It was a 1963 report called Traffic in Towns, written for the Government by Professor Colin Buchanan that many will hold responsible for the sorry state of utility cycling in the UK.
Indeed, many will argue Traffic in Towns was used as a means to drive a bulldozer through much of the cycle infrastructure we may have had back then. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing and it could also be argued that, at the time, we really didn’t appreciate how destructive motoring would become.
Had we known that before long we’d have two or three car households; dangerous levels of air pollution in some cities and a nation of overweight and unfit individuals either suffering with or on the cusp of developing type-2 diabetes, I still don’t think we’d have averted the crisis. Humans just don’t work that way.
If it was Buchanan who built the coffin for utility cycling, it was successive neoliberal governments who hammered the nails in. Aside from de-regulation of the buses, unprecedented road-building schemes and the inevitable explosion in traffic, it was the self-interest & greed instilled in us that saw people attach so much self-worth and social status to personal possessions.
If we could have personal possessions that could be seen by anyone who passed by our homes, all the better. Cars were expensive and, they still are. What better way to “peacock” and show the neighbours how much more successful you were than with a shiny new Ford Capri, eh!
Torrance believes we are still wedded to the car as a status symbol, but others disagree. Stephen Bayley, who has written several books on car design, is convinced the age of the car is coming to an end. “It’s five minutes to midnight for the private car,” he says. “It’s no longer rational to use cars in cities like London.” Cars were invented as agents of freedom, but to drive (and, worse, to have to park) one in a city is tantamount to punishment.
Times are changing though. We are starting to wake up to not just the logistical challenges of having cities full of cars, but also the public health challenges of cities full of inactive, overweight people breathing in toxic fumes.
If you spend any time driving in Cardiff, you’re probably starting to notice the changes already. Parking charges are going up; bus lanes are increasing and areas with a 20mph speed restriction are starting to appear. Cathays and some parts of Roath are now a 20mph zone, but the general direction of travel is towards lower speeds.
The aim is to make Cardiff a more liveable city. This means less traffic, more green spaces and a city centre designed around pedestrians and cyclists.
The logistical problem
The trouble with cars is, whilst they can carry between 5-7 people, most of the cars that enter our cities do not. This means that the average human entering the city takes up around 20′ front to back and around 6′ side to side. It’s an inefficient use of space before you even start to consider that this space is taken up whether the driver is inside the car or not. You still have to account for the space when said driver is at work.
The numbers are straightforward. A single lane of cars carries fewer than 2,000 people an hour in one direction. The same amount of space can carry 14,000 people on bikes, or 20-25,000 people in light rail or trams. In cities around the world, rapid bus transit systems that are segregated from traffic carry 15-20,000 people per hour in a single lane. In Bogota, Colombia the Transmilenio rapid bus transit system carries 40,000 people per hour in a single bus lane.
Even if electric cars were a viable alternative –that’s an argument for another day, they’re still an enormous waste of space.
The average car in the UK emits 124.6g/km CO2, which we’ll admit is a meaningless number in the grand scheme of things. It’s not until you compare it to other forms of transport that the reality starts to sink in. Fortunately, we stumbled upon this great chart from Beagley-Brown Design…
What the graph below is showing is ‘greenhouse gas equivalent emissions in grams per passenger kilometre’. Sounds a bit technical, I know, but it’s basically a measure of how much you contribute to climate change when you use choose a particular form of transport.
Note where that large petrol car with one occupant sits in relation to transatlantic first-class flight…yes, we have a lot of large petrol cars romping around Cardiff with a single occupant.
Sadly, these emissions are not only from a non-renewable source, they don’t just vanish into space either. They hang around, affecting the health of everyone, including the people doing the driving. This brings us onto…
The public health problem
Continuing with emissions theme for the time being, let’s have a look at Diesel. Since CO2 became the measure of how vehicle duty (NOTE: Not road tax, that doesn’t exist in the UK) was charged and, diesels don’t produce that much of it, many of us went on a diesel-car buying spree to benefit from the lower tax band. Unfortunately, we were being deceived. We have now realised that Nitrogen Dioxide is just as bad and likely to have been a factor in thousands of deaths every year. Whilst you may use less diesel per mile than you would for petrol, the emissions you are chucking out through your exhaust will literally make your eyes water and are in many ways worse than petrol engine emissions…
Particulate matter irritates the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, contributing to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses and even premature death. Although everyone is susceptible to diesel soot pollution, children, the elderly, and individuals with preexisting respiratory conditions are the most vulnerable. Researchers estimate that, nationwide, tens of thousands of people die prematurely each year as a result of particulate pollution. Diesel engines contribute to the problem by releasing particulates directly into the air and by emitting nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, which transform into “secondary” particulates in the atmosphere.
Whilst it is true that our trains and buses run on diesel, when you divide the number of people on the train or bus by what is pouring out of the exhaust, it balances out.
One idea being floated is to restrict diesel vehicles in six city centres – London, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton. In London, dirty diesel drivers could soon be paying an extra £12.50 to drive in town, on top of the £11.50 congestion charge.
The other problem and, perhaps a little more pressing, is that many of us have become dependent on the car. The trouble with that is two-fold.
- We’re not getting enough exercise, we’re putting on weight and ruining our cardiovascular health
- Driving is becoming increasingly stressful –there’s so many cars on the road that avoiding collisions requires your upmost concentration. Ever noticed how uptight people become whilst driving?
Whichever way you cut it, our health suffers and we place an unnecessary strain on an NHS that has enough to deal with as it is.
The way forward
So, things are going to change, whether you like it or not. The Council recently published a “vision of the future” document called the Liveable Design Guide (watch out, it’s 13Mb) that made for interesting reading.
They also released the Cardiff Public Realm Manual: Creating Liveable Streets in June 2015, further reinforcing Cardiff’s vision which places pedestrians and cyclists front and centre, at the expense of the motorist.
The watchword in urban planning these days is “liveable”. It has taken some time, but Donald Appleyard’s seminal research into community severance is finally being taken onboard in cities around the world.
Community severance is where the transport system serves to impair a person’s mobility rather than facilitating it. Think of any of Cardiff’s busiest roads and imagine (if you have to) what it would be like to live on that road. In my mind I have Wellington Street; Richmond Road; Newport Road; Corporation Road; Penarth Road and Clare Road.
You’d be putting up with relentless traffic noise; exhaust fumes and you certainly wouldn’t want to spend too much time in your street talking to a neighbour, would you.
Appleyard’s research compared three streets, otherwise identical apart from traffic volume. He demonstrated that people living on the quietest street had three times more friends than those living on the busy one.
Fortunately, liveable design is starting to pop up around the world and Cardiff will be no exception.
Seeing that, a Brazilian urban planning collective called Urb-i set out to demonstrate that imbalance and show off examples of more people-friendly design. They scoured Google Street View images to find the most stunning public space transformations from around the world.
So, the parking charges are only the start. Work on the Cardiff Metro has already begun, with the bus station closing to make way for a new transport interchange opening in 2017.
Walking & cycling will become the norm; public transport is going to have to improve a lot over the next few years but there will be an expectation that you reach for your season ticket or your bicycle before you reach for your car keys as you head out the front door in the morning.
We are excited by the prospect. Many of us will remember how quiet town was when the NATO fence was up. Sure it looked like the opening section of The Last of Us, but it certainly fixed the traffic noise.