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.”