Obituary: John Roberts
Friday 10 July 1992
JOHN ROBERTS was a pioneer in the new thinking about environmental approaches to transport. For two decades his consultancy, TEST (Transport and Environmental Studies), poured forth a string of landmark publications, challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Roberts stamped his mark indelibly on the emerging consensus about controlling traffic and sustainable approaches to land- use planning and transport.
Roberts originally trained at Leeds School of Architecture, and worked for eight years for the London County Council (later the Greater London Council), where he was job architect for the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank.
After lecturing at Oxford Polytechnic for three years he joined Llewelyn Davies Weeks, where his work on the impact on communities of new urban motorways first introduced him to the controversial issues of transport to which he devoted the rest of his life.
In 1972 he set up TEST, which for the next 20 years had the most prodigious output imaginable. Roberts tended to assemble teams of young professionals and researchers for projects, driving them hard and himself harder. Among his most crucial studies were: Pedestrian Precincts in Britain (1981), BR - a European railway (1984), The Company Car Factor (1984), The Accessible City - effects of traffic restraint on the environment and economy of the City of London (1985), Quality Streets (1988), Trouble in Store? - retail location trends in Britain and Germany (1989), Wrong Side of the Tracks: environmental impacts of road and rail transport (1991), and Trip Degeneration (1992).
Certain beliefs underlay all of Roberts's work. He felt strongly that if society did not control traffic, traffic would control society. He was 'green' years before it was fashionable, but always in a positive way - he strove to prove his thesis that 'a good physical environment is a good economic environment', and drew heavily on progressive policies from European cities to illustrate his argument. He constantly stressed the need to reduce car dependency, promote cycling and walking, and enhance public transport. He was among the first to introduce the concept of 'traffic calming' to Britain.
Roberts travelled constantly, collecting and imparting best practice from around the world. In the midst of all his other work he found time to complete a Ph D on the conflicts between leisure, heritage and development in the US. His persuasiveness and the sheer logical appeal of his ideas unlocked funding from OECD to Friends of the Earth, from London Transport to the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund.
Despite his vast workload Roberts remained informal, good- humoured and interested in those around him. His Halloween Night parties - held to celebrate one more year's survival of TEST, as he modestly put it - were an event not to be missed. Roberts reserved his ill-humour and frustration for the roads lobby and the Department of Transport, both of whom he saw as malign and reactionary forces in British society, perpetrating a series of 'transport myths' which he took great delight in destroying, both in print and, on big occasions, in person. As a consequence his work was especially appreciated by the environmental pressure groups, whose efforts he sought to encourage.
In his later years Roberts had the satisfaction of seeing his ideas increasingly enter the mainstream of transport thinking. He led a high-powered think-tank to advise John Prescott and the Labour Party - though he said at the time he would advise anyone who asked him - and the products of this work were published earlier this year under the title of Travel Sickness.
Though his early death and the loss of his energy will be mourned by many, John Roberts leaves behind a vast body of work which will be his true legacy.
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