Have we been driven out of our towns?

The art of town planning is shaped and informed by the ebb and flow of the people who will occupy the outcome. Our towns and cities have emerged from forts or trading posts, in response to the growth or movements of population and associated economic developments.

While the Greek Hippodamus is credited as ‘the father of town-planning’, we know that all roads lead to Rome. The Romans liked the efficiency of straight lines and right angles, but seemingly traffic management was an issue then.

In 45 BC Julius Caesar introduced road space rationing in Roman cities as carriages and carts created serious congestion. The centre of Rome was closed to all vehicles except those transporting priests, officials, visitors and high‑ranking citizens between the hours of 6am and 4pm. The ‘Zona a Traffico Limitato’ is enforced in the historical centre of Rome today.

A flourishing city
At the time of the French Revolution, Paris had a population of 650,000; by 1866 that number had swollen by almost a million. The flourishing capital needed to accommodate the huge expansion of residents – in particular the increasingly affluent bourgeoisie.

While Napoleon’s ambitions for the city included safer streets, better housing, more sanitary conditions, shopper-friendly communities and better traffic flow (actually not unlike many of the policy calls Living Streets makes a century and a half later), he also wanted streets on which troops could be mobilised quickly to quell any rebellion. The wide avenues designed by Baron Haussmann may afford grandeur and sweeping vistas, but primarily they were designed to be too broad to build barricades across.

So whether it’s logistics, commercial efficiency or political manoeuvre, our urban environment, how we occupy it and how behave within it, has always been subject to socio-economic pressures.

The time of the motorcar
I suggest that in more recent times, the built environment has been designed to accommodate the motor car. At the beginning of the century, motoring was a luxury hobby, but during the 1930s, the price of cars began to fall and the expanding middle classes were eager to buy into the glamour and freedom which the new automobiles represented.

Widespread car ownership had begun and was about to have one of the most profound impacts on our society and our infrastructure. By 1934, the average car could achieve speeds of up to 70 mph and that year saw the highest ever number of road casualties – 7,343 deaths, of which half were pedestrians, E 
F compared to 453 pedestrian fatalities in 2011. There are many anecdotes of commentators at the time suggesting that pedestrians were responsible for their own fate if they didn’t get out of the way quick enough, but in 1930 the Road Traffic Act introduced the Highway Code after lobbying by the newly formed Pedestrian Association (later Living Streets).   

Local authorities now had power to regulate traffic with one-way streets, roundabouts, road signs and traffic lights. Our urban streets began to take on the familiar appearance they largely assume today, although during this period there were only around 2 million cars on Britain’s roads rather than the 28.5 million today.

A big influence

Car ownership represented an irresistible combination of affluence, success and personal freedom and by the 1950s was increasingly attainable.

In their recently published book, Carscapes, architectural historians Kathryn Morrison and John Minnis explore the architectural impact of the motor car. They assert that the ‘motorisation’ of our culture has been instrumental in the design, aesthetics and architecture of our towns and cities.

The range of this influence can be seen in the sublimely ornamental Michelin Building on London’s Fulham Road stretching to the brutalist architecture of the Trinity Square car park in Gateshead. The latter, now demolished, originally featured a roof top restaurant and shops and epitomised the ‘modern age’, but is now embedded in the imagination as the ubiquitous ‘multi-storey’ – grey, bleak, malodorous and imprinted with the image of Coronation Street’s Alf Roberts being propelled from the uppermost floor, being ‘a big bloke, but in bad shape’.

Driving people away
Rather like the character in Get Carter, poorly maintained and unloved, the concrete monoliths that dominated many of our city centres were also in bad shape. Shoppers recoiled from the grim concrete, complained about the escalating cost of parking and embraced the out-of-town shopping centre, the retail park and the large supermarkets – sanitary clean with free parking and no offensive aromas.

These attractions have been credited with luring consumers away from ‘the British High Street’ and impugned for the demise of local trade. The last few years have seen a number of retailers disappear with a wave of familiar brands like Peacocks, La Senza and Clintons Cards closing down.

While there are a raft of factors implicated in the loss of retailers on the high street – including the growth of online shopping and the wider economic landscape – the loss of footfall is clearly a significant one. Research shows that shoppers on foot linger longer and that making town centres more accessible, pleasant and easier for walking can boost retail sales by 40 per cent. Put simply, pedestrians spend more than drivers. A lively presence on our streets also delivers the dividend of greater safety and community confidence and lower crime rates.

I contend that in the process of engineering our urban environment to prioritise the car, we have compromised the integrity of our urban landscape and are now reaping the environmental and economic consequences. Have we literally been driven out of our towns and cities? If so, how do we reclaim our streets?

An appealing environment

In a Living Streets survey conducted last year, 39 per cent of people said they would walk more in their local area if it was better maintained and more attractive. The decision whether to walk to the shops or not is governed not just by distance, but by the quality of the walking experience. Evidence shows that a safe, attractive environment encourages people to be more active in their neighbourhood.

The latest National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) issued its guidance on walking and cycling in November 2012, proposing that getting the UK population more active on a daily basis is a public health priority. Furthermore, NICE recognised the need for infrastructure and a supportive environment sympathetic to active travel. “Pedestrians (and cyclists) should be prioritised over motorised transport.”

Given that responsibility for public health lies with local authorities from April 2013, encouraging active travel looks set to become a core part of local transport investment and planning. Removing the barriers to walking in our towns and city centres will be key to enable local authorities to meet Public Health Outcomes Framework objectives, air quality targets and revive local economies.

Signposts at public transport hubs indicating distance or walking times to key destinations, lowering traffic speeds, good pavement maintenance and accessible road crossings are all measures which make towns more accessible and more easily negotiable on foot. But to truly impact on the health, well-being and quality of life of the urban dweller, we need to identify a driver which will inform planning.

Putting the pedestrian first
Placing pedestrians at the top of the hierarchy of highway users could be that singular driver. Manual for Streets, published March 2007, though focused on the design of residential streets, highlights the need to differentiate between the functions of a ‘street’, which may be multiple, and a ‘road’ which may primarily facilitate the movement of traffic.

Shared surface streets with minimal or no kerbs, signs or other demarcations between pedestrian and vehicular traffic can encourage low vehicle speeds and promote social interaction, while roads can be engineered to nudge drivers into travelling more slowly. The case for 20 mph speed limits is growing and recent Government guidance on speed limits has encouraged local authorities to implement the lower speeds.

The introduction of 20 mph speed limits in cities such as Bristol and Portsmouth has already reaped benefits in reductions of up to 40 per cent in pedestrian fatalities, with children being the larger number of beneficiaries of the lower statistic.

The less mobile
One in four children born today is likely to live to 100. We know our population is aging and local infrastructure has a huge impact on the mobility and quality of life of older people. Pavement maintenance is a key issue for older people and those with mobility issues who are more vulnerable to trips and falls and the consequences are more impactful, long-term and costly.

Designing our urban areas with pedestrians in mind not only benefits other road users, residents and the wider community by making neighbourhoods safer, less polluted and more pleasant, it saves lives and it saves money. Road traffic incidents cost around £15 billion a year; motor traffic congestion costs the UK about £22 billion a year.

By putting public health and road safety measures at the heart of our contemporary town planning, it is possible to deliver a better quality of life for everyone. Even the chariot drivers.

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