A new movement for The New City – Bruce McVean’s The New City lecture

This is a write up of Bruce McVean’s The New City lecture given on Monday 11th February 2013 at Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture.

A brief (and over simplified) history of transport and the city

Cities have always been shaped by transport, while the planning and design of cities impacts on transport choices. The first cities were inherently walkable – the primary mode of transport was people’s feet and cities were necessarily compact in size and form as a result.

Public transport allowed cities to grow well beyond a size that would allow a person to comfortably walk from one side to the other. The expansion of train, tram, bus and tube lines helped suburbia spread, but the component parts of suburban growth remained walkable – homes needed to be within walking distance of train stations, tram stops, bus routes, shops and services. Today we’d say that cities were expanding through ‘transit orientated development’.

Mass private transport came in the form of the bicycle, which enabled people to travel further for journeys not served by public transport, bringing new personal freedom of movement that helped whet the appetite for the even greater freedoms promised by the car.

Aspirations towards car ownership were matched with aspirations towards home (and garden) ownership. After the Second World War rising car ownership freed developers from the need to provide easy access to public transport. Shops and services no longer needed to be within walking distance. Aggressive lobbying by car manufacturers, government investment in road building, and changes in planning policy and development economics all helped fuel the rise of the car as the transport mode of choice.

Now those who live in suburbia have little choice but to drive – trapped in a vicious cycle of car dependency as the separation of land uses continues to place jobs and services beyond the reach of those on foot, while low densities make the running of decent public transport nigh on impossible – and most people looking for a new home have little choice but to buy in suburbia.

Of course, it wasn’t just suburbia that was being shaped by the car. In existing urban areas perfectly functional buildings and even neighbourhoods disappeared under the wrecking ball to provide the road and parking space necessary to bring the car into the heart of the city.

The problem with cars

The negative impacts of our love affair with the car have long been acknowledged. As have the difficulties of trying to do anything meaningful to address them. In 1960 the Ministry of Transport commissioned a team led by Colin Buchanan to look at the problem, resulting in the publication of Traffic in Towns in 1963. 50 years on the project steering group’s famous acknowledgement that, “We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great destructiveness. And yet we love him dearly…” still rings true.

Undoubtedly many people still aspire to car ownership, or view owning a car as essential to maintaining a high quality of life. And who are we to deny them? Engines keep getting more efficient and electric cars will help wean us off carbon dioxide emitting toxic fossil fuels. What about those self-driving cars we keep hearing so much about? Aren’t they going to use road space so efficiently that congestion will be a thing of the past, along with crashes? Perhaps, but what kind of city do we want to live in? One where everyone zooms about in their own metal box, completely removed from their fellow citizens? Ask anyone how they think their city can be improved and the answer is unlikely to be more cars – self-driving or otherwise.

Technology may soon address the problems of the internal combustion engine and the contribution that car travel makes to carbon emissions and air pollution; but technology alone can’t solve the myriad of other negative impacts of car dependency that are neatly summarised in the diagram below from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s report The Urban Environment. Tackling carbon emissions and air pollution is an essential task, but it’s not the only task – the big villain isn’t the internal combustion engine, it’s the car. As Taras Grescoe argues in Straphanger, “The automobile was never an appropriate technology for [cities]. As a form of mass transit for the world, it is a disaster.”

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Public Health and Transport Masterclass – presentation and resources

Public Health Outcomes Framework transport related indicators – referred to in the above presentation, this is the full list of all the Public Health Outcome measures that local authorities will be assessed against highlighting those indicators related to transport.


Healthy transport = healthy lives British Medical Association (2012) – Summary of the links between health and transport

Health on the Move 2: Policies for health-promoting transport Mindell JS, Watkins SJ, Gohen JM (eds) (2011) – Comprehensive overview of evidence for the range of health issues relating to transport

Transport, physical activity and health: present knowledge and the way ahead Mackett, RL & Brown B (2011)- Review of the evidence on physical activity and transport which finds the key means of increasing physical activity is through reducing car use while retaining accessibility

Fairness in a car dependent society Sustainable Development Commission (2011) Evidence and policy recommendations for inequalities and transport

Essential evidence: the benefits of cycling and walking – one page evidence summaries of various topics by Adrian Davis, Bristol City Council

NICE Guidance

‘Gold standard’ evidence based guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Evidence (NICE) relating to active travel. These are summarised in NICE’s pathway for local authorities.

Public Health Guidance 8 Promoting and creating built or natural environments that encourage and support physical activity (January 2008)

Public Health Guidance 13 Promoting Physical Activity in the workplace (May 2008)

Public Health Guidance 17 Physical activity and Children (January 2009)

Public Health Guidance 25 Prevention of CVD at a population level (June 2010)

Public Health Guidance 31 Preventing unintentional road injuries among under-15s: road design (November 2010)

Public Health Guidance 41 Walking and cycling: local measures to promote walking and cycling as forms of travel or recreation (November, 2012)


Health Economic Assessment Tool for walking and cycling World Health Organisation (2011) – Online tool to estimate the economic savings from increasing walking and/or cycling:

Public Health Outcomes Framework Data Tool London Health Observatory (2012) – Tool for comparing local authorities by their performance against each of the Public Health Outcome Framework Measures

Standard evaluation framework for physical activity interventions National Obesity Observatory (2012) -Tool for evaluating the effectiveness of walking and cycling projects

Health Urban Development Unit – Tools for assessing the health impacts of planning

Air Quality Guide for each London borough Greater London Authority.

National Heart Forum Healthy Places website – Resource explaining the operation of laws that could enable, or place limits on, local government and community activity that affects the healthiness of a place including case studies of how others have used the regulatory environment to promote physical activity


Take action on active travel: why a shift from car dominated transport policy would benefit public health Sustrans (2010) – A useful resource for policy recommendations and related policy documents on this subject

Health Impact Assessment of Transport Initiatives: A Guide Douglas M, Thomson H, Jepson R, Hurley F, Higgins M, Muirie J, Gorman D (eds) (2007) -Policy background, evidence and guidance on health impact assessment for transport and health

Transport data

Transport Statistics Great Britain: 2010 edition Department for Transport (2011) – Survey data of travel habits in Great Britain

London Travel Demand Survey Transport for London (2011) – Survey data of travel habits in London

Looking for some holiday reading?

It’s been a while since we’ve updated our recommended reading, but with summer holidays fast approaching we thought it was high time we pulled our fingers out. Here are some of the books we’ve enjoyed over the last few months:

Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability – David Owen

A forensic, but very readable and enjoyable examination of the role that higher density city living can play in enabling more sustainable lifestyles – not least by reducing the need to travel and car dependency.

Pedal Power: How Boris Johnson Failed London’s Cyclists – Sonia Purnell

This short e-book offers a potted history of how cycling fared during Boris’s first term – high hopes of a cycling Mayor cruelly dashed against the rocks of smoothing traffic flow. Much of it will be depressingly familiar, but it’s a succinct and useful summary. Just Boris, Sonia Purnell’s biography of Boris Johnson is well worth a read too.

The Enlightened Cyclist: Commuter angst, dangerous drivers, and other obstacles on the path to two-wheeled transcendence – Bike Snob NYC

The second book by Eben Weiss, the blogger behind Bike Snob NYC, is a whistle stop tour of the highs and lows of commuting by bike, and what needs to change to make it a more pleasant experience for all. A light hearted and easy read, but there’s no shortage of serious messages.

And one we haven’t read yet, but are very much looking forward to:

Strap Hanger: Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile – Taras Grescoe

If you’ve got any recommendations for us then we’d love to hear them – leave a comment or drop us a line.