Podium: In praise of urban congestion

From a lecture by the transport historian given to the Royal Society of Arts
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IT SEEMS to me that we are now so used to seeing transport as a problem that we are in danger of losing all sense of balance. For transport is today almost invariably seen as a problem, even as a crisis, actual or impending; and transport policy is increasingly conceived in coercive terms: people will be forced out of their cars, cars will be forced out of cities, goods will be forced out of trucks and into trains. The aims of such policies are often sound and laudable, but we must beware of conceiving of transport as a problem that must be solved through methods antagonistic to the fundamental freedoms which the phenomenon of transport expresses and serves.

This crisis and coercion model of transport rests on perceptions which, I would argue, are fundamentally flawed. It is historically illiterate, failing to understand the historical roots of current and future trends and the lessons of past experience; it is sociologically and economically simplistic, failing to grasp the interdependence between current patterns of transport usage and the ways in which complex contemporary societies operate; it is elitist, failing to comprehend that ordinary people are capable of making rational and intelligent choices about transport modes and the organisation of their lives, and that what planners, academics, theorists and activists tell them is good for them is not necessarily so; it reflects a view of society which is ultimately fragmented and atomized.

As for congestion: well, congestion is part of transport, because it is part of life. It is not a new problem, as I hope I have made clear. It can be ameliorated, but it cannot be done away with. I have never understood why people are always quoting the claim that traffic in London in the 1990s moves no more quickly on average than traffic in London in the 1890s. Leaving aside the basic unprovability of this assertion, why would it be otherwise?

London is an area into which a lot of life is focused; there is, as there always has been, a great deal of traffic in a finite space; a lot of traffic management is needed, which means traffic lights, prioritized junctions, pedestrian crossings and so on, all of which slow traffic down; lots of decisions are required; a lot of stopping and starting. It is my guess that in any city above a certain size, given any mode of mechanized transport, the average speed of traffic will be more or less what it is in London now.

Congestion, furthermore, is not essentially a product of transport or traffic. It is a product of social activity. If you are in a place where there are things going on, where lots of people live, work, and enjoy themselves, you are going to find congestion.

Cities with highly developed public transport systems such as Portland (Oregon), Paris, Munich and Glasgow are as congested as those that do not. Congestion is a fact of life in cities. Too many people talk today as if it is the avoidable product of mistaken transport policies. Some of it may be, although this is hard to prove; but congestion as a phenomenon is as much an expression of collective human activity as obtaining food or reading a book.

This, I suspect, is not a popular view. Much transport planning over the past few years has been devoted to shutting traffic out of the very places which have given it existence: town and city centres. Pedestrianized streets have conquered the land. A visitor from another planet might be forgiven for wondering what we think streets are for: certainly not for traffic, that's for sure. Town after town has succumbed to a wave of heritage- styled bollards, decorative paving, flower beds, craft stalls and street entertainers. I do not think all pedestrianization is a bad thing: Kingston on Thames, Cambridge and York are examples of the benefits such policies can bring. The environment is cleaner, more visually attractive, safer (at least in terms of the dangers of road traffic), quieter, more relaxed.

But there is too often an uncritical application of such policies to areas without a consideration of some of the consequences. It is now very difficult, for example, to get a bus to the centre of Reading; since pedestrianization the buses, which in Reading are excellent (having been successfully defended over the years by one of the best Labour councils in the country), are diverted down narrow and congested streets around the fringes of the town centre.

And how, I wonder, is the contemporary desire to rescue the town centre and the high street from the depredations of the out of town shopping mall going to be achieved if the shops are inconveniently isolated by acres of patterned pedestrianized paving?