18 February 2011

A Crack in the Armour?

Spot the Difference...

I have developed the not-so revolutionary theory that when the majority of the open civic space of a city is devoted to the motor car, the guardians of that civic space effectively become the Highway Engineers. Highway Engineers are interested in ideas such as flow, speed and control. Pedestrians need to hemmed in and contained – led like sheep through the danger. Cars need to be regulated and rules imposed – opportunity for decision making and risk assessment need to be reduced and even removed entirely. Traffic lights sprout like unwelcome weeds. Tarmac and white lines are the limited palette.

Modes of transport that do not quite fit the engineer’s vehicular model become problematic in this world order. Skateboarders and cyclists for instance are too slow to be really classified as vehicles, but too fast to sit comfortably with pedestrians. As these modes of transport are therefore considered outside the “mainstream” they naturally evolve to suit their non-mainstream label – subcultures are created and they develop to suit this particular niche. Cyclists thus become the pavement-riding, red-light jumping wiry anarchists we’ve all heard about, weaving through traffic on their fixed wheel tool of protest.

Meanwhile, those citizens dutifully occupying the actual and metaphoric “middle of the road” go about their business, snug inside their cars, sitting in splendid isolation amongst the walnut veneer and hi-fidelity sound, whilst they are whisked efficiently and quickly from A to B without risk or danger thanks to the sound principles of highway design promoted by the engineers.

Except we’re not whisked anywhere are we?

Congestion is the norm everywhere now. The term “gridlock” entered the lexicon as long ago as 1980. Car journeys across town are a slog of queues, traffic lights, junctions and more queues. To cross Cardiff from Roath to Canton – a journey of about 3.5 miles, you have to negotiate about 25 sets of traffic lights – about 50% of the journey time must be spent completely stationary.

According to James Norton writing in “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City”, the combined motoring interests in the USA became extremely concerned in the mid 1920’s about the impact of “saturation” on the potential market for new cars. The problem of saturation came about due to a combination of safety concerns, congestion due to lack of traffic rules and a growing second hand market. Together, these all served to depress demand. Motordom sought to solve this by re-defining the safety problem to get other users off the road, to control traffic by introducing traffic regulation and, most successfully, by encouraging cities to literally make more space for cars by building more roads. However, saturation in terms of space in cities is once again becoming a real problem, but this time there is no more room for more roads – we’re full.

Is this the crack in the armour of motordom we have been looking for? Can we use the saturation situation to resurrect the arguments that motordom sought to crush back in the 20’s? The one that really used to hurt was the idea of efficiency. In our cities, space is a scarce resource. It needs to be allocated according to the common good and laid out for the benefit of all - that is after all the basis of why civilised cities were founded in the first place. The thing is, cars are extremely inefficient occupiers of space. They need a lot of road space for a very small number of passengers, they spend large amounts of time needing to be stored somewhere, and they don’t pay their way (economically or spatially). Is it time for a re-allocation of space in our cities where efficiency is the measure of appropriateness? That would give a whole new meaning to “hierarchy of provision”.

If only there was a space efficient, lightweight, non-polluting, simple, cheap, easy to park, go-anywhere, do-anything mode of transport that we could turn to in our hour of need*

*Motordom wants us to think small electric cars are the answer to this question. I beg to differ.


  1. Beautifully argued. I just found your blog, and now must go and put a link to it, so I don't forget to check in.
    If drivers paid market rate rent, for the accumulated time they spent using valuable inner city land space, they would realize the real cost of their spacial imposition.

  2. Dr.B, thanks very much for your kind words, which keep the fires of enthusiasm burning. Apologies for my tardiness in replying, but it is good news in once sense - both the day job and night job are keeping me busier than they have been for a while, so perhaps there is life in the old business of architecture yet.