Debate 3 - Paper 2

Urban transport - Going nowhere fast?

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank,
Secretary of State for Transport 1976-79
Director-General, Royal Institute of British Architects 1987-94

Let me give you a text for this evening:

  • Too many motor vehicles using too few suitable roads give Britain the highest traffic density in the world and an acute economic and social problem. For congestion in city streets and bottle-necks on major routes are only the most causal evidence of wasted time and resources, of frustration and delay.

And then:

  • For many people the roads problem means mainly traffic congestion in towns and the delays of peak-hour travel. Very few centres of population are without a problem which has visibly grown over the last few years. In London it is seen at its apparently most intractable.
Urban Transport - going nowhere fast

Urban Transport - going nowhere fast

Those words were written nearly forty years ago. I quote them only because they were written by me, in a Fabian pamphlet published in 1959. There was nothing very original about them. But they recognised a problem that, in broad terms, is no different today, only more acute.

Indeed, the problem had been described in relation to London in the epoch-making Report of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population - the Barlow Report - of 1940:

  • ‘Enormous efforts, combined with great skill and ingenuity are continuously exerted by the transport and other authorities to mitigate congestion . . . but in spite of the great expenditure involved, these matters result in little more than palliatives . . . and it seems impossible for effective action to keep pace with traffic requirements.

I would add that London was a rather well-run city between the wars in the heyday of London Transport. Of course, there had been congestion and an appalling level of pollution in the narrow streets of 18th Century and Victorian England. The difference was that the traffic problems identified by Barlow were due to two factors: the advent of the internal combustion engine and the motor vehicle; and the growth of living standards.

It would be comfortable to suggest that 40 years ago - I choose that date only because of my own, first thoughts on the matter - we recognised the problem but were simply foxed by what to do about it. But that is not the case. Solutions were also discussed. In my pamphlet I made the following points, none of which I’m sure was new:

  • the decentralisation of employment, especially in London, was one way of reducing urban congestion
  • the co-operation of architects and town planners was vital in re-designing city centres
  • public transport, the most efficient surface carrier, had to play its proper part. I was also much in favour of pushing ahead with the projected Victoria Line in London
  • the enforcement of loading and unloading regulations was a priority with all new buildings making provision for this
  • street parking was a principal cause of congestion. The motorist should pay the market price for parking
  • the case for urban motorways had not been made out and modest improvements in town and city roads was more worthwhile
  • there was insufficient co-ordination of land-use and transport planning.

Forty years later I can stand by most of these. I believe that effective land-use planning is the key to all transport decisions. The object should be to reduce the need to travel. On the other hand, in developed urban situations, this is, at best, a long term solution. In the meantime like virtually everyone today, I emphasise the need for public transport and the inevitability of restrictions on the use of the private car.

Where I was certainly wrong was in my muddled view on parking. As a young Councillor in the Borough of St Marylebone and a member of the Planning Committee, I supported all revenue from parking meters going to provide off-street marking and opposed any developments, however limited, that did not make provision for parking. In other words, provided that motorists paid the market price, there was no limit to parking except where the act of being parked caused congestion. I was wrong in that the availability of parking induces traffic: ultimately more parking means more traffic which means more congestion.

And yet . . it is not quite as easy as that. Strict limits to parking make sense in London which is a very large city with reasonable access by public transport and taxis to the main shopping centres. There is also a well established habit of paying for parking. It is not always quite the same elsewhere.

When I was a Member of Parliament shoppers who were vital to the life of both Stockton-on-Tees and Middlesborough would switch between the two depending on whether there was free parking or at least cheap parking. It is still a common experience.

Similarly, the attraction of out-of-town shopping centres is partly their parking facilities. The absence of such facilities is killing many smaller towns, for example, on the Welsh Borders. In most of them the distribution of population does not make public transport a realistic alternative for those who possess cars.

I say this not to minimise the importance of parking policy but to emphasise the complexity.

Since my modest pamphlet of 1959, there has been an avalanche of books, reports, White Papers, pamphlets and articles on the urban traffic crisis and what to do about it. The Buchanan Report on Traffic in Towns of 1963 was, I suppose, the high point of a period of optimism about what land-use planning in particular might achieve. it defined the problems we are discussing tonight with great authority. It deserves to be read by the new Secretary of State, brooding on what on earth he can do to make his mark although it will only confirm in him the complexities of the problem, given to new public resources to spend.

So the question is: why has so little apparently happened? Why is the problem of urban traffic and transport getting worse? Who is to blame?

I see that the description of this debate itself makes a major assumption: it is concerned with how professional skills can help ‘to reduce drastically the use of private cars in cities.’ But the city that engineers and architects have done most to create in the last quarter century is the new City of Milton Keynes which lives by the motor car.

Look at the Buchanan Report, written by engineers and architects. It said that there was absolute limits to the amount of traffic that could be accepted in towns but its whole thrust was towards how growing traffic could be made more tolerable.

It is not only how professional skills can help to reduce the use of private cars. it is whether the professionals themselves are willing to commit themselves to such an objective.

Here I raise a question that goes wider than our discussion. It is whether the professions see it as their task to contribute to the making of public policy. I greatly welcome the Edge Debates as a step in that direction. But unlike health professionals (particularly the doctors) and to a lesser extent the lawyers, engineers and architects have not made much of a mark in the public domain.

For many years the RIBA has had a housing group which keeps in close touch with government and publishes a policy statement from time to time. It has done some modest campaigning with organisations like Shelter but its work is not seen as mainstream by the Institute and it is an easy victim of budget cuts. Six years ago the RIBA published a pamphlet Breaking the Transport Deadlock but that was largely due to the initiative of its then Director General and there has been nothing since.

I hesitate to discuss the record of the engineers but I remember an interesting report of the ICE’s Infrastructure Planning Group published in 1984 that did not even reach the library of the House of Commons. I felt at that time that the great Victorian engineers would not have been so shy about expressing their views about what should be done about roads, railways and waterways. Would Brindley, Rennie, Smeaton or Telford have remained silent? The London Motorway Box was abandoned in the early 1960’s. I cannot remember the professions coming forward with alternative suggestions about traffic in London.

I believe that the professions should concern themselves with public policy and campaign for what they have agreed. Indeed, I see it as part of the contract that was struck between the professions and society at their emergence in Britain 150 years and more ago.

But from what I have said it should be clear that I do not blame the professionals for the mess we are in. The fault lies mainly with the political decision-makers who have thought short-term and have been unwilling to face the odium of restricting the use of the private car or finding the resources for better public transport.

In three areas engineers - but not civils or structural - might have contributed more, sooner:

  • the development of economically viable non-polluting electric vehicles
  • electronic devices for road charging in urban areas
  • pioneering the development of light rail systems especially using existing track - although I have seen an interesting scheme for an outer orbital London light railway designed, I think, by Stephen Tietz and Partners, and there may have been others

But while I may fault the professionals for giving too little attention to public policy and to the advocacy of solutions, it is the political will that has mainly been lacking.

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