In 2019 the New Statesman reported how local history groups on Facebook – normally innocent networks where older people swap yellowing photographs and reminiscence about the good old days – have a darker side, sometimes acting as a magnet for racists posting abuse against immigrants, the Left and the “political elite”. The Guardian reports that a Facebook group for people buying and selling small plots of land has been taken over by Far-Right “Supporters of free speech against Big Tech Fascism.” The same now seems to be happening to Facebook groups formed to discuss equally innocuous matters: bus lanes, cycle routes and road closures in south-east London.
A few months ago, for reasons that are unclear, I was invited by an old acquaintance to join a private Facebook group named Greenwich Road Closures. It’s six years since I moved out of Greenwich (a London borough I was a Labour councillor in from 1998 to 2014) and I now live 70 miles away. But I still have close links to the place: my Mum and Dad, and many friends, live there and I rarely turn down a chance to keep myself posted on what’s going on. I naively thought the forum might be a place for civilised debate about the pros and cons of Low Traffic Networks (LTN) measures in Greenwich to impede rat runs, increase space for pedestrians, and open new cycle lanes.
Instead, it soon became clear the group is dominated by conspiracy theorists, keyboard warriors and trolls. Car ownership may be falling in Greenwich, as in many other boroughs, as public opinion is shifting towards the need to restrict the use of the private car to avoid gridlock and help to halt climate change. But there are still clearly many angry motorists out there, for whom traffic jams are always the fault of someone else – mostly politicians. Road rage, plus lockdown cabin fever, are a potent mix.
It’s undeniable that there have been traffic problems in Greenwich since August 2020, thanks to the conjunction of three new schemes: a ‘Hills and Vales’ road closure programme to the west of Greenwich Park, the closure of the road through the park itself, and the completion of a new cycle lane, Cycleway 4, eastwards from Greenwich to Woolwich. But the traffic jams also resulted from many other factors: unscheduled Blackwall Tunnel closures caused by breakdowns, only one of two boats operating on the Woolwich Ferry because of problems with the vessels’ mooring equipment, and more people commuting by car for fear of catching Covid on public transport.
All these factors now seem to be ammunition in a new kind of culture war. Warning: much of the language that follows is not for the faint-hearted.Continue reading