Parking your privilege

young cyclist on pavement with line of parked vehicles alongside

Hope and despair have been on the rampage in recent months, with commentators wondering if we’ve found the pathway towards kindness, equity and radical environmental change or just keen to throw ourselves back into climate change creation and unsustainable consumption. Our political overlords in East Lothian have positioned themselves clearly for the latter by forcing the council to remove temporary measures for social distancing before most of the cones were even laid out. The faint hope that we might see some creative alternatives to cars dominating our town centres has been crushed by the grumbling of opposing business owners just as we’d started to dream of how we might reuse the space to revitalise our car dominated streets – or simply let people walk safely. In other worlds, not that far away, they aren’t just dreaming of redefining street space, they are providing play spaces, outdoor living rooms and places to just be:

Our transport choices are more complex than the ‘it’s not far, leave the car’ rhetoric that gets plastered on the side of bus shelters. Every harassed school run mum, zero hours care worker and disabled shopper will give you legitimate reasons for their car journey. Part of that reasoning will result from historical decisions to prioritise the movement and storage of cars in our towns and cities – leaving walkers, wheelers and cyclists to battle it out for the leftovers of our streets and public transport too expensive, too infrequent, too delayed, too unsafe or just plain inaccessible to be considered an option by many.

This state sanctioned appropriation of space for cars has created a culture where the storage of metal boxes is prioritised over the health and wellbeing of people and our planet. There is not one other item of personal property that you could leave in the street without causing a passive aggressive note from your neighbours, but you can leave a car sat on a public road for weeks and no-one says a word. Most cars don’t even move that much, spending most of their expensive lives parked waiting sadly for their owners to return whilst they take up space where something joyful, life enhancing or simply useful could be instead.

The Coronavirus restrictions and subsequent easing have brought a fresh edge to the discussion about how, where and why we travel – and also the space we allocate to different forms of transport. It’s been said that the truth of a city’s aspirations isn’t found in its vision, it’s in its budget. The same could be said of its land use – are we investing in walking, wheeling and cycling, greenspace and play space to improve quality of life or are we giving up land to storing unsustainable levels of private vehicles?

Some Local Authorities across Scotland have responded to the Coronavirus with a range of temporary measures to enable people to walk, wheel and cycle safely, increase space for distancing on pavements by removing on street parking and enabling businesses to creatively use parking spaces to encourage people back to restaurants and socialise outdoors on the street; even car loving, gas guzzling Aberdeen is at it:

In East Lothian we have about the Scottish average level of car ownership, with around 75% of household having one or more cars, as a relatively affluent and partly rural area. The town centres of East Lothian do a good impersonation of car parks and during lockdown many cars remained parked on our High Streets despite the closure of almost all the shops, which may suggest that our absolutely vital town centre parking spaces are not taken by big spending shoppers but by residents leaving their personal assets in the street. East Lothian business owners might not be convinced, but there is a mountain of evidence that shows people on foot, wheelchair and bicycle keep the cash registers ringing and not the cars drivers.

We can’t afford to keep investing in cars; if you thought Coronavirus is causing havoc with our lives then you’re not going to enjoy what climate change is offering. It’s not news that air pollution is linked to poor health outcomes in every way possible, and you don’t need a pollution monitor to tell you it’s going to start increasing soon if congestion returns:

Gentle nudges to change behaviour isn’t the radical response we need to a crisis – any of them. We need to prevent a rush back to office-based working, provide widespread and convenient alternatives to private car ownership, deliver infrastructure to enable safe walking, cycling and longer multi-modal journeys, give incentives to swap cars for cycles (not a slightly better bad choice) and to value our land as our most precious resource – not use it for unsustainable levels of storage of vehicles. In Japan’s radical, evolving, imperfect response to limited land space you have to prove your can park your car before you are allowed to register one. What better way to show that land has a value than charge for using it to store private property?

We also need to change the way we talk about car-free cities, parking restrictions and space reallocation, ensuring that those that need to drive are acknowledged front and centre in the narrative. Car free spaces look like exclusion zones when you rely on a car or taxi for freedom of movement and independence.

We get nowhere as non-disabled active travel campaigners if we enter an oppression Olympics or argue about car use with disabled advocates. We antagonise people that should be allies if fail to recognise our own privilege, and I’m ashamed to be seen as part of a lobby that acts in an aggressive way towards a community that is already excluded from our streets in so many ways:

In the work that we’ve done at WalkCycleVote we’ve had conversations with disabled advocates about what creates #Street4All for different people. Whilst we all felt that there is too much priority given to motorized vehicles, it was clear that there are people that feel they need to drive and park, like the 230,000 blue badge holders in Scotland. Disabled people need to be able to travel independently and safely by the mode that enables them whilst we work on fixing the streets and modes that exclude them. But that doesn’t mean all disabled people have or want a car: 46% of disabled people in Scotland have no access to a car, and may not be able to drive, which means it’s vital to invest in safe and accessible public transport and safe walking, wheeling and cycling infrastructure that enables active travel for everyone that wants it.

Now let’s put our action where our hope is and demand radical action that includes and improves our towns, cities and villages for everyone.


“We live in a time of massive institutional failure, collectively creating results that nobody wants” Ulab co-founder Otto Scharmer tells participants early on in the Theory U journey; he’s talking about global economics, politics, climate change, poverty and terrorism – the ingredient list for a planetary disaster recipe. As someone that regularly uses a bike it’s not hard to see urban street design in the failure cake we’re baking. All our policies talk about sustainable transport but our walk makes it clear where the power and investment has been.

We all want safer streets, reduced congestion, better air quality and communities where our children can play and roam freely yet we keep inviting more cars into our urban realm and expecting the results to be different from the ones we’ve seen before.

Its easy to feel despondent, just as it’s easy to blame the Council, the Government, developers, car drivers and sometimes the people that think 99% the same as you but not quite that last 1%. What’s hard is to engage openly, to act, to listen, to empathise with different view points and to change our minds when given new evidence. Sometimes its hard just to find the energy to have the conversation at all. We’ve seen that shouting ‘look at the Netherlands’ at politicians on Twitter is not having much of an impact, presenting evidence against bikelash agitators can produce a ‘fake facts’ standoff and powerful stories of change get dismissed as anecdotes. Short of taking everyone in Scotland on a weekend break to Utrecht, how can we give people a taste of what a people centred city might look and feel like?

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it: re-imaging the city

Officially, the Fire Starter Festival “is a two-week festival of collaborative learning events, illuminating creative, disruptive and innovative ways in which we can all transform ourselves, our organisations and the wider system” but it was sold to me when I heard it was all about “doing unusual things in unusual places and getting away with it”. I interpreted this as doing something naughty and not getting told off because the First Minister said we could do it.

Inspired by the Enrique Peñalosa quote “If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone” we started thinking about road closures, play streets, street design competitions, film-making workshops with schools and forcing a ciclovia on Princes Street through the judicious use of toilet plungers and soft toys. Ultimately, our combined time and resources (close to nothing) meant that we settled for creating a pop-up park right outside one of Edinburgh’s most iconic Scottish Government buildings, St Andrews House.

Originally conceived as a legal method for reclaiming part of the street, and making a comment about how street space is utilised, pop-parks (or parklets) give a sense of how we could use our city streets if they were not consumed by the storage of cars. One of its originators has called it a gateway drug for urban transformation, which would explain why some Local Authorities have tried to prevent them.

Outside St Andrews Day, on a bright but bitterly cold February afternoon, we had a programme to tempt people into our park. Musicians played, Dr Bike got out his spanner, people skipped, poetry was chalked across the walls and there was **not a Council entertainment license in sight** (yes, that’s the extent of guerrilla action that this former Head Girl can really take).

Six organisations, all part of the We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote collaboration, spent the very cold afternoon day dreaming with people about how our cities could be different. We didn’t change the world but we had conversations with passers by about not using our capital city streets as a parking lot, we chatted to the St Andrews House inhabitants about placemaking and punctures and we talked to each other about how we could work more together, sparking a few more fires that we hope will turn into a convincing blaze that people will see, feel and want for themselves and their communities.