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Apr
16
2008

The Achilles heel of eco-towns

Dear Sir

Simon Jenkins (4 April 2008) exposes the Achilles heel of all the proposed eco-towns: transport. But he is a trifle hard on the motives of the original proponents of the garden cities and new towns. Relieving the squalid, densely packed, inner city slums by providing houses in new settlements, with gardens, in which people would live within walking or cycling distance of jobs, shops, schools, doctors and friends was a noble vision. All these visionaries, including the eponymous author of the Abercrombie Plan, failed to anticipate the enormous increase in car ownership. The presumed local-scale functioning of these new settlements was destroyed by the car. Their inhabitants bought them, got into them, and roamed widely in pursuit of employment and supermarket bargains. They became car dependent.

The naiveté of the early visionaries is no longer excusable. The process has been going on for too long. John Prescott’’s vow to get people out of their cars and on to public transport has been overwhelmed by growing numbers of cars. Since Labour came to power the country’s motor vehicle population has increased by almost 8 million. To provide just one parking space for each of these extra vehicles would require a car park equivalent to a new motorway stretching from London to Edinburgh – 90 lanes wide.

The nation’’s vehicle population cannot be accommodated within a landuse pattern in which walking, cycling and buses are viable modes of transport for most of the human population. The Government’’s eco-town aspirations will be defeated by the Government’s transport policies.

An abbreviated version of this letter was published in the Guardian on 7 April 2008.

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4 pings

  1. Iain says:

    You make an interesting observation, but I’m not clear on what you think the right way forward is.

    Are you saying that people are choosing the car despite Government policies, so planners need to accept that reality and deal with it sensibly; or are you saying that Government policies have failed to curb the growth of car use and different policies could succeed in getting more people out of cars and onto trains, buses, bikes and their feet?

  2. Andy Bullock says:

    Recently I attended a recent talk given by Civil Engineer Phil Parker which was based on his work through a research fellowship, focussing on ‘Sympathetic Highway Design’. Phil’s subsequent essay ‘City Planning as if People Mattered’ was the Ecologist Magazine 2007 Annual Essay Prize winning entry.

    As far as I’m concerned, the car is engrained so much in to the majority of our society’s way of life that something very dramatic would have to happen to change this. The car suits the British individualistic, home-centred, private society like no other. Following my BA Geography degree I have recently begun working in Transport Planning and after a couple of weeks of frustrating, mind-numbing car journeys to and from work, I made the switch to train where now I enjoy predictable journey times, a chance to walk, read and be in the same environment as other people. I do also save a couple of quid. I still have my car and enjoy driving in the evening and weekend when necessary. I believe my current driving behaviour; driving slower and more consciously, reflects the fact that driving for me is once again a pleasure and not a chore. I feel I get the best of both worlds-and one that is public and one that is private.

    Phil’s talk focussed on using highway design to make places more attractive that focus on people over cars, but obviously, being roads, still incorporate the car in their design.

    The Utopias of Howard and the Abercrombie Plan for example are unfortunately unrealistic in Britain because of our nature which makes the car so attractive, and because the country can’t fit all these cars and such places that the eco-towns initiative prescribes.

    I believe making highway design more sympathetic to its environment, through consideration of shared space initiatives, complimenting people’s desired movements rather than trying to overly dictate them, properly considering whether certain road markings and signs really are necessary, and encouraging the return of communication between pedestrian-pedestrian/pedestrian-driver/driver-cyclist, driver-driver, rather than everyone communicating indirectly through the medium of signs, markings and technology.

    What we have in the way of making this a reality of course is this country’s continued privatisation, where road design continues to be a rush job as consultancies have to continue to meet client’s tight deadlines while keeping costs down. This is coupled with the ever growing bureaucracy for example from Road Safety Audits carried out privately that prescribe every measure under the sun in order to make their job worthwhile, which is then adopted by the Local Authorities who need to save their backs and are also under huge pressure, have growing workloads and a decreasing workforce.

    If a more sympathetic highway design approach manages to enter the highway engineering discourse then maybe cars will become less seen as so necessary for every journey made as places become more attractive and activity begins to appear (outside the cars). And that can be a realistic start towards a healthier, safer and more sustainable future in Britain. One that designing places that are nearby and accessible to local amenities and facilities can contribute to, but cannot solve alone.

  3. johnadams says:

    Replying to Iain and Andy
    I am saying, in reply to Iain, that Government policies have failed to curb the growth of car use and different policies could succeed in getting more people out of cars and onto trains, buses, bikes and their feet.

    Andy observes, “As far as I’m concerned, the car is engrained so much in to the majority of our society’s way of life that something very dramatic would have to happen to change this.” I speculate that peak oil, and further increases in petrol prices, might prove to be “something very dramatic”.

  4. David Hembrow says:

    Another very obvious contrast between the UK and the Netherlands is the way that people get to and from new developments.

    We’ve a new development of 6000 houses near here which has a narrower road to it than a development of 900 houses in Cambridge. The bike path alongside is first class and provides a much quicker route to the city centre. If you ride along it in the morning you see far more bikes on the move than cars.

    Primary schools, shops etc. are also in the plan for this new development, and it’s the location where I took a well watched youtube video of children going to school by bike.

    This could be an “eco town” in the UK. It’s about the right size. However, it strikes me that they have got the transport (more) right here.

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