Misinformation surrounding a plan to reduce traffic in the city of Oxford, England, is the latest example of how three years after the onset of COVID-19, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers have seamlessly transitioned into climate change denial, and how this message is proliferating not just in Europe, but now in the U.S. as well.
The Oxford plan, which aims to cut down on daytime traffic and greenhouse gas emissions from cars, has been conflated with a broader “15-minute city” urban planning concept, which calls for communities where necessities are within walking/biking distance. The plan recently made headlines when right-wing media influencers presented it as one component of the sprawling “Great Reset” conspiracy theory, saying its goal is to lock down residents and essentially turn cities into open-air prisons. Backlash, led in part by climate change denier Jordan Peterson, was so severe that academics and politicians who support the plan or the related idea of a 15-minute city got death threats.
What is a 15-minute city?
In a nutshell, the concept of the 15-minute city is that life’s necessities such as schools and grocery stores should be just a short walk or bike ride away. According to Carlos Moreno, an urban planning professor who helped lay out the plan in Paris, cities should be “designed so that we can live, work and thrive in them without having to constantly commute elsewhere.” The goal is to foster healthier habits and stronger social relationships between neighbors by prioritizing green space, accessibility, and safety for human bodies, bikes, and public transportation, rather than cars.
The City of Oxford is implementing a separate strategy, Local Plan 2040, to help achieve these goals. But that’s not what has drawn so much attention in the media.
The traffic plan approved by the Oxford County Council which triggered backlash is meant to reduce commuting time and greenhouse gas emissions from excess traffic. According to a fact check from the Associated Press: “Oxfordshire has approved a plan to put ‘traffic filters’ on some main roads, restricting drivers’ access during daytime hours and freeing up space for buses, cyclists and pedestrians. But car owners can apply for daylong permits to bypass the new rules, and many other vehicles are exempt. All parts of the county will remain accessible by car, officials said.”
Right-wing opposition to the 15-minute city has been firmly rooted in COVID conspiracy theories
Despite what is actually happening in Oxford, right-wing influencers have painted the plan as a thin veneer for controlling every aspect of residents’ movement with the goal of preventing them from owning cars or leaving town at all. According to DeSmog, in 2022 in England, COVID-19 conspiracy theorist David Fleming, along with figures tied to climate denial think tank Global Warming Policy Foundation, created a group to oppose the plan and spread false claims via leaflets to Oxford residents. One founding signatory was Del Bigtree, a U.S. filmmaker and founder of the Informed Consent Action Network, an anti-vaccine group.
The seeds for the conspiracy theory to take root in the U.S. were planted back in April 2020. Frequent Fox News guest and climate change denier Steve Milloy warned of an impending “climate lockdown” and the idea proliferated, with figures like Laura Ingraham and Alex Jones claiming in 2021 that COVID-19 lockdowns were conditioning the public for even more stringent mandates in the name of climate change.
15-minute city fearmongering comes to the US
The ideas driving the 15-minute city are not new. New urbanism and public transit enthusiasts have been gaining traction on social media as Gen Zers and millennials lament their childhood confinement to suburbs that felt unnavigable and isolating. For years, but especially post-pandemic, cities across the globe have prioritized walkability and mixed-use development.
Right-wing media are working hard to maintain the status quo in part through elaborate conspiracy theories about 15-minute cities or anything seemingly related. Right-wing media figures including Australian anti-lockdown campaigner Bernie Spofforth, Turning Point USA contributor Drew Hernandez, and Swedish climate change denier Peter Imanuelsen have insisted they are being spearheaded by The World Economic Forum. In truth, the WEF has mixed things to say about the concept.
Right-wing culture warrior James Lindsay, said in a March 7 segment on One America News’ Morning News with Stephanie Myers that 15-minute cities are a means of “more social control.” He went on to say that they would lead to “new kinds of car non-ownership subscription borrowed models, kind of like Uber, but with no owner. All these things going, so that you don't have freedom of movement” before falsely claiming that in Oxford, “you can only leave your zone so many days a year” and “absolutely no vehicle that emits any kind of ah, you know, I guess CO2 or whatever was allowed to drive during certain hours.”
In the same segment, OAN's Monica Paige again suggested that residents of 15-minute cities would be allocated 100 passes per year permitting them to leave their designated zones. In reality, Oxford drivers will always be able to get wherever they want using alternate routes, as only some roads will have traffic filters. Both Paige and Lindsay are misleadingly referencing the fact that local residents will have to apply for 100 day-long permits per year, where they can use any road at any time of the day free of charge.
On an April 6 segment of OAN’s Tipping Point with Kara McKinney, Jeffrey Tucker, former editorial director for the Koch-funded Foundation for Economic Education, blamed Dr. Anthony Fauci for 15-minute cities. Tucker said Fauci, who served as chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and was a lead member of the White House COVID-19 Task Force under Trump, wanted people “imprisoned in our local communities and condemned to forage and eat bugs” and that he and the ruling oligarchy would insist on “no football games, no concerts, no amusement parks, certainly no church. They want us doomed to a kind of a pre-medieval existence with them in charge.”
In the interview, Tucker also used the familiar trope of Democrats supposedly being soft on crime, but he claimed it was intentional. “They really want to dismantle our cities. There’s no better way to do that than through crime,” he said. And the fact that cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco are “collapsing in a miasma of blood and weed” would supposedly give them an excuse, he said.
Climate change denier Marc Morano spoke about 15-minute cities on an April 10 segment of OAN’s In Focus. Morano told OAN contributor Alison Steinberg that 15-minute cities are “conjuring up a little place called … East Germany, where you literally had to apply to the government in order to go from place to place. … All of this again is so that we will stay at home. That's actually the goal. They loved COVID lockdowns.” Steinberg asked of “radical leftists”: “Do you think they really realize — hey, you're not going to be able to drive to go get your little soy crackers that you like eating every night while you’re watching and playing your video games?”
In an April 11 segment of Fox News' The Ingraham Angle, Laura Ingraham spoke with U.K. professor Norman Fenton, who claimed 15-minute cities are “absolutely catastrophic” and that “the idea is essentially to stop you — yeah, it’s to stop you going out of the zone, stop you traveling wherever you want. … But in practice, people will have to go out of the zone to get to work, to take their kids to school and stuff like that.”
Fenton is a member of HART (Health Advisory and Recovery Team), described by The Daily Dot as “a group of prominent proponents of an anti-vaccination, anti-lockdown, anti-mask strategy.” He has inaccurately suggested that the spike in second-wave COVID-19 deaths in 2021 may have been caused by vaccines.
Before turning his attention to 15-minute cities, Fenton also railed against the UK government's net-zero emissions target, misleadingly conflating it with a report on absolute zero emissions, which is not a current policy goal. He suggests that the government might prohibit airplane travel and shipping in the U.K. by 2050. This is not happening.
Online, one American anti-vaccine group seems particularly concerned about Oxford. Children’s Health Defense, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s anti-vax group, promoted a video of a young girl making a speech at a protest in Oxford calling 15-minute cities a “dystopian reality” on Telegram and on Twitter. One article on the group’s news site gives credence to the idea that 15-minute cities could in fact lead to “climate lockdowns.” The group also promoted a February protest against 15-minute cities in Oxford. Kennedy recently announced his bid for the presidency.
Infowars promoted a video that compares a hen house to a 15-minute city because “it’s a spot-on illustration of how they view the people as vassals, or serfs – who only exist to produce eggs to be harvested.” The Telegram channel for the anti-vax group The Truth About Cancer wrote that 15-minute cities are proof that “we are under attack” from the “globalist ghouls.”
For online conspiracy theory networks, anti-15-minute city propaganda has been a gateway to climate change denial
On social media, an infamous COVID-19 conspiracy theory network has also signaled a shift to climate change denial, with the 15-minute city as a catalyst.
A channel that has been promoted by White Rose, an international disinformation group that operates on a network of Telegram channels, is among those promoting conspiracy theories about the 15-minute city, in addition to climate change denial.
The channel, Wide Awake Media, has 26k subscribers on its Telegram channel and has recently been gaining traction on Twitter. It has occasionally featured posts about climate change but started posting more often on the topic in January 2023 when the topic of 15-minute cities was becoming popular in right-wing media. This topic has provoked violent responses suggesting that leaders who support green policies should be killed.
Members of White Rose, which made headlines for distributing anti-vax stickers, posters, and leaflets, have also discussed the group’s shift to 15-minute cities. The group has repeatedly promoted Wide Awake, which primarily sells merchandise promoting conspiracy theories, in its channel.
The continued popularity of 15-minute city conspiracy theories proves that climate change denial is the perfect place for anti-vax and anti-mask enthusiasm to thrive as COVID-19 becomes less prominent in the news cycle but their need to prove they are “wide awake” persists. We have also seen that it can be easily adapted for U.S. audiences with their specific villains, such as Fauci, and framed as an affront to American values, such as our obsession with cars.
Correction (4/20/23): This piece originally stated that OAN anchor Stephanie Myers interviewed James Lindsay on March 7. In fact, it was OAN’s Monica Paige.