repeated insistence that Peterson’s version of events is nonsense has done little to stem the tide. In the week or so since, large numbers of people, often from the far right or with links to other conspiracy theories, have leapt aboard.

Oxford’s traffic plan, they insist, is the first step in a global plot led by – depending on who you listen to – the World Economic Forum (WEF) or the UN, designed to strip people of their fundamental rights and personal possessions in the name of the environment.

What’s going on? The short answer is that even in the context of an era in which conspiracy theories are rife, policies connected to cars and traffic seem particularly susceptible for a variety of reasons.

The first thing to clear up is that the claims have no basis, beyond the fact that six traffic filters will be installed across Oxford, in locations yet to be confirmed, as part of a plan led by Oxfordshire county council and supported by the city council.

Officials acknowledge that it is a relatively ambitious scheme for a UK city, intended to nudge people into using buses, bikes or walking rather than private cars for short trips.

While there will be no physical barriers, the traffic filters will try to deter people from driving through central areas. Numberplate recognition cameras will fine people £70 for passing a filter if they are not exempt.

It is worth stressing that no trip will be impossible, though some could be longer than before, with drivers instead having to use a less central route such as the city’s ring road.

Road sealed off by crates

There are also large numbers of exemptions. It will only apply to private cars, but not to those driven by registered carers, health and care workers, people with a blue badge for disability, those who own local businesses and various others.

Locals who are not exempt will receive up to 100 passes a year for each vehicle they own that temporarily exempt them from the charge. It will also be implemented on an initially interim basis, with the impact and support measured.

There are plenty more details here, but you get the idea. The plan may prove popular and effective, or it may not. However, it is a fairly technical scheme to try to clear the roads in a chronically congested city where nearly a third of people do not own cars, while also improving public health and the environment. It is not a UN plot.

So why the fuss? One quick answer is that efforts to limit people’s right to drive, whether in previous years through residents’ parking zones, or more recently with low-traffic neighbourhoods, have often prompted a furious response, usually from a noisy minority.

This is all the more the case when you involve North Americans like Peterson, for whom ideas routine in much of continental Europe such as modal filtering and the “15-minute city” – the latter also popular among conspiracists – are almost unknown.

Another factor is that efforts to limit urban driving inevitably attract the attention of the large pool of climate conspirators who, in a significant Venn diagram crossover with vaccine conspirators, often believe in the idea of a “great reset” plot led by multinational organisations.

A march against the traffic filters plan took place on Sunday in Oxford under the banner of Not Our Future, a new group led by 80s pop duo turned anti-vaxxers Right Said Fred.

If you believe Not Our Future, we currently face a “centralisation of political and economic power which is eroding life expectancy, personal liberty, and freedom of expression worldwide”. The group’s list of supporters includes a roll call of leading UK conspiracy theorists, among them the actor and politician Laurence Fox and the former footballer Matt Le Tissier.

Significantly, two other Not Our Future backers, Neil Oliver and Calvin Robinson, are regular contributors to GB News, a sign of how conspiracy theories have begun to be openly courted by what would normally be considered mainstream news outlets.

GB News, whose founders insisted it would not become a UK version of Fox News, now combines traditional coverage with occasional forays into vaccine conspiracies. A recent item on the Oxford traffic plan falsely billed it as a “climate lockdown” and featured a guest speculating that it was being imposed at the bidding of China.

In a similar vein, an opinion piece in the Telegraph last week argued that the climate emergency was “being used as cover to wage war on the very concept of travel”, amid “a plot to reinvent feudalism, a time when people rarely left their own villages and were taxed if they dared do so”.

But does all this matter? Should we really worry if a few fringe figures make up absurd claims about traffic schemes or cycle lanes? One significant worry is that people objecting to traffic restrictions can easily become exposed to much murkier ideas.

While the “great reset” does originate in fact – it was proposed by the WEF as a way for global economies to rebound and reshape themselves after Covid – it has become a shorthand for all sorts of alarmist conspiracies, often overlapping with antisemitic ideas of the New World Order and all-powerful “globalists”.

David Lawrence, a senior researcher at Hope Not Hate, which monitors far-right groups and conspiracy theories, says the Oxford scheme has been portrayed as an attempt to install a Hunger Games-style world in which people are confined to “zones” while the elites are free to travel, with electric cars seen as part of the plot.

He said: “As with Covid-19, we should be wary about conspiratorial language filtering from the fringes into mainstream debate and being used to attack scientists, politicians and others.”

GB News has been contacted for comment.

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