With excitement over the Diamond Jubilee, Olympics and Paralympics now starting to subside, it’s surely to time to start ramping up the hype for the next big excuse for an outpouring of collective national euphoria. Yes, that’s right: I’m talking about 2013’s ‘Traffic in Towns’ Golden Jubilee.
You may long ago have reached saturation point in terms of your tolerance for any talk of ‘Legacy’, but if you want an exemplar for how genuinely to ‘Inspire a Generation’, you need look no further than this 1963 document (aka The Buchanan Report), which successfully embedded a segregationist highway design philosophy in the minds of subsequent generations of practitioners and politicians alike.
What has always struck me as most extraordinary about Traffic in Towns is the extent to which those responsible for the report fully realised that what it foreshadowed was a world that was very far from ideal, as witness the following excerpt from the Report of the Steering Group (the Foreword to the main report).
“We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great potential destructiveness. And yet we love him dearly. Regarded in its collective aspect as ‘the traffic problem’ the motor car is clearly a menace which can spoil our civilisation. But translated into terms of our own car, we regard it as one of our most treasured possessions or dearest ambitions, an immense convenience, an expander of the dimensions of life, an instrument of emancipation, a symbol of the modern age.”
Two months ago, in a different context, I paraphrased this statement as follows: “We know that cars will kill our people and destroy our planet, but we’ll let that happen because we love the personal freedom and convenience that car travel offers”. Sadly, I’ve seen almost nothing to suggest that this is not still exactly how most UK citizens see the matter; this despite the wealth of credible evidence on road safety, obesity, air quality and climate change that should make us realise that we are indeed killing off our people and our habitat essentially for the sake of perceived short-term, self-centred gain.
As for our political leaders, any number of positive-sounding and probably well-meant statements about ‘sustainable transport’ cannot hide the fact that there has been a dearth of action to back up the fine words, relatively speaking. So, while the £600m size of the Local Sustainable Transport Fund is encouraging, the fact that the Government has approved several relatively local road-building schemes that clock in at over £100m apiece demonstrates that creating ever more highway capacity remains uppermost in its thinking.
If it’s true that “By their fruits shall you know them”, then little seems to have changed since the 1960s. Successive Governments haven’t ever seriously put their money where their mouths have been. What’s worse, I fear, is that our current crop of leaders – seemingly fixated on ‘growth’ at almost any cost – aren’t even talking a good game at the moment. Take just the following two examples culled from the last fortnight’s headlines.
The first is a statement by Lord Wolfson of Apsley Guise, the boss of Next and a confidante of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Having previously supported the Government’s low-spend austerity measures, he has now suggested that “a series of flyovers” should be built over central London to drive economic growth. (He should perhaps be warned that his assertion that it would then take just 12 minutes to drive from Croydon to Westminster is likely to cause panic in the breasts of many well-heeled residents of the latter.)
Now, Lord W’s words could easily be dismissed as the ravings of an uninformed and unqualified individual. However, his status as a ‘business leader’ and ‘wealth creator’ having a close relationship with a very powerful man who, just a couple of days before, had tried to drive a coach and horses through national planning controls (or, as one commentator put it, “drive his tanks onto the CLG’s lawn”) invests his views with much more weight than should be the case.
And speaking of very powerful men, lets consider the recent endorsement by the current Mayor of London (and future who-knows-what) of an architect’s proposal to build a network of elevated cycle paths (‘SkyCycle’) linking mainline stations using existing railway viaducts. Boris is reported as thinking the idea to be “very interesting”. It should more accurately be described, of course, as a “huge distraction” from the bigger issue of how to improve street-level conditions for the thousands of people on bikes for whom these aerial links, even if implemented, would not provide a practical alternative.
The Voice of Reason (The Daily Mail to you and me) describes the SkyCycle initiative as “futuristic”, but being a child of the 60s I think it’s much more “Back to the Futuristic”. Raised in and era of naïve, Jetsons-like imaginings of ‘what life will be like in the year 2000’, and having since professionally witnessed the failures of grade-separated approaches to urban planning, all talk of flyovers, flyunders (see my comments re Hammersmith in LTT599) and pathways in the sky is a demonstration that car-centric thinking is sadly not only alive but kicking.
If our approach to urban highway design continues to be heedless of the need to challenge our collective freedom to drive wherever we like as smoothly as possible, we will continue to preside over a large and increasing number of deaths due to heart-related and other problems brought on by fatness and pollution. The comparatively small number of people killed directly in highway collisions will also rise; while the pace of climate change will most likely accelerate.
In the 1930s, the architect Le Corbusier said “We must kill the street”. Since the 1960s, we’ve often seemed to be doing his bidding. It hasn’t been good news and it’s never going to be. We need to use evidence, commonsense and influence to help ensure that those who are tempted to indulge in flights of transport fancy keep their feet on the ground.
Brave new world? Traffic in Towns’ vision of separate realms for vehicles and people if London’s West End were comprehensively redeveloped.
Pie in the sky? This promo photo-montage also shows the big problem that SkyCycle would leave untouched. (Image from London Media)
The Hammersmith ‘Flyunder’ idea – “£100m? OK – just so long as we can keep driving” (Image via the Evening Standard)