We're on a road to nowhere

Times change and few things mark the passing of people, fashions and ways of life so eloquently as once thriving city thoroughfares
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The Independent Culture
Everyone has walked down a loser road at least once. The archetypal loser road is long and straight. Traffic drones along it in smoky swarms. Every minor street you cross is a No Left Turn, No Right Turn, or dead-end. The shops you pass are boarded up, "To let" signs sprout from drab buildings and have done so for the past 10 years, the petrol station is closed, the corner pub decrepit, and bus-stops seem to be a mile apart.

When you get to the end of the road, there is a vast roundabout. You are forced down into a subway that no self-respecting tramp would get drunk in. Parched and alienated, you feel you have reached the end of civilisation.

A walk like this makes us acutely aware of the lost streets of Britain. Most are sections of arterial roads that drag rush-hour traffic at walking pace through subtopia, that nether land that exists - but has no life - between the town or city proper and the open road.

There are, of course, minor and major variations. They are one-way streets that take us on to dual carriageways, circular bypasses that shoo us away from town squares, covered markets and cathedrals.

In city centres, they are lemming-runs for furious rush-hour traffic. Noisy, choking and shaking, they can never be routes for pedestrians and so never host the cafs and bars, shops and street markets that bring big city thoroughfares down to a human scale.

These routes include legendary city streets such as the Strand, once a place to promenade among the fashionable, now a sticky jam of angry motorists and back-packing tourists, and streets such as St James's in Dunwich, once a major thoroughfare, now little more than a footnote to history.

What do many of Britain's sad streets have in common? Traffic and more traffic. If we were to bury the most important of our arterial roads, while turning others into tramways and cycle tracks, we could cover them in flora, transforming them into linear parks, replacing the sound of turbo-charged diesels with birdsong. And if only something like this could happen, rents would rise with the sap, houses and flats would be occupied, shops would reopen and what have become filthy urban canyons would be green valleys to live and play in.

Jonathan Glancey