The Swivel-Eyed Loons Have A Point

Cory Doctorow
11 min readMar 17, 2023

Forthcoming in the May 2023 issue of Locus Magazine

One of the more baffling events of the first quarter of 2023 was the mass protest in Oxford (England, not Mississippi) against the “15-minute city pledge,” a movement to get city councils to strive for cities where each neighborhood is a walkable place, with most amenities (groceries, schools, health care, employers, leisure activities) located within a pleasant 15-minute walk from your door.

The 15-minute city is an extremely inoffensive and commonsense idea, and moreover, Oxford is basically already a 15-minute city, because it is a medieval city, with a street-plan to match, anchored around a massive university campus (university campuses everywhere are pretty much all 15-minute cities).

So it’s weird that a bunch of people showed up to protest it, chanting slogans and waving signs decrying the World Economic Forum, the Great Reset, imaginary “climate lockdowns,” and “eating bugs.”

In America, this is called “the paranoid style in American politics.” In the UK, they have a far more colorful epithet: “swivel-eyed loons.”

Here’s the thing: the swivel-eyed loons have a point.

Oh, not about 15-minute cities! The 15-minute city is a perfectly pleasant idea that mostly requires adding a few bus lanes, loosening single-use zoning restrictions, and sprinkling some bike-locking pillars in strategic locations.

The organizers of the Oxford protests conflated the 15-minute city plan with another plan to restrict cars in the city center. Again, this is a perfectly good idea — Oxford is a medieval city, designed for pedestrians and horses, and anyone who’s driven through town during rush-hour has seen its transformation into the kind of traffic jam Hieronymus Bosch might have painted on a particularly grim day.

The beleaguered municipal councillors behind this plan are at pains to point out that the car restrictions won’t involve building walls or checkpoints (so please, please stop bombarding us with death threats!). Rather, the restrictions will be enforced with automated license-plate recorders (ALPRs) that will log every car passing through the city, cross-reference it with the owner’s identity, log it, and issue fines if warranted.