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Artillery Row

The men who hate cars

I’ve had enough of White Paper Mansplainers

Over the last few years, I have had the misfortune to come across a tribe of people on Twitter I like to call “White Paper Mansplainers”. These are extreme cycling zealots, with surprisingly similar characteristics, who have gone relatively undetected in the growing “car debate” — despite being some of the most vocal on and vested in the matter.

Arguments can only ever be won through graphs and charts

In 2021, I started writing about anti-car measures in London, such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) and Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ). I had no personal interest in the matter and only got into it after a delivery driver vented his frustrations to me. The issue was straightforward: councils had installed anti-traffic obstacles that were causing financial harm to tradespeople, and they had also done so without asking their constituents for permission. That was unacceptable, as far as I could see.

Back then I had no idea that I was conveying something “controversial” (and it wasn’t). I thought it was common sense (which it is) to point out that anti-traffic measures had harmful economic effects, as well as implications for democracy, and that this would elicit sympathy from others reading. Instead, I discovered most people to be indifferent. What surprised me more, though, was the number of hostile reactions I received for my posts, as though I’d said something deeply offensive or that the earth was flat. In hindsight, I realise that this was when I had my first taste of the White Paper Mansplainers.

Over time I’ve found this expression to be the best way to describe the people who attack me on Twitter every time I write about cars. After receiving tens of negative responses, I started to notice commonalities between my critics. They tended to be male, young, passionate about cycling, deeply disdainful of car use — to the point of wanting an end to it all — and working in similar sectors, such as public policy. Their bios include descriptions such as: “Data bod”; “Digital inclusion”; “Enviro-geek”; “Science”; “Technology”; “VP Engineering”; “urbanist”; “Head of Dev”, “sustainable transport advocate”; “tree stroker”; “Pavements for People”; “Engineer, Cartographer, Nerd” and “Love miniature painting”. Increasingly, they seemed less like a representative sample of society, and more of a “dork demographic” who would enjoy a government paper as bedtime reading.

For this tribe, my Tweets and articles would and will never be persuasive enough — because they rely on conversations with tradespeople: “the lived experience”, as the Wokesters would put it. To data geeks this is insufficient, as arguments can only ever be won through graphs and charts, and qualitative is no match for the quantitative. Case in point: whenever I have Tweeted my view that anti-traffic policies will harm low-wage workers, I almost always have one man replying with a graph showing that low-income households are the least likely to use cars, as if this were a killer point.

I find them misanthropic in their anti-car militancy, lacking in empathy

There are many things you can say in reply to this argument — for instance, it could actually support my own view (that cars are being made too expensive and are therefore socially exclusionary). The biggest thing it made me realise is that White Paper Mansplainers see society as a series of interacting spreadsheet cells. None of the men I’ve spoken to seem to have ever interviewed those affected by the anti-traffic policies they advocate. In a recent debate, one White Paper Mansplainer suggested to me that, without cars, pensioners can simply get about everywhere by walking. It was as if he’d never considered that some have mobility issues. Although it’s easy to think pro-cycling types care about humanity — wanting to preserve it through removing polluting cars — more often I find them misanthropic in their anti-car militancy, completely lacking in empathy for those who rely on vehicles to get around.

Having been gaslit by the White Paper Mansplainers for so long, I’ll admit that I started to question myself and whether I had become out of touch with the views of tradespeople. When a plumber turned up to my house recently, I jumped at the chance for a “refresher” course. “What do you think about this ULEZ stuff?” I asked. “Nightmare, he replied, before offloading about the many different challenges he faced under growing anti-car policies. We ended up talking for half an hour.

Listening to this man was interesting, but also frustrating — because I know that if he Tweeted these points, he too would find himself up against the White Paper Mansplainers, ready to downplay and dismiss his everyday experiences. Indeed, when I relayed his points on Twitter, one man replied, “Ahh plumbers, experts on town planning, road design and pollution” — perfectly encapsulating the mindset of this snobby collective. Too often their obsession with “planning” and “data” is no more than straightforward elitism. Their hope is that tradespeople, unfamiliar with technocratic terms, will falter on academic terrain.

Why do these people worry me? I can, of course, mute them, ignore them and fight back; they do not concern me from a personal perspective. However, looking at the evidence on the roads, with anti-traffic policies mounting, it’s hard not to conclude that they’ve won. Rather, anti-democratic councillors have won, and they are emboldened by wonkish types, whose technocratic arguments are seen as the golden seal of approval for anti-traffic plans.

It seems to me that White Paper Mansplainers are perhaps one of the biggest examples of an elite bubble governing the real world, completely insulated from the consequences of their ideologies. It is as though local governments across the UK had enacted the wishes of people playing the computer game The Sims with ideas that should have never made it past the technological realm. When the economic consequences of their plans are fully known, don’t expect to see White Paper Mansplainers’ spreadsheets any time soon.

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