Professor Sir Colin Buchanan

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The Independent Online

Colin Douglas Buchanan, town planner: born Simla, India 22 August 1907; Urban Planning Adviser, Ministry of Transport 1961-63; Professor of Transport, Imperial College, London 1963-72, Visiting Professor 1975-78; founder, Colin Buchanan & Partners, 1964; Professor of Urban Studies and Director, School for Advanced Urban Studies, Bristol University 1973-75; CBE 1964; Kt 1972; married 1933 Mick Mitchell (died 1984; two sons, one daughter); died Boars Hill, Oxfordshire 6 December 2001.

Colin Buchanan made a substantial contribution to the world of urban planning and transport. His 1963 report to the Ministry of Transport, Traffic in Towns, presented a new and comprehensive view of the issues surrounding the growth of personal car ownership and urban traffic in the UK – issues that authorities in Britain and around the world continue to confront.

Buchanan later led planning and transport studies at city and regional scales in the UK and in many countries abroad. In 1971 he famously dissented from the findings of the Roskill Commission into the siting of the third London airport, submitting a minority report which argued strongly against its proposed location at Cublington in the Vale of Aylesbury.

In the course of his long and varied career he was also President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, Professor of Transport at Imperial College, London 1963-72, and Director of the School of Advanced Urban Studies at Bristol University 1973-75.

Colin Douglas Buchanan was born in 1907 in Simla, India, where his father was the water engineer. His great-grandfather, George Buchanan, had been a civil engineer in Edinburgh and his grandfather, also George, had moved to London and worked widely throughout the world as a civil engineer. His uncle, Sir George Buchanan, was the senior partner in Buchanan and Halcrow and had an impressive record of port and railway projects to his credit.

Colin was educated at Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire and then read Engineering at Imperial College. It had been hoped that he would join the family firm on graduating, but his uncle had been accused of competing with another engineer for work in South Africa and obliged to resign from the Institution of Civil Engineers and the consultancy. The name Buchanan was therefore no longer welcome at the new firm Sir William Halcrow and Partners. Colin Buchanan accordingly got his first job in the Public Works Department of the government of Sudan, where he worked on roads and bridges.

He returned to the UK in 1932 and worked with a firm of planning consultants in Essex. In 1935 he joined the Ministry of Transport and, based in Exeter, was responsible for trunk road improvements all over the south-west region. It was at this time that he became interested in the dangers and problems of traffic. Mounting a camera behind the windscreen of his Standard 12 car he began to take photographs of dangerous traffic situations and by the outbreak of the Second World War, after visits to Germany to look at the new autobahns, he had drafted and illustrated, and his wife "Mick" had typed, a book "Let Us Take the Road". This was mostly concerned with accidents, road safety and road design, but it also recognised that many of the problems also needed to be addressed by better planning and development control. He failed to find a publisher.

Commissioned into the Royal Engineers at the outbreak of war, Buchanan saw service in Egypt, the Western Desert, attached to the Long Range Desert Group, and inevitably Sudan. After the war he moved to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning in London where he was involved with planning in the Greater London area. The family moved to live in Wokingham, Surrey, where he was able to buy an acre of land and ( having qualified as an architect) design his own house. His work continued to feed his interest in the impact of the car and in 1958 he at last found a publisher for his book, now broadened to cover "the development and influence of the motor vehicle" and entitled Mixed Blessing: the motor in Britain.

His emerging views about the need for traffic policies which were consistent with planning and environmental policies led him, at about this time, to dissent from the recommendations of the Central London Parking Committee, which favoured constructing car parks beneath many London squares. He particularly feared for the great London plane trees.

He was consequently moved to the Planning Inspectorate, where he found himself dealing with planning inquiries, mostly into slum clearance, throughout Britain. He found himself responsible for an increasing number of controversial and high-profile cases ranging from the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station to the redevelopment of Piccadilly Circus. His report on the latter addressed the traffic issues and, together with his book, caught the eye of the then Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples.

Marples moved Buchanan into the Ministry of Transport and told him to assemble a team of his choice and "to study the long term development of roads and traffic in urban areas and their influence on the urban environment". The resulting report explained that there were trade-offs to be made in urban areas between the freedom to use cars, the amount of money to be invested in accommodating them and the quality of the urban environment. It examined these choices in four towns: Newbury, Leeds, Norwich and part of central London.

The report made it clear that providing for unlimited car use would be possible only in the smaller urban areas and then only if they could be substantially redeveloped and were not therefore "historic towns" like Norwich. Elsewhere the huge roadworks needed to accommodate the unlimited growth of traffic implied that restrictions on the use of cars, together with the provision of good public transport alternatives, would be needed.

The publication of Traffic in Towns in 1963 made Buchanan famous overnight. He was offered and accepted a new Chair of Transport at Imperial College and in 1964 formed a consultancy, Colin Buchanan and Partners. His services were sought in connection with traffic and planning problems in towns and cities throughout the UK and in Holland, France, Ireland, Kuwait, Algeria, Kenya and Turkey. Many of his plans aroused controversy, most notably in Bath and Edinburgh, but many others were successful in securing the redevelopment of cities and regions, control of and provision for traffic and better conditions for pedestrians. And his influence went far beyond the schemes with which he was personally involved.

Buchanan now found himself a witness at public inquiries, on the one hand defending the Greater London Council's Ringway plans for London and, on the other hand, attacking the Christchurch Meadow scheme in Oxford. In 1968 he was appointed to the Roskill Commission to advise on the siting of London's third airport.

As a result of his characteristic of always examining problems on the ground and his love of the English countryside, he found himself unable to accept the majority view that the airport should be located north of the Chilterns in the Vale of Aylesbury. His note of dissent eloquently spelt out the case against the Cublington site and the Buchanan Spinney, later planted in his honour, marked the gratitude of many local residents that well-written planning arguments had prevailed over the logic of cost benefit appraisal.

In 1973 Buchanan became the first director of the new School of Advanced Urban Studies at Bristol University. He was also chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England 1980-85 and President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, which awarded him its Gold Medal. He was appointed CBE in 1964 and knighted in 1972.

Buchanan retired to Boars Hill in Oxford in 1983, but his wife Mick died the following year. He continued his hobbies of carpentry, photography and travelling Britain and Europe in his motor caravan as long as he was able. He was parted very reluctantly from his car keys soon after his 90th birthday and always regretted the freedom he then lost. Even later, when barely able to walk, his greatest pleasure was a drive across the Berkshire Downs.

Malcolm Buchanan