On the 60th anniversary of the landmark publication David Rudlin asks whether there has ever been a report that has done more damage to our cities
There was an article in the Observer this weekend about Lime eBikes. I was struck by a comment made by the company’s chief executive who is constantly tagged in furious social media posts about bikes clogging pavements. He points-out that in the background of every photo is a ‘line of parked cars as far as the frame allows’. Forget eBikes, the thoroughfares of our cities became hopelessly clogged with private cars years ago.
This was predicted by Colin Buchanan in his landmark report Traffic in Towns published at the end of 1963. My friend, Andreas Markides, the new chair of the Academy of Urbanism has written a piece for its journal marking the anniversary. Andreas’s copy is signed by Sir Colin Buchanan himself (Andreas was once chair of Colin Buchanan and Partners) and he points to the ground-breaking nature of the report and its prophetic power.
While even Andreas struggles to defend the report’s insistence on the vertical separation of cars and pedestrians, he tells me that my assertion that no other report has done such damage to UK cities is unfair to Buchanan.
Buchanan was commissioned by the Macmillan government at a time when there were just 10 million vehicles on Britain’s Roads and just under 8,000 people a year were being killed in traffic accidents. Buchanan, having looked at the boom in mass car ownership in the US predicted that the same was about to happen in the UK.
He projected that the number of vehicles in the UK would quadruple to 40 million – today the figure is 41.3 million, although the annual number of road deaths has fallen to 1,800. He concluded that this level of traffic might be possible in the wide-open spaces of the US, but in our cramped little island with its historic cities, it was simply untenable.
The legacy of Traffic in Towns comes from the fact that most planners skipped over its warnings and saw it instead as a handbook for the future city
In a famous quote he wrote: “It is impossible to spend any time on the study of the future of traffic in towns without at once being appalled by the magnitude of the emergency that is coming upon us. We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great potential destructiveness, and yet we love him dearly. To refuse to accept the challenge it presents would be an act of defeatism.”
There were two options: reduce demand via road pricing or, completely redesign our towns and cities to accommodate the car. The following year the government-sponsored Smeed Report did indeed recommend that congestion charging be introduced. At the time only a quarter of households owned a car, but then (as now) the politics or restricting people’s right to drive, or to charge them for the privilege, was just too difficult.
So, the rise in car ownership became seen as inevitable and the only option was to redesign towns and cities, something that many people, including Buchanan, saw as unfortunate but unavoidable.
To others it was all quite exciting! For the followers of CIAM and the disciples of La Ville Radieuse this was the future that they had long predicted. Not quite flying machines but personal mobility pods (cars) zipping along elevated motorways and underpasses while pedestrians happily communed in their precincts and plazas.
A few years ago I spent a happy afternoon going through the Gordon Cullen archive held by the University of Westminster. Cullen is regarded with great reverence by urban designers but, within the archive there is a rather disturbing study. In this Cullen relates his theory of ‘serial vision’, developed in the hill towns of Tuscany, to the experience of arriving in Liverpool on a proposed elevated motorway.
His beautiful drawings illustrate the changed perspective that the motorway would give of the city from a speeding car. The legacy of Traffic in Towns comes from the fact that most planners skipped over its warnings and saw it instead as a handbook for the future city.
However, the real problem lay in the assumption that all of this was inevitable. This, after all, was the year that Beeching recommended closing much of our railway system and a time when councils were ripping-up their tram tracks.
I’ve recently been talking to a colleague in BDP’s parent company in Tokyo. He describes how investment in suburban railways in the 1960s and the difficulties of cutting major roads through Japanese cities, created a social norm where virtually everyone commutes by public transport. Imagine if that had been what Buchannan recommended?
David Rudlin is director of Urban Design at BDP and visiting professor at Manchester School of Architecture.
He is a co-author of High Street: How our town centres can bounce back from the retail crisis, published by RIBA Publishing.