Dear drivers, steady as you go at 20mph. And welcome to the future

The foot soldiers fighting back against the “war on the motorist” have been given plenty of ammunition lately. As low-traffic neighbourhoods continue to be adopted across the UK and Ulez has been expanded to greater London, the latest policy to provoke their ire is the imposition of a 20mph speed limit in residential areas across Wales.

Out in the real world, on the streets rather than on social media, of course motorists are not being marginalised. The very concept is a daft jibe that looks good in a headline but makes no sense whatsoever on closer examination. It is people – cyclists, walkers, pedestrians, schoolchildren – who have been under assault from the way in which cars have been allowed to dominate our lives.

Ever since the creation of a ministry of transport a century ago, government policy has been geared towards enabling and encouraging car use. The motorist remains dominant in numerous ways, whether through the decade-long refusal to raise fuel tax in line with inflation, or the fact that a massive road-building programme still remains the centrepiece of the government’s transport policy, despite evidence that new roads are counterproductive, merely filling up with traffic attracted on to them.

But new policies, so loathed by the motorist lobby, are a sign that at last, the tide may be beginning to turn, at least in urban areas. It feeds into a much wider conversation about urbanisation and what we want from our villages, towns and cities.

Numerous research studies show that busy roads are a barrier to community spirit. One 2008 study showed people living on busy roads in Bristol had 75% fewer friends than those on quieter ones. The same goes for speed. Faster traffic is not only dangerous but alienating, as anyone who has tried to start a business or lived on a road with rapidly moving traffic will know.

Of course, there is a slight contradiction within this set of policies, which opponents are all too quick to point out. Slowing down traffic may lead to a small increase in pollution unless people divert to walking and cycling, which it will encourage, or use electric cars. But taken together, reducing speed and car use will make residential neighbourhoods cleaner, quieter and less congested. And, over time, these neighbourhoods will become – well, more neighbourly. It’s about reversing a century-long trend of bowing to the motorcar and reclaiming our city spaces.

So why does this elicit such fervent opposition, with opponents wrecking Ulez cameras, setting fire to planters and ripping out bollards? In Oxford, there have even been fights on the street, necessitating police intervention. The negatives, for the most part, seem trivial. Taking a longer way round to visit your grandmother may be a pain, but is it really worth the extreme anger it seems to elicit? In Wales, the new speed limit will add just seconds rather than minutes to most journeys, Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, has rightly pointed out He says between six and 10 lives will be saved every year.

Related: Khan says climate crisis more important than party politics after Ulez victory

The London Ulez charge, on the other hand – at £12.50 a day – is more punitive, and Sadiq Khan should have provided a more generous scrappage scheme for affected drivers. Nevertheless, the level of opposition is out of proportion to the effect these measures have on people’s lives.

There are reasons for this. First, the opposition has benefited from a seemingly organised campaign in the rightwing press, working in concert with prominent Conservatives, including Rishi Sunak. Second, measures have been presented piecemeal, rather than as part of a wider strategy benefiting local people. In Paris, mayor Anne Hidalgo has pushed forward a series of changes that are far more radical than those attempted in the UK, but she has managed to present these as a coherent policy, demonstrating the benefits for ordinary Parisians of measures that restrict cars and favour cycling and walking.

It is not a coincidence that it is in Wales that the 20mph speed limit has been adopted. The Labour-controlled Welsh government has a series of wellbeing goals enshrined in legislation that provide a framework for such policies. There is now talk of similar 20mph schemes in Scotland and Northern Ireland. If elected, Labour should use this experience to adopt similar measures for the whole of the UK, and show the same courage Drakeford has done. By bringing together these ideas and presenting them as a narrative – an updated version of John Major’s bicycling grannies – perhaps even the diehard antis might be won over..

  • Christian Wolmar presents the podcast Calling All Stations; his latest book is British Rail, a New History