Monday 25th November 1963
Sir Colin Buchanan published his report ‘Traffic in Towns’, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Tranpsort. The report warned of the potential damage caused by the motor car, while offering ways to mitigate it:
“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.”
It gave planners a set of policy blueprints to deal with its effects on the urban environment, including traffic containment and segregation, which could be balanced against urban redevelopment, new corridor and distribution roads and precincts. These policies shaped the development of the urban landscape in the UK and some other countries for two or three decades. Unusually for a technical policy report, it was so much in demand that Penguin abridged it and republished it as a book in 1964.
At the time of the report, there were 10.5 million vehicles registered in Britain, but, at predicted growth rates, this number was expected to become 18 million by 1970, 27 million by 1980 and about 40 million vehicles in 2010, or 540 vehicles for every 1,000 population, equivalent to 1.3 cars per household. They expected growth in traffic to be uneven, with more congestion in South East England, and to incorporate a population that would reach 74 million.
The impact of the motor car was compared with that of a heavy goods vehicle which; given its head, would wreck our towns within a decade… The problems of traffic are crowding in upon us with desperate urgency. Unless steps are taken, the motor vehicle will defeat its own utility and bring about a disastrous degradation of the surroundings for living… Either the utility of vehicles in town will decline rapidly, or the pleasantness and safety of surroundings will deteriorate catastrophically – in all probability both will happen.
Indeed it can be said in advance that the measures required to deal with the full potential amount of motor traffic in big cities are so formidable that society will have to ask itself seriously how far it is prepared to go with the motor vehicle.
There was a need to limit vehicle access to some urban areas:
Distasteful though we find the whole idea, we think that some deliberate limitation of the volume of motor traffic is quite unavoidable. The need for it just can’t be escaped. Even when everything that it is possibly to do by way of building new roads and expanding public transport has been done, there would still be, in the absence of deliberate limitation, more cars trying to move into, or within our cities than could possibly be accommodated.
Already the growth of vehicle ownership in America had not been held back by congestion in urban areas; they observed that congestion in Britain’s smaller land mass might limit the use of cars but probably not affect people’s desire for ownership as they became more affluent and hoped to try to use their cars. They saw the day coming when most adults would take the car “as much for granted as an overcoat”, and value it as an “asset of the first order”.
There would also be pressure to house a growing population and disperse more population away from overcrowded cities. However, dispersing the population around the countryside would be synonymous with urban sprawl, and would defeat one of the reasons for car ownership, to get out into the countryside. Having examined the road network in Los Angeles and Fort Worth, Buchanan wished to avoid their dehumanising effects and their creation of pedestrian “no-go” areas. He also wished to ensure that the heritage within British towns was respected:
The American policy of providing motorways for commuters can succeed, even in American conditions, only if there is a disregard for all considerations other than the free flow of traffic which seems sometimes to be almost ruthless. Our British cities are not only packed with buildings, they are also packed with history and to drive motorways through them on the American scale would inevitably destroy much that ought to be preserved.
The rise of traffic congestion would waste people’s time, who would soon have to spend time sitting in traffic, in addition to their time spent in sleep, work, and leisure. Already, the average speed in many cities had fallen to 11 miles per hour (18 km/h), and congestion was costing the British economy £250 million in wasted man hours.
Yet the motor car was also inextricably linked to the economy, with 2,305,000 people working in the motor trade, or 10 percent of the labour force. It had already eclipsed the railway, and would become more prominent in the movement of goods and the workforce. The expansion of public transport would not provide an answer on its own.
However, the noise, fumes, pollution and visual intrusion of the cars and ugly traffic paraphernalia would overwhelm town centres, while vehicles parked on streets would force new hazards onto children at play.
Safety considerations should move to become foremost in the design of streets; three quarters of all injury accidents were occurring within towns (although most fatalities happened on open roads). They feared that future generations would think that they were careless and callous to mix people and moving vehicles on the same streets.
The report warned against trying to find a single “solution”:
We have found it desirable to avoid the term ‘solution’ altogether for the traffic problem is not such much a problem waiting for a solution as a social situation requiring to be dealt with by policies patiently applied over a period and revised from time to time in light of events.
Gracechurch Shopping Centre, Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham. An example of the new style of 1960-70’s pedestrian precinct, separated from the historic road network, but at the cost of demolition of the earlier town shopping parade
The report signified some fundamental shifts in attitudes to roads, by recognising that there were environmental disbenefits from traffic, and that large increases in capacity can exacerbate congestion problems, not solve them. This awareness of environmental impact was ahead of its time, and not translated into policy for some years in other countries, such as Germany or the USA, where the promotion of traffic flow remained paramount The scale of traffic growth envisaged would soon overtake any benefits that small-scale road improvement would offer, which would anyway divert attention from the large-scale solutions that would be needed. These solutions would be very expensive and could only be justified if they were comprehensively planned, including social as well as traffic needs. However, the report saw no turning back from people’s new-found dependence on the car, and thought that there would be limits to how much traffic could be transferred to railways and buses.
Towns should be worth living in, which meant more than just the ability to drive into the centre. Urban redevelopment should look to the long term, and avoid parsimonious short-termism. The report asked how bold the planners could be, when restricting access to town centres and controlling traffic flows:
It is a difficult and dangerous thing in a democracy to prevent a substantial part of the population from doing things they do not regard as wrong. … The freedom with which a person can walk about and look around is a very useful guide to the civilized quality of an urban area … judged against this standard, many of our towns now seem to leave a great deal to be desired … there must be areas of good environment where people can live, work, shop, look about and move around on foot in reasonable freedom from the hazards of motor traffic.
The report recommended that certain standards should always be met, including safety, visual intrusion, noise, and pollution limits. But if a city was both financially able and willing, it should rebuild itself with modern traffic in mind.
However, if circumstances meant that this was not possible it would have to restrain traffic, perhaps severely. This was revolutionary and ran counter to the wisdom of economists, who assumed that environmental standards could be set off against other considerations once they had been priced.
Planners should set a policy regarding the character being sought for each urban area, and the level of traffic should then be managed to produce the desired effect, in a safe manner. This would result in towns with a lattice of environmentally planned areas joined by a road hierarchy, a network of distribution roads, with longer-distance traffic being directed around and away from these areas, rather like an interior would be designed with corridors serving a multitude of rooms.
It recommended the selective use of bypasses around small and medium-sized towns to alleviate congestion in the centres, even though local businesses might complain at the loss of through-trade; the predicted increase in traffic would become more than an unmitigated nuisance in the future. However, it rejected a slavish use of ring-roads around large towns. As the detailed plans of these schemes often demanded far more land for junctions and wide roads than would be acceptable, it would be better to place restrictions on the volume of traffic that could access the area in these cases.
Where restrictions were needed, this could often be achieved through some combination of licences or permits, parking restrictions, or subsidised public transport. However it recommended that the road user should not be denied too much access, and that restricting through congestion charging would not normally be the right approach, unless and until every possible alternative had been tested:
We think the public can justifiably demand to be fully informed about the possibilities of adapting towns to motor traffic before there is any question of applying restrictive measures.
Above ground multi-storey car park near Kilmarnock centre, one (visually intrusive) solution to the problem of accommodating cars next to retail redevelopment
Innovatively, the report recommended that some areas should change their outlook; rather than facing onto the street, shops could face onto squares or pedestrianised streets, with roof top or multi-storey parking nearby. Urban areas need not consist of buildings set alongside vehicular streets, instead multiple levels could be used with traffic moving underneath a building deck, with snug pedestrian alleys and contrasting open squares containing fountains and artwork.
Schemes would need to be carefully considered when they incorporated historic buildings, but such schemes could not be applied to small areas. However, obsolete street patterns were already becoming frozen for decades by piecemeal rebuilding. Whilst these grand schemes would be expensive, the income from vehicle taxes could represent a regular source of income to draw from.
This approach differed from the shopping mall concept, which was designed for the car on greenfield or out of town sites, and did not address the development of the existing urban landscape.
The report looked at a range of scenarios based on real towns, and suggested treatments that would balance the desire to enrich people’s lives through car ownership while still maintain pleasant urban centres.
London (Oxford Street area)
Oxford Street, in London’s West End “epitomizes the conflict between traffic and environment”. The mixing of traffic and pedestrians had created “the most uncivilised street in Europe”. The report had considered running car parks, through-traffic and access roads in shallow cuttings underground while raising the shop levels over four pedestrianised storeys 20 feet (6 metres) above it. However they concluded that this had already become impractical — for a generation at least — because of piecemeal redevelopment. Should this practice continue, the only choice would be ultimately to curtail vehicular access to the street.
Leeds – A large city
Leeds, as a large city, was too large to accommodate all the potential traffic, and it should instead attempt to curtail access, particularly private vehicles being used for commuting. Leeds embraced the approach and adopted the motto Motorway city of the 70s after it built an Outer Ring Road, a sunken part-motorway Inner Ring Road and a clockwise-only ‘loop road’ enclosing a part-pedestrianised city centre with several business and shopping centres. The protection and redevelopment of the city centre came at the cost of the large landtake required for the network of corridor roads and interchanges, predominantly at ground level, which required extensive demolition and severed the previous urban and suburban communities.